President Trump’s latest effort to pressure North Korea into abandoning its nuclear weapons program is drawing Democratic criticism, even from proponents of the sanctions pressure.
Lawmakers in both parties favor using sanctions to increase pressure on North Korea, a strategy that Congress reinforced by passing new sanctions legislation last year. But the North Korea crisis is happening in parallel with the controversy over Russian interference in the 2016 elections. Democrats have urged Trump to negotiate more willingly with North Korea and sanction Russia more aggressively, and they reiterated both points Friday.
“Trumpeting more sanctions as a get-tough tactic against North Korea makes it even stranger that this White House refuses to use sanctions against Russia in response to an attack on our democracy,” New York Rep. Eliot Engel, the top Democrat on the Foreign Affairs Committee, said Friday.
The same legislation that mandated new North Korea sanctions was coupled last year with a package designed in part to restrict Russian defense and intelligence industries by giving the State Department the ability to sanction countries that buy weapons and technology from Russia.
“The president has the authority to implement these, yet continues to ignore the will of Congress,” Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, said in an echo of Engel’s remarks. “As lawmakers, we must continue to press for these sanctions, so we can protect our democracy even when our president fails to.”
The Trump administration hasn't imposed the sanctions directly, but Russian officials are fuming about State Department efforts to discourage allies and other countries from striking the censured weapons deals.
“[A]ll American ambassadors in all countries of the world without exception have strict instructions: to go and demand every day that certain states do not cooperate with Russia," Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov complained Wednesday. "That’s because the U.S. slapped sanctions on Russia. I think it’s enough to just hear this fact to understand on what principles the Americans build their relations with foreign countries.”
Engel and Castro allowed that the North Korea sanctions could help avert a conflict. “The new sanctions to disrupt North Korean shipping and trading will further isolate the Kim Regime, and they could be a useful tool in pressuring Pyongyang if they were coupled with robust diplomatic engagement,” as Engel put it. “Unfortunately, the Trump Administration has undermined any diplomatic strategy with its own reckless behavior and outright failure to fill key diplomatic positions. I am deeply concerned that the president’s approach — which he has said may involve unprovoked American military action — could quickly escalate with catastrophic consequences.”
Vice President Mike Pence agreed to meet with North Korean officials during his recent visit to the Winter Olympics in South Korea. The State Department announced after his return that North Korea had cancelled the meeting.
“[Pence’s] intent was to discuss and lay out our requirements – and it’s not just U.S. requirements; it’s the world requirements, denuclearization,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Thursday. I think a lot of people would have been happy if that meeting had gone off and we had been able to deliver that message to them in a very strong way face to face.”