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(News Focus) U.S. still muddy on Pyongyang

2017/08/23 09:05

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By Lee Haye-ah

WASHINGTON, Aug. 22 (Yonhap) -- The United States continued to send seemingly confusing messages on North Korea on Tuesday, announcing first a set of additional sanctions and then renewing its offer for talks.

The day opened with a Treasury announcement of 16 entities and individuals, mainly from China and Russia, who are now banned from accessing the U.S. financial system due to their alleged roles in assisting North Korea's nuclear and missile programs.

In the afternoon, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stood behind a podium to effectively compliment North Korea for refraining from provocations since the adoption of new U.N. Security Council sanctions against the regime on Aug. 5.

He said, "We hope that this is the beginning of this signal that we've been looking for, that they are ready to restrain their level of tensions, they're ready to restrain their provocative acts, and that perhaps we are seeing our pathway to sometime in the near future having some dialogue."


This image shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (L) and U.S. President Donald Trump. (Yonhap) This image shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (L) and U.S. President Donald Trump. (Yonhap)

The response from U.S. experts ranged from a recognition of consistency in U.S. policy to bewilderment.

Douglas Paal, vice president for studies for the Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the actions were parts of a unified message to Pyongyang.

The Trump administration is seeking to maximize diplomatic and economic pressure on the recalcitrant regime to compel it to give up its nuclear and missile programs, while creating room for dialogue that would lead to the same goal.

"The new sanctions and Tillerson's comments reflect the two elements of the policy, departing from the 'benign neglect' allegedly maintained by the Obama administration and signaling an unwillingness to accept the North's aspiration to be a nuclear weapons state," he said in an email. "So far, that has not been acceptable to Pyongyang, but Washington hopes the pressure will change the North's calculations."

   Ken Gause, a North Korea expert who is director of the International Affairs Group at CNA Corp., said he is unsure whether the administration is moving as one.

Through pressure or "soothing noises," the U.S. hopes to bring North Korea to the negotiating table, Gause said, but there is no merit in it for Pyongyang.

"The U.S. needs to make very clear what North Korea will be getting in return," he said, citing the need for specific security and economic guarantees. "These incentives need to be upfront. Otherwise, we can't ask for major steps toward denuclearization. The trust factor will cause the deal to fall through. Pyongyang simply does not trust that the international community will not engage in regime change once it gives up its deterrent."

   Meanwhile, Jonathan Pollack, Korea studies chair at the Brookings Institution, was quick to censure the administration's moves.

"This is not a unified message: It is the leaders of two different departments pursuing two distinctive approaches, which contradict each other," he said. "Treasury believes that squeezing China (and penalizing Chinese banks and firms) will compel China to turn up the heat on North Korea. I am not at all convinced that this will generate the responses from China that the U.S. wishes to see. Contrarily, State (Department) sees heightened cooperation with China as essential to curbing North Korea's nuclear and missile activities."

   Pollack added: "The U.S. should not be imparting mixed messages to Pyongyang, and the Trump administration has exhibited very little message discipline in its North Korea policy."

   Just last week, there was much talk of the U.S. preparing military options against Pyongyang.

That subsided after North Korean leader Kim Jong-un backed down from his threats to fire ballistic missiles toward Guam.