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
Trump has had success in persuading countries that used
to trade with North Korea to stop as he dispatches Secretary of
State Rex Tillerson on a diplomatic offensive.
But North Korea may or may not be feeling the pinch
from sanctions, and could be trying to signal a more peaceful
posture over the course of the Winter Olympics in South
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,
told the Wall Street Journal.
The slowdown in exercises could be due to 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 coincides with a few ominous signs for Kim Jong
“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 the US’s forces in South Korea, told
“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?
North Korea has been under heavy UN sanctions for years, but
under Trump’s administration, the resolutions written on paper
have taken on a new character in their enforcement.
The US has managed to get a handful of African nations to agree
to completely stop trade with North Korea. Secretary of State Rex
Tillerson always asks foreign diplomats about North Korea and
what can be done to clamp down on its funding, sources told
Egypt, Sudan, and recently Angola have been
faced with the choice between trading with the US and 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, “the difference is, 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 individuals, individual ships, and
individual countries that violate sanctions. Trump recently called out
Russia for helping North Korea, with
State Department Spokeswoman Heather Nauert saying, “there is no
more time for excuses” for Russians conducing illicit trade with
Trump has increasingly hinted at a tougher trade policy with
China, which is responsible for the majority of North Korea’s
trade with the world. Though Trump’s innuendos to 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?
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. Nobody knows how much fuel,
food, or money North Korea has stored, and nobody knows what
enterprises Pyongyang may have its hands in under the surface.
Adam Mount, the Director of the Defense Posture Project at the
Federation of American Scientists, noted on Twitter that the US and
South Korea have cut back their own military exercises, as well
as flights of B-1B bombers that infuriate Pyongyang.
“Pyongyang may be trying to extend the lull” and “elicit further
restraint” by reducing military drills, tweeted Mount.
“Say you’re North Korea and you really want freeze/freeze,” wrote
Mount, 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 in place.
“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 Pyeongchang Winter
Whether North Korea’s military drills have stalled due to lack of
fuel under crushing sanctions or to signal a willingness for
diplomacy, it appears Kim Jong Un has softened his position,
which was a major goal of Trump’s “maximum pressure” strategy to
shut down the rogue nations nuclear hopes.
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