North Korea backs off military exercises as Trump puts 'maximum pressure' on Kim Jong Un

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  • 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 work.
  • Trump has had success persuading countries to stop trading with North Korea as he dispatches Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on a diplomatic offensive.
  • It’s unclear, however, whether North Korea is feeling the pinch from sanctions, and the country could be trying to signal a more peaceful posture only because of next month’s Winter Olympics in South Korea.

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, US officials 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 Un’s regime.

“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 the Journal.

“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 Business Insider.

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 North Korea.

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 Defence 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 Olympics.

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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