However, the State Department announced Tuesday that it would not lift the sanctions. Instead, the Trump administration plans to delay such a move, first announced in January under President Barack Obama but delayed for six months — and now for three more months.
Given the long list of foreign-policy issues engulfing the U.S. government, the Sudan decision went little noticed this week. But the decision may hint at a new strategy toward a foreign-policy matter far closer to the administration's heart: North Korean nuclear weapons.
This hint is contained in the State Department's Tuesday news release on Sudan sanctions. When the Obama White House announced in January its intent to lift sanctions against Sudan, it cited improvements by the Khartoum government on the counterterrorism and humanitarian fronts. This week's statement argued that more time is needed to assess whether Sudan had indeed made progress in these areas.
But in the final line of the statement, there was a passing reference to another area that would need to be evaluated: “ensuring that Sudan is committed to the full implementation of U.N. Security Council resolutions on North Korea.”
The comment caught the attention of North Korea watchers. “North Korea has not traditionally been part of the conversation over the circumstances in which those restrictions would be revoked,” Andrea Berger, a North Korea expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, wrote in an article for the Arms Control Wonk website. “It is now.”
U.N. sanctions on North Korea were first announced in 2006 after that country conducted its first nuclear test. As the isolated Asian state continued to test nuclear weapons, these sanctions have been gradually expanded. Since President Trump took office in January, U.S. efforts to economically isolate North Korea have increased, but they appear to have had no discernible effect on Pyongyang's weapons program: On July 4, North Korea tested an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that theoretically could hit Alaska.
After the ICBM launch, U.N. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley suggested that past sanctions have been insufficient and that the United States is considering other options. “The United States is prepared to use the full range of our capabilities to defend ourselves and our allies,” Haley told the Security Council last week.
So far, much of the U.S. focus has been on pressuring China, one of North Korea's few allies and a major trading partner, to do more to pressure its neighbor. Trump has repeatedly spoken of the need for Beijing to do more to help “solve” the problem of North Korea. China has made some limited moves — in February, it announced that it was belatedly complying with a U.N. sanction that restricted the import of North Korean coal, for example — but the actual effect on North Korea's economy is hard to gauge. Tellingly, China's statistics suggest that trade with North Korea is actually up this year.
In late June, the U.S. Treasury announced sanctions against some Chinese businesses and Chinese nationals alleged to have ties to North Korea. The Wall Street Journal reported this week that the United States is considering more unilateral sanctions against Chinese companies that do business with North Korea.
But China is far from the only nation with economic ties to North Korea. As The Washington Post's Kevin Sieff recently reported, North Korea has many surprisingly lucrative ties with nations in Africa.
These links were formed in the 1960s, when North Korea supported struggles against colonialism, but later evolved into more purely commercial relationships, with Pyongyang selling military equipment or sending laborers. While some African nations appear to have complied with U.N. sanctions, many of the financial ties have endured and have proven hard for the international community to keep tabs on.
Sudan's interest in North Korea appears to have been primarily focused on military equipment. A U.N. report released last year found that Sudan had bought sophisticated air-to-ground missiles in a deal with a front company for Pyongyang's main military contractor, Korea Mining Development Trading Corp. (KOMID) — an entity under U.N. sanctions since 2009. The United States also has sanctioned several North Korean officials who it says have links with Sudan.
Last year, during a visit to Seoul, Sudan's foreign minister said there was no longer any military or diplomatic relationship with North Korea — seemingly a response to South Korean pressure placed on African nations to cut ties with Pyongyang.
But analysts such as Berger say the U.S. decision on sanctions suggests that there are still doubts in Washington, though how it will deal with those doubts is hard to say. “It is not yet clear how this will play out if the U.S. does assess there to be an ongoing defense trade relationship between Khartoum and Pyongyang,” Berger wrote at Arms Control Wonk. “One possibility is that Trump tries to make an example of Sudan.”
In that case, the result may be continuing or even extended sanctions being placed on Sudan until it fully breaks its ties with North Korea. That's a move likely to disproportionately affect ordinary people in Sudan, one of the world's poorest countries, rather than its leaders. As North Korea itself illustrates, sanctions don't always result in the intended outcome.