(Bloomberg) — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said Donald Trump offered to lift sanctions against his regime when they met Tuesday in Singapore, state media reported, a claim that contrasts with the U.S. president’s rhetoric that the economic strictures would remain.
The report from the Korean Central News Agency, which was published after Kim returned home from his meeting, noted Trump’s vow to suspend U.S. military drills in South Korea. It also said Trump committed to unspecified “security guarantees” for Pyongyang, and to “lift sanctions against it.”
The last point was noteworthy since it went further than Trump did in his public comments during and after the meeting. Trump said sanctions would stay, at least until the isolated nation moved to give up its nuclear arsenal. But there have been slight differences in recent comments among senior U.S. officials as to whether that means North Korea must first complete denuclearization — and have it verified — or if some goodwill steps would be enough.
Trump himself indicated some wiggle room, saying sanctions relief could come even before the “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” — however that’s ultimately defined by both sides — is verified. “I hope it’s going to be soon,” he said Tuesday at an hour-long briefing. “At a certain point, I actually look forward to taking them off.”
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The White House didn’t immediately respond Wednesday to a request for comment on the KCNA report.
The statement signed Tuesday by Trump and Kim — after the first meeting between sitting leaders of the two countries ever — was thin on detail aside from repeating North Korea’s promise to move toward “complete denuclearization” and Trump’s promise of a security guarantee. It mentioned a plan for senior officials, led on the U.S. side by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, to keep talking.
Trump several times said there were things he and Kim talked about, and agreed on, that were not contained in the formal document. That included the U.S. decision to halt its drills, although it’s unclear which ones and for how long. Trump added that Kim told him separately that North Korea had dismantled a missile engine test site. So if any promises were made on sanctions, they were not made publicly.
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Trump faces Japanese pressure to keep sanctions in place, and a push by China to lift them. A Chinese official already signaled the country may ask the United Nations to lift or adjust the penalties, the basis for the “maximum pressure” campaign Trump has used to push Kim toward disarmament. China, as North Korea’s neighbor and most important trading partner, also could provide relief to Kim by throttling down sanctions enforcement on its own.
The sanctions “need to stay in place until North Korea verifiably and irreversibly dismantles its nuclear arsenal,” said Andrea Berger of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. “But there’s a certain amount of political flexibility in sanctions relief in an era where Trump is at the helm.”
There is evidence that sanctions have hurt North Korea. And aside from the UN penalties, which were beefed up under Trump, countries like Japan, South Korea and the U.S. have their own unilateral sanctions. Kim has also spoken this year of his desire to modernize North Korea’s tiny agriculture-based economy, which has very little manufacturing and few links with the outside world.
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The main crossing point from China into North Korea is the city of Dandong. About 80 percent of North Korea’s international trade is with China, much of it through the frontier city filled with shopkeepers, smugglers and real-estate dealers whose fortunes rise and fall with the trade across the Yalu River.
Trump said Tuesday the China-North Korea border had already become more porous, although he added “that’s O.K.” Traders who live on the border have said Beijing — at least until recently — has been fully implementing sanctions, and that has impacted business and the movement of people.