North Korea is warning that recent US sanctions could take relations with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea back to the bristling tension of last year and endanger efforts to remove nuclear weapons from the Korean Peninsula.
The warnings come after the US Treasury Department issued sanctions against three high-level North Korean officials last week that seemed aimed at driving a wedge between President Donald Trump, who has spoken glowingly of leader Kim Jong Un, and the rest of the administration, which is pursuing a “maximum pressure” campaign against Pyongyang.
An editorial in the state-owned news service KCNA warned that the sanctions could bring “DPRK-US relations back to the status of last year which was marked by exchanges of fire,” and added that they are out of step with the White House.
The editorial also said that “added sanctions pressure will block the path to denuclearization on the Korean peninsula forever - a result desired by no one.” US officials say there is little sign that North Korea is making moves to disassemble its nuclear program; instead, recent satellite imagery shows Pyongyang is expanding its missile bases.
A statement attributed to the Policy Research Director of Institute for American Studies at North Korea’s foreign affairs ministry praised the “steadfast will” of Trump and Kim for their efforts to pursue peace.
“However, the continued commission by the United States of vicious anti-DPRK hostile actions, running counter to these developments, prompts my shock and indignation,” the statement reads. “US high-ranking politicians including the secretary of state have almost every day slandered the DPRK out of sheer malice.”
“The US should realize before it is too late that ‘maximum pressure’ would not work against us,” the official wrote.
Pyongyang’s saber-rattling is “typical North Korean negotiating behavior,” said Bruce Klingner, a former chief of the CIA’s Korea branch who is now at the Heritage Foundation.
‘A door prize’
“They either want a door prize before they come into the negotiating room, or they’re sending a signal as to what they want,” Klingner told CNN. “So it’s trying to put pressure on the US to reduce pressure or provide benefits, if we want the process to continue.”
Right now, Klingner noted, the US faces “three big divergences” as it tries to deal with Pyongyang. There’s the divergence with North Korea itself, there’s another with South Korea, which has been pushing for Washington to relax sanctions on the North, “and there’s even a divergence between President Trump and the rest of the Trump administration,” Klingner said.
Pyongyang’s shot across the bow comes as Trump and some of his senior officials have said the President is planning a second summit with Kim early in 2019. National security adviser John Bolton has said the president wants to hold the second summit because the first, in Singapore in June, has yielded no progress.
The Trump administration slapped sanctions on three North Koreans last week in response to Pyongyang’s ongoing human rights abuses and censorship.
“These sanctions demonstrate the United States’ ongoing support for freedom of expression, and opposition to endemic censorship and human rights abuses,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement.
Treasury said the fresh sanctions highlight the “reprehensible treatment of those in North Korea” and serve as a reminder of the “brutal treatment” of Otto Warmbier, the US college student who died 18 months ago after detention in a North Korean jail. Warmbier would have turned 24 on December 12.
The unnamed policy research director from the North Korean foreign ministry said the US was issuing the sanctions by “fabricating pretexts of all hues such as money laundering, illegal transactions through ship-to-ship transfer and cyber-attack.”
‘Non-existent human rights issue’
The official added that the US had been deliberately provocative with last week’s sanctions on the “non-existent ‘human rights issue.’”
The Trump administration has downplayed the importance of human rights generally and has been criticized for not giving it higher priority in its talks with North Korea. The President has declared he’s in “love” with Kim, who has been deemed to have committed crimes against humanity, has had family members executed and ordered the assassination of his half-brother using chemical weapons.
Despite the President’s praise for Kim, progress has been stymied. Most recently, satellite images showed North Korea is expanding a key long-range missile base, a reminder that diplomatic talks with the US have done little to prevent Kim from pursuing his promise to mass produce and deploy the existing types of nuclear warheads in his arsenal.
Both Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are now emphasizing that they aren’t putting a deadline on talks and that progress will take time. And both men have insisted that in the meantime, the US will continue to exert “maximum pressure” on North Korea through sanctions, though international support for that campaign appears to be faltering.
CNN’s Dugald McConnell, Angus Watson in Hong Kong and Elizabeth Joseph in New York contributed to this report.