Trump reverses first N.Korea sanctions since failed summit after one day

(Adds Democratic lawmakers)

By Roberta Rampton

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla., March 22 (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump on Friday reversed sanctions imposed on North Korea by the U.S. Treasury Department just a day earlier and the White House said he was doing so because he "likes" North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and did not consider them necessary.

"It was announced today by the U.S. Treasury that additional large-scale Sanctions would be added to those already existing Sanctions on North Korea," Trump tweeted from his Florida resort of Mar-a-Lago. "I have today ordered the withdrawal of those additional Sanctions!"

There were no new U.S. sanctions on North Korea announced on Friday and Trump was apparently referring to the U.S. Treasury's blacklisting on Thursday of two Chinese shipping companies that it said helped North Korea evade sanctions over its nuclear weapons program.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders did not specify which sanctions Trump spoke of, but said: "President Trump likes Chairman Kim and he doesn't think these sanctions will be necessary."

The White House and the U.S. Treasury did not immediately respond to requests for clarification. The State Department referred queries to the White House.

Trump's Twitter post appeared not only at odds with the Treasury Department, but with his own national security adviser, John Bolton, a hardliner who North Korea blamed for the breakdown of a second Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi last month.

The sanctions on the Chinese shippers announced on Thursday were the first since the summit, which collapsed over conflicting demands by North Korea for sanctions relief and by the United States for North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.

Trump has stressed his good personal relationship with Kim and his administration has stressed its willingness to reengage with North Korea.

There has been no sign of direct contact between Washington and Pyongyang since the Feb. 27-28 meeting in Hanoi, however, and North Korea has warned it is considering suspending talks and may rethink a freeze on missile and nuclear tests, in place since 2017, unless Washington makes concessions.

Hours after Thursday's sanctions announcement, North Korea on Friday pulled out of a liaison office with South Korea, a major setback for Seoul, which has pushed hard for engagement between Washington and Pyongyang.

The joint liaison office was set up in September in the border city of Kaesong after a historic summit between Kim Jong Un and South Korea's President Moon Jae-in early last year.

ATTEMPT TO DEFUSE TENSIONS?

Harry Kazianis of the conservative Center for the National Interest think tank said Trump's move could be an effort to defuse tensions that seemed to be building between Washington and Pyongyang and the risk of North Korea pulling out of talks.

"Trump's cancelling out of sanctions might have been a bid to get North Korea to change its thinking," he said.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on March 4 he was hopeful he could send a team to North Korea "in the next couple of weeks," but there has been no sign of a North Korean willingness to extend such an invitation.

Another North Korea expert, Bruce Klingner, said that while Thursday's Treasury action was limited, an accompanying notice seemed to hint of stronger future actions.

Klingner said Trump's move signaled that his "maximum pressure" sanctions campaign on North Korea was not going to get any stronger and recalled an announcement the president made before a first summit with Kim in June last year when he said he was putting a large list of planned sanctions on hold.

Democrats in Congress immediately criticized Trump's move.

"Foolish na´vetÚ is dangerous enough. Gross incompetence and disarray in the White House make it even worse," said Adam Schiff, chairman of the House intelligence committee.

Senator Chris Van Hollen said it showed Trump was being "played" by Kim, "one of the world’s most vicious dictators."

"Sidestepping his own Treasury Dept. and withdrawing sanctions against North Korea the same day they were announced defies logic," he said in a tweet.

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have called for tougher sanctions on North Korea, a country the United Nations human rights investigator described this month as one of the most closed in the world, that continues to deny basic freedoms, run political prison camps, and subject its citizens to strict surveillance.

U.S. officials held a briefing shortly after the sanctions were unveiled, citing the measures as proof that Washington intended to keep up pressure on Pyongyang and national security adviser Bolton tweeted on Thursday:

"Important actions today from @USTreasury. The maritime industry must do more to stop North Korea's illicit shipping practices. Everyone should take notice and review their own activities to ensure they are not involved in North Korea's sanctions evasion."

Bolton said early this month that the United States would look at ramping up sanctions on North Korea if Pyongyang did not scrap its nuclear weapons program.

A senior White House official who briefed reporters on the latest sanctions on Thursday said the announcement was meant to maintain sanctions enforcement rather than intensify pressure.

While declining to say whether Washington was trying to send a post-summit message to Pyongyang with the sanctions, the official said Trump had "made clear that the door is wide open to continuing the dialogue with North Korea."

On Monday, two senior U.S. senators called for the Trump administration to correct what they said was a slowing pace of American sanctions designations on North Korea, saying there had been a marked decline in such actions during the past year of U.S. diplomatic engagement with Pyongyang.

They pointed to a United Nations report that found North Korea continued to defy U.N. sanctions with an increase in smuggling of petroleum products and coal and violation of bans on arms sales. (Reporting by Roberta Rampton, David Brunnstrom, Susan Heavey, Matt Spetalnick and David Alexander; writing by David Brunnstrom; editing by Grant McCool and James Dalgleish)

First Published: 2019-03-22 22:05:24
Updated 2019-03-22 22:35:35


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