President Trump has blamed Obama for not doing enough to stop North Korea’s nuclear advances. But aside from Trump’s bellicose tweets, his approach to one of its biggest foreign policy challenges has so far resembled his predecessor’s.
As the president prepares for a trip to Asia in early November, his Administration’s actual policy toward North Korea has essentially escalated what his predecessor started.
“It is a coordinated pressure campaign that started in the last year of the Obama Administration and is continuing, and is now bearing more public fruit,” says Scott Snyder, director of the program on U.S.-Korea policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“The Trump Administration has largely extended and made good on the policy the Obama administration had put into place,” says former longtime diplomat Daniel Fried, who coordinated U.S. sanctions policy during Obama’s second term. “Trump’s tweets get in the way of what otherwise was a good policy.”
“The Obama Administration had come to the conclusion in its last six months that it had not done enough on sanctions,” Fried adds. “We were prepared to escalate.”
In September, Trump signed an executive order giving the U.S. more authority to sanction companies that finance trade with North Korea. Now, the administration must decide how much to use this new authority.
“To this administration’s great credit, I think it has pursued what has appeared to be a very dogged and sequential strategy against North Korea,” says Brian O’Toole, a sanctions expert who worked at the U.S. Treasury during both of Obama’s terms. “You have the carryover from the last administration going after coal exports, this administration helped tighten that even farther at the U.N., you have the restriction on banking networks, you have OFAC going after the actual banking representatives that North Korea sends abroad.”
The Trump Administration has also increased pressure on North Korea by pushing other countries to end or shrink their diplomatic relations the country. Since the start of the Trump administration, more than 20 countries have restricted North Korean diplomatic activities, Susan Thornton testified to the Senate in late September. Spain, Mexico, Kuwait, Peru, and Italy have all expelled North Korean ambassadors since the Pyongyang’s latest nuclear test in early September.
The effort began late in the Obama administration, but Trump has kicked it into high gear. In late 2016, the UN Security Council unanimously passed a resolution expressing concern on how North Korea was using its diplomatic missions. It called on member states to reduce the number of staff at North Korean diplomatic missions and consular posts, and to limit the number of bank accounts the diplomatic missions could hold.
Restraining North Korea’s diplomatic activity will cut off a flow of resources to the regime, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told the U.N. National Security Council in April. Daniel Russel, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs during Obama’s second term, says it was well established that North Korean diplomats, and North Koreans on fake passports who operated out of their embassies, were engaged in insurance scams, cigarette smuggling, and the sale of gold and expensive items smuggled in through the diplomatic pouch, a diplomatic container that is protected from search or customs by the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.
Last year, Russel says, the U.S. focused more on higher impact sanctions of North Korean companies. Now that those have started to kick in, he says, “a logical next step has been to zero in on secondary and tertiary targets, and that includes restricting the ability of accredited North Korean diplomats to operate freely.”
“It isn’t a geographic march where all regions received the same degree of encouragement from the United States, we tried to tailor it,” Russel says. “The big frustration of course was that the lion share of North Korean activities has always taken place in China.”
Trump’s visit Asia in early November is the next big test of how his administration plans to implement these policies. North Korea has embassies and consulates in many Asian countries, including in China, Vietnam, Singapore, and India. On Thursday, the Treasury Department named additional North Korean diplomats and institutions to the sanctions list. The names included two North Korean diplomats in China and Vietnam, both countries Trump will visit.
“The question is, Can Trump in Asia find the right balance between pressure on North Korea and indirect pressure on the Chinese without blowing it all up by being so bellicose that he loses the political credibility he needs to carry this out,” Fried says.