- Bobby Yip/REUTERS
- North Korea has backed off some of its usual military exercises, in a possible sign that President Donald Trump’s pressure campaign against Pyongyang is starting to work.
- Trump has had success persuading countries to stop trading with North Korea as he dispatches Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on a diplomatic offensive.
- It’s unclear, however, whether North Korea is feeling the pinch from sanctions; the country could be trying to signal a more peaceful posture only because of next week’s Winter Olympics in South Korea.
North Korea has backed off some of its usual winter military exercises in a possible sign that President Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” strategy to force Kim Jong Un to the negotiating table has had an effect.
North Korea’s military drills that run from December to March got off to a late start and weren’t as involved as they usually are, US officials told The Wall Street Journal.
The slowdown in exercises could be due to resource constraints introduced by sanctions – including a 160% increase in fuel prices – or legitimate political will on the North Korean side to calm recently boiling tensions. Whatever the reason, the lull in training certainly takes a toll in a military sense by reducing readiness, and it coincides with a few ominous signs for Kim’s government.
“We are seeing defections happening in areas where we don’t generally see them, for example crossing the DMZ,” Gen. Vincent K. Brooks, the commander of US forces in South Korea, told The Journal.
“We’re seeing some increase in executions, mostly against political officers who are in military units, for corruption,” Brooks said, adding that the executions “are really about trying to clamp down as much as possible on something that might be deteriorating and keeping it from deteriorating too quickly.”
Is the Trump approach working?
- Reuters/Carlos Barria
North Korea has been under heavy UN sanctions for years, but under Trump’s administration the resolutions have taken on a new character.
The US has managed to get a handful of African nations to agree to stop trade with North Korea. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson routinely asks foreign diplomats about North Korea and what can be done to clamp down on its funding, sources told Business Insider.
Egypt, Sudan, and recently Angola have been faced with the choice of trading with the US or trading with North Korea, and they have all chosen the US.
Andrea Berger, an expert on North Korean sanctions at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, told Business Insider that while Obama administration officials tried the same approach, “no one thought that US would make good on the threats” under Obama.
“This is where the Trump madman characteristic probably has helped,” Berger said.
Alongside the diplomatic offensive, the US and South Korea have taken to naming and shaming specific people, ships, and countries that violate sanctions. Trump recently called out Russia for helping North Korea, with the State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert saying “there is no more time for excuses” for Russians conducing illicit trade with North Korea.
Trump has increasingly hinted at a tougher trade policy with China, which is responsible for most of North Korea’s trade. Though Trump’s flirtations with engaging in trade wars with China span more than the narrow North Korea issue, it’s certainly a driving factor.
Or is North Korea holding up its end of an approach to peace?
- KCNA/via REUTERS
The trouble with sanctioning a small, sealed-off country with state-controlled media is that it’s hard to tell when the sanctions actually begin to bite. Observers do not know how much fuel, food, or money North Korea has stored.
Adam Mount, the director of the Defense Posture Project at the Federation of American Scientists, noted on Twitter that the US and South Korea had cut back their own military exercises, as well as flights of B-1B bombers, which infuriate Pyongyang.
“Pyongyang may be trying to extend the lull” and “elicit further restraint” by reducing military drills, Mount tweeted.
“Say you’re North Korea and you really want freeze/freeze,” Mount wrote, referring to the idea often floated by China and Pyongyang that suggests the US and South Korea stop military drills in exchange for North Korea freezing its nuclear progress.
“If US-ROK moved first to moderate their exercises, wouldn’t reciprocation look a lot like this?” Mount asked.
“This move would certainly be consistent with a deliberate attempt to extend the Olympic truce,” he wrote, referring to the suspension of US military drills around the Winter Olympics set to begin in Pyeongchang, South Korea, next week.
Whether North Korea’s military drills have stalled because of the sanctions or to signal a willingness for diplomacy, it appears Kim has softened his position, which was a major goal of Trump’s “maximum pressure” strategy to shut down the country’s nuclear ambitions.