WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump appeared to overrule his own Treasury Department on Friday and withdrew new sanctions aimed at North Korea because, the White House said, the president “likes” the reclusive country’s leader, Kim Jong Un.
Treasury officials announced Thursday they were sanctioning two shipping companies based in China that have helped North Korea evade international sanctions. The U.S. has been increasingly pressuring Chinese firms doing businesses with Kim’s regime.
Less than 24 hours after those sanctions were announced, Trump abruptly announced on Twitter that he had ordered the withdrawal of “additional sanctions.”
“It was announced today by the U.S. Treasury that additional large scale Sanctions would be added to those already existing Sanctions on North Korea,” Trump posted on Twitter. “I have today ordered the withdrawal of those additional Sanctions!”
It was not immediately clear which sanctions Trump was referring to and White House officials did not respond to questions seeking clarity.
“President Trump likes Chairman Kim and he doesn’t think these sanctions will be necessary,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said in a statement.
The stepped up Treasury sanctions followed a high-profile summit between Trump and Kim last month in Vietnam in which the two leaders failed to reach an agreement toward denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula. Trump left the summit early and Kim has since threatened to restart missile and nuclear tests.
The move comes as the Trump administration is also negotiating a new trade deal with Beijing to lower tariffs that both countries have imposed on each other’s products.
The two Chinese-based companies targeted by the Treasury Department are Dalian Haibo International Freight Co. Ltd. and Liaoning Danxing International Forwarding Co. Ltd.
Treasury officials said both companies were involved in selling or transporting prohibited goods for North Korea and the sanctions highlighted “the deceptive methods that the North Korean regime uses to circumvent international and U.S. sanctions.”
Trump has said he can size up world leaders within a few seconds and quickly decide whether he will be able to negotiate with them. Heading into the Hanoi summit, Trump said he and the North Korean dictator “fell in love” because of Kim’s “beautiful letters.” Trump’s approach to foreign policy has often been personal and transactional.
When the summit fell apart, Trump and other U.S. officials repeatedly said the relationship with Kim remains strong.
Still, the decision to abandon the sanctions so quickly after they had been proposed drew surprise from experts.
Harry Kazianis, director of Korean Studies at the Center for the National Interest, has been generally supportive of Trump’s engagement with Kim. But he expressed disbelief on Friday with Trump’s decision to rescind the Treasury sanctions.
“What are we doing on #North Korea?” he tweeted on Friday. “Help.”
Kazianis said in an email that Trump’s move may be an appeal to Kim not to abandon the denuclearization negotiations.
“No matter what happens now, you can bet the North Koreans will only want to deal with Trump from now on considering this action,” he said, a reference to the harder line that Trump’s advisers have taken in the negotiations.
More: Donald Trump says his ‘friend’ Kim Jong Un can learn from Vietnam
More: Vietnam summit: For Donald Trump, relations with foreign leaders tend to get personal