Trump’s Go-It-Alone Strategy on North Korea Led to a White House Fight

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During a White House meeting last month, National Security Advisor John Bolton told other senior officials that the U.S. would impose sanctions on two Chinese shipping companies for violating international sanctions on North Korea, one attendee and two other officials from different agencies who were briefed on it tell TIME.

At the March 21 meeting, Bolton informed Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan of the decision to impose sanctions on two Chinese shipping companies for violating international sanctions by shipping crude oil to North Korea, according to an official who was present at the meeting.

When another participant asked if the President had signed off on the decision, this official said, Bolton grew angry, chewed him out, and said the sanctions would not be imposed if Trump had not approved them, the official said.

The following day, Trump abruptly canceled the sanctions.

Two senior officials say the canceled sanctions were just the latest example of the lack of a coherent strategy within the Trump Administration to eliminate the nuclear threat North Korea poses to South Korea, Japan, and to the U.S. forces based there, and that it could pose to parts of the United States if it succeeds in developing a reliable intercontinental ballistic missile capable of delivering a nuclear warhead.

Instead, these two U.S. officials said, speaking on the condition of anonymity, Trump appears to be following a familiar script, acting as the lone U.S. negotiator, issuing extreme demands and threats, and deliberately causing confusion about his objectives.

By contrast, the officials and outside experts say that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, which began Wednesday, is part of a calibrated campaign to increase pressure on Trump to lift economic sanctions on North Korea without the regime first committing to abandon its nuclear weapons.

Officials and experts say that unlike the Trump Administration, there is no confusion about who makes all the decisions in North Korea, and mounting evidence that Kim is following a carefully crafted script, endorsed by China, his country’s most important ally, in his effort to move beyond the failed summit in Hanoi and cut a deal with Trump.

In an apparent effort to confine the negotiations to Trump and Kim, the North Korean Foreign Ministry called on Trump to replace Secretary of State Mike Pompeo with “somebody more mature”, which two of the U.S. officials called an obvious reference to Trump himself. North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui, meanwhile, called Bolton “dim sighted” after the national security advisor said there could be no third summit between Trump and Kim until there is “a real indication from North Korea that they’ve made the strategic decision to give up nuclear weapons.”

“Kim Jong Un is clearly still hoping to draw Donald Trump back into another summit with the hopes that he can get a version of the deal that was on offer in Hanoi — some limited steps to shut down older nuclear facilities in exchange for the lifting of the main United Nations sanctions which amount to a de facto trade embargo against North Korea,” says Daniel Sneider, a Korea expert at Stanford University. “And Trump hasn’t shut that door entirely, so there is a reason for them to hope this might happen, particularly later in the year when the election campaign has heated up.”

At the same time, Kim is sending not-so-subtle reminders to Trump that North Korea has options, argues Evans Revere, a former senior State Department Asia specialist now with the Washington-based Albright Stonebridge Group, which is headed by Madeleine Albright, Secretary of State under President Bill Clinton.

In addition to scheduling a summit with Putin, whose Russia has played host to an estimated 30,000 North Korean workers, most of whose earnings are repatriated to the impoverished country — and its not-so-impoverished rulers — recent reminders have included a well-publicized visit by Kim to an airbase and a test, supervised by Kim, according to state media, of “a new tactical guided weapon”.

However, both the two U.S. officials and a third Administration Asia expert noted, the test did not violate the North’s agreement to halt tests of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, a move that left the door open to a resumption of the nuclear negotiations after the failure at the Hanoi summit.

At the same time, Kim has continued pressing South Korean President Moon Jae-in to press ahead with economic initiatives between the two Koreas in an effort to ease the economic hardships in his nation that he sanctions have worsened and to drive a wedge between Seoul and Washington.

“Look for more moves along these lines in the coming weeks and months, and particularly as the U.S. presidential campaign unfolds,” Revere wrote in a recent edition of The Nelson Report, a daily bulletin devoted largely to expert commentary on Northeast Asia. “The North Koreans are very good at this game.”

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