President Donald Trump tweeted on Friday that he had reversed his administration’s decision to slap new sanctions on North Korea — a move which took officials at the US Treasury Department by surprise.
Mr Trump delivered the news from his private club in Palm Beach, Florida, writing, “It was announced today by the US Treasury that additional large scale Sanctions would be added to those already existing Sanctions on North Korea. I have today ordered the withdrawal of those additional Sanctions!”
A problem arose when the Treasury did not announce any new action affecting North Korea on Friday, let alone “additional large scale Sanctions”.
The administration on Thursday did sanction two Chinese shipping companies suspected of helping North Korea evade sanctions — but not the country itself.
Press secretary Sarah Sanders issued only a brief statement saying that Mr Trump “likes” North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and “doesn’t think these sanctions will be necessary”.
But a person familiar with the action later told The Associated Press that Mr Trump’s tweet was not about reversing existing sanctions.
Instead, the person said, the president was talking about not going forward with additional large-scale sanctions on North Korea at this time.
It was the latest example of the confusion sometimes sparked by Mr Trump’s governance-by-tweet, which has often sent agency heads scrambling, trying to figure out what he meant or trying to implement policy proclamations that have not gone through traditional vetting processes.
Mr Trump’s tweet took Treasury officials by surprise and prompted reporters to bombard officials at the White House National Security Council and Treasury Department with questions. All declined to comment.
The reversal came a day after the Treasury Department announced the first targeted actions taken against Pyongyang since Mr Trump and Mr Kim met in Hanoi, Vietnam, last month for negotiations about North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme.
The meeting ended without a deal.
In addition to Mr Trump’s talks with North Korea, the US is in delicate trade negotiations with China.
It is unclear whether Mr Trump’s decision was related to North Korea’s move on Friday to abruptly withdraw its staff from a liaison office with South Korea.
That development is likely to put a damper on ties between the North and South and further complicate global diplomacy on North Korea’s nuclear programme.
The withdrawal also is seen as a major setback for South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who has sought to improve relations with North Korea alongside the nuclear negotiations between the North and the United States.
North Korea said it was withdrawing its staff under instructions from unspecified “higher-level authorities”, according to a Unification Ministry statement.
It did not say whether the withdrawal would be temporary or permanent. South Korea called the North’s decision regrettable and urged the North to return its staff to the liaison office soon.
When the administration announced the sanctions on Thursday against the Chinese shipping companies, administration officials briefed reporters, saying the sanctions were evidence the US was maintaining pressure on North Korea in an effort to coax its leader to give up his nuclear weapons programme.
Mr Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton called it an “Important” action, tweeting, “The maritime industry must do more to stop North Korea’s illicit shipping practices.”
The Treasury Department sanctioned Dalian Haibo International Freight Co Ltd and Liaoning Danxing International Forwarding Co Ltd for using deceptive methods to circumvent international and US sanctions and the US commitment to implementing existing UN Security Council resolutions.
AP calls to the two companies rang without response on Friday.
The Treasury Department, in coordination with the State Department and the US Coast Guard, also updated a North Korea shipping advisory, adding dozens of vessels thought to be doing ship-to-ship transfers with North Korean tankers or exported North Korean coal in violation of sanctions.
Two senior administration officials said that illegal ship-to-ship transfers that violate US and international sanctions have increased and that not all countries, including China, are implementing the restrictions.
They said the deceptive practices include disabling or manipulating ship identification systems, repainting the names on vessels and falsifying cargo documents.