Tue, Feb 26, 2019 - Page 9 News List

Trump’s options for easing sanctions pain on North Korea

With the US president to meet Kim Jong-un for the second time, the possible approaches to offering relief range from cheap and easy to expensive and unlikely

By Youkyung Lee  /  Bloomberg

Illustration: Yusha

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has made little secret about what is at the top of his agenda in his second meeting with US President Donald Trump: Easing the sanctions choking North Korea’s moribund economy.

That the summit tomorrow and on Thursday is happening at all is the clearest sign the Trump administration is backing away from its instance that the sanctions stay in place until the “final, fully verified denuclearization of North Korea.”

Kim last month threatened to walk away from talks without relief, while Trump said on Wednesday last week that he would “love to be able to” lift sanctions on North Korea, provided he got “something that’s meaningful.”

The complex web of penalties piled on North Korea by the UN, the US and American allies such as Japan, South Korea and the EU now give Trump a sliding scale of possibilities for relaxing that pressure. Current sanctions do everything from curbing the regime’s ability to import oil to preventing small items like laptop computers from being brought into the country.

Preliminary talks are under way between US and North Korean officials in Hanoi, with the goal of producing a draft joint statement at the summit.

The question is how much leverage is the US willing to give up at the Hanoi summit — and for what?

Here is a look at Trump’s options, from cheap to expensive:


Rather than unraveling the entire sanctions net, the US is more likely to snip a few strands and give the regime a taste of what could happen if talks progress. The easiest thing would be to relax US curbs on travel and humanitarian aid to the country, something that the US Department of State has already said it is moving to do.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in and other officials who favor greater engagement with North Korea have floated the possibility of waiving some sanctions to allow US-North Korean sports and cultural exchanges. The idea gained traction in Seoul after South Korean lawmakers visited Washington this month and decided that many US officials have outdated views of conditions in the country, making compromise difficult.

“American citizens’ knowledge of North Korea is very low and this is a problem,” South Korean Legislator Choo Mi-ae, former head of the ruling Democratic Party, told a forum. “In education and culture, the sanctions could be relaxed.”

A boost of about US$1 billion a year would mean about a 3 percent growth for North Korea’s tiny economy.


Kim has indicated in recent speeches that he has got more lucrative projects in mind, namely restarting joint operations with South Korea at the Gaeseong industrial park and the Mount Geumgang tourism hub. South Korean officials have also cited the projects as among the “corresponding measures” they have been discussing with the US to reward disarmament steps by North Korea.

Trump gave a “positive response” to Moon’s suggestion during a phone call on Tuesday last week to consider that inter-Korean projects such as railways and roads go forward as part of a deal, Moon’s office said.

“If President Trump wants, we are ready to take on that role,” Moon told Trump.

Such concessions — some of which might require approval from the UN Security Council — will be judged by what Trump gets in return. Kim has suggested that he expects sanctions relief for steps he has already taken to halt weapons tests and demolish testing sites.

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