"WACO, Texas (AP) — President Donald Trump tweeted Friday that he has reversed his administration's decision to slap new sanctions on North Korea, with his press secretary explaining that the president "likes" leader Kim Jong Un and doesn't think they're necessary.
It's unclear, however, which sanctions the president was referencing in his tweet, which took Treasury officials by surprise.
"It was announced today by the U.S. Treasury that additional large scale Sanctions would be added to those already existing Sanctions on North Korea," Trump wrote from his private club in Palm Beach, Florida.
"I have today ordered the withdrawal of those additional Sanctions!"
The White House did not immediately respond to questions about which sanctions Trump was referring to, or what large-scale sanctions were poised to be added to existing ones already imposed on North Korea.
On Thursday, his administration did sanction two Chinese shipping companies suspected of helping North Korea evade sanctions - the first targeted actions taken against Pyongyang since Trump and Kim met in Hanoi, Vietnam, last month for negotiations about North Korea's nuclear weapons program.
In addition to Trump's talks with North Korea, the U.S. is knee-deep in delicate trade negotiations with China.
A person familiar with the action told The Associated Press that Trump's tweet was not a reversal of existing sanctions, but that the president was talking about not going forward with additional large-scale sanctions on North Korea at this time. The person was not authorized to discuss the president's comments and spoke on condition of anonymity.
It's unclear whether Trump's decision was related to North Korea's move on Friday to abruptly withdraw its staff from a liaison office with South Korea. The development is likely to put a damper on ties between the North and South and further complicate global diplomacy on North Korea's nuclear program. The withdrawal also is seen as a major setback for South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who has sought improved relations with North Korea alongside the nuclear negotiations between the North and the United States.
North Korea said it was withdrawing its staff under instructions from unspecified "higher-level authorities," according to a Unification Ministry statement. It didn't say whether the withdrawal would be temporary or permanent. South Korea called the North's decision regrettable and urged the North to return its staff to the liaison office soon.
It was the latest example of Trump's governance-by-tweet, which has often sent agency heads scrambling, trying to figure out what he meant and trying to implement policy proclamations that have not gone through traditional vetting processes. That includes when Trump announced, via tweet, that transgender people would no longer be allowed to serve in the military.
And it came hours after Trump made the official announcement that Islamic State-controlled territory in Syria had been reduced to zero from an airport tarmac, using a printed map he held upside-down, instead of a formal statement or ceremony.
His North Korea tweet prompted reporters to bombard officials at the White House National Security Council and Treasury Department with questions. All declined to comment. White House press secretary Sarah Sanders issued a brief statement saying only that Trump "likes Chairman Kim and he doesn't think these sanctions will be necessary."
When the administration announced the sanctions on Thursday against the Chinese shipping companies, administration officials briefed reporters. They said Thursday's sanctions were evidence the U.S. was maintaining pressure on North Korea in an effort to coax its leader to give up his nuclear weapons program.
The Treasury Department sanctioned Dalian Haibo International Freight Co. Ltd. and Liaoning Danxing International Forwarding Co. Ltd. for using deceptive methods to circumvent international and U.S. sanctions and the U.S. commitment to implementing existing U.N. Security Council resolutions.
Calls to the two companies rang without response Friday or were answered by people who immediately hung up the phone.
The Treasury Department, in coordination with the State Department and the U.S. Coast Guard, also updated a North Korea shipping advisory, adding dozens of vessels thought to be doing ship-to-ship transfers with North Korean tankers or exported North Korean coal in violation of sanctions.
Two senior administration officials, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity to discuss U.S. policy on North Korea, said that illegal ship-to-ship transfers that violate U.S. and international sanctions have increased and that not all countries, including China, are implementing the restrictions. They said the deceptive practices include disabling or manipulating ship identification systems, repainting the names on vessels and falsifying cargo documents.