Larry Kudlow, director of the United States National Economic Council (NEC), said Sunday that sanctions on North Korea “may be relaxed over time,” but right now remain in place and “are very tough and very strong.” James Mattis, U.S. Secretary of Defense, also confirmed that “North Korea will receive relief only when it demonstrates verifiable and irreversible steps to denuclearization.” Such comments of U.S. President Donald Trump’s aides are an effort to put controversies to rest that arose after Trump said that he does not “want to use the term maximum pressure anymore” following meeting with Kim Yong Chol, vice-chairman of North Korea’s Central Committee of Workers’ Party.
As “maximum pressure” has been the catchphrase of the Trump administration in dealing with North Korea, Trump’s comments led some to worry about whether the United States would repeat the mistakes of the previous administrations by hastily easing sanctions on Pyongyang. Deciding not to use a keyword certainly gives the impression of a dramatic turn in directions. Yet, there is no hint of lifting sanctions in the near future in the latest comments of Trump’s aides. Trump himself also confirmed that existing sanctions would not be lifted until the North achieves denuclearization even though his administration will not impose additional sanctions for now.
Still, it is a clear step back from the existing stance of Washington that sanctions should be continued until Pyongyang completes denuclearization. Kudlow indicated a possibility of easing sanctions in phases, saying “it may be relaxed over time.” Defense Secretary James Mattis also noted “verifiable and irreversible steps” as a prerequisite for sanctions relief, sending a message that Pyongyang’s implementation of visible and sincere actions for denuclearization can be met with rewards such as the lifting of existing sanctions.
President Trump acknowledged the difficulty of achieving denuclearization in an all-in-one approach and said it was a “process.” Yet, he calls for the process to be advanced swiftly, arguing that the beginning of the process should be marked by bold actions, not just promises. This is why Trump demands that North Korea show its willingness towards denuclearization by carrying out meaningful initial measures such as the shipment of its nuclear warheads and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), as it would be only then that Washington would start discussing security assurances or the lifting of sanctions.
North Korea claims that it is hard to achieve denuclearization all at once, but lifting economic sanctions all together is much more difficult considering complex layers of restrictions from the United Nations Security Council resolutions to each nation’s unilateral measures. In the end, North Korea must first prove its sincerity by taking bold actions to dismantle nuclear weapons in order to receive sanctions relief from the international community. The swift implementation of North Korea’s denuclearization measures will bring forward the easing of sanctions as well as the country’s incorporation into the international community as a reliable member.