A couple of North Korean short-range projectile tests – ho-hum. And now US seizure of a sanctions-busting North Korean coal ship. Not so ho-hum. The contrast suggests it’s high time to ponder the question of timing in the Donald Trump-Kim Jong Un diplomatic dance around stalled nuclear negotiations.

At a White House event on Thursday, Trump said US authorities were looking “very seriously” at the latest launch of “short-range missiles.” “Nobody’s happy about it,” he told reporters. “We’ll see what happens,” he added. “I know they want to negotiate, they’re talking about negotiating. But I don’t think they are ready to negotiate.”

And then, on the very same day, the United States announced the seizure of a North Korean cargo ship for violating international sanctions. The US Justice Department said it took possession of the North Korea-registered bulk carrier M/V Wise Honest. It said the vessel’s owner, the Korea Songi Shipping Company, had used it to illicitly export coal and import heavy machinery, and had paid for maintenance and equipment using US dollars in violation of US and international sanctions on North Korea.

Cat-and-mouse games

It was the first time a North Korean cargo vessel had been seized for sanctions violation, after several years of high seas cat-and-mouse games in which Korean shippers disguised vessels, used false flags and turned off their tracking transponders to avoid discovery.

Was the ship seizure a Trumpian ploy to pressure North Korea into moving faster to turn its self-proclaimed willingness to denuclearize into reality? US Attorney Geoffrey Berman, whose office filed the papers leading to the seizure of the ship, was quoted by the Washington Post as insisting there was no connection between the launches and the ship seizure – but it’s tempting to see one anyhow.

For one thing, it would be hard to ignore the possibility that Kim – by sticking to relatively moderate reminders of how troublesome he can be when he’s crossed – was hoping to lull Trump and give him enough rope (time) to hang himself.

Recall that Kim had announced a year-end deadline for the US to do the right thing, or else. That sounded fishy from the start. Pyongyang knows something about how blindingly fast US election years pass for would-be second-term presidents.

From the North Korean point of view, it could make a lot of sense to put the nuclear dispute largely on hold for the rest of this year. Then, Pyongyang’s thinking might go, in 2020 with the polls looming and little time left for the American president to redeem his pledge to resolve the issue, Trump would be more likely to agree to something quick and dirty that’s good for North Korea, but not so good for the US and South Korea.

However, Washington national security types should be smart enough to see through such a Pyongyang calculation. Perhaps they’ve done so, and perhaps that has something to do with a ship seizure that can be seen either as part of an effort to restore the pre-summits policy of “maximum pressure” on North Korea or – at the very least – as a warning that such an effort could come in short order.

Indeed, the Justice Department’s Berman seemed to take a maximalist approach in his statement: “Our office uncovered North Korea’s scheme to export tons of high-grade coal to foreign buyers by concealing the origin of their ship, the Wise Honest. With this seizure, we have significantly disrupted that cycle. We are willing and able to deploy the full array of law enforcement tools to detect, deter and prosecute North Korea’s deceptive attempts to evade sanctions,” he said.

The United States and the United Nations have led efforts to bring economic pressure on North Korea to curtail its nuclear weapons and long-range missile development programs. Sanctions have targeted the country’s economic lifelines by banning its exports of raw materials like coal and iron, labor and some farm goods, and limiting its imports of oil and other fuels.

In addition, US sanctions have aimed to lock the country out of the international banking system by preventing banks with US arms from dealing with North Korean businesses. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has met with President Donald Trump twice since last year to discuss reeling in North Korea’s nuclear program in exchange for removing sanctions, but the two sides are at an impasse.

Ship first detained by Indonesia

The 17,000 metric ton Wise Honest, built in 1989, was detained by Indonesian authorities on April 2, 2018, more than two months before Trump and Kim held their first ice-breaking summit in Singapore. Loaded down with a $3-million shipment of North Korean coal, the vessel had entered Indonesian waters with its AIS tracking transponder turned off and was operating under two registrations, North Korea and Sierra Leone.

The transponder, officials said, had in fact not been on since August 2017. The captain was arrested and charged with “knowingly hoisting a false flag,” according to UN Security Council documents. Based on the illicit shipping effort and financing of transactions related to the ship that were put through US banks, a US judge issued a warrant to seize the vessel on July 17, 2018.

Officials announced the seizure on Thursday as the vessel was close to entering US territorial waters. “This sanctions-busting ship is now out of service,” said Assistant Attorney General John Demers in a statement. “North Korea, and the companies that help it evade US and UN sanctions, should know that we will use all tools at our disposal — including a civil forfeiture action such as this one or criminal charges — to enforce the sanctions.”

Restoring whatever can be salvaged of the worldwide sanctions regime, which was close to ironclad before Kim delivered a 2018 New Year’s speech making nice to Trump, has been the goal of any number of foreign policy practitioners and analysts including current US National Security Advisor John Bolton.

There are, however, critics who say such a development would risk disaster. One of those is Van Jackson, a former Pentagon official in the Obama administration and professor of international relations at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, who cites his own research for the proposition.

“I’ve observed a 70-year history in which there are only three events – only three out of, I don’t know, hundreds, thousands – in North Korean foreign policy where you could possibly interpret them responding favorably to outside pressure. I’ve examined all three of those cases pretty closely and there are circumstantial reasons that make them disputable. In all other instances, North Korea has responded to pressure with pressure, and sometimes disproportionately so.”

Jackson explained that “North Korean history and strategic culture create an imperative to respond to pressure with pressure. So there is no historical or logical basis on which to form beliefs that a pressure-based approach will lead to capitulation in the North Korea case.

“That doesn’t mean don’t do sanctions – just that sanctions won’t force capitulation, and in the meantime there will be a risk that North Korea’s defiant response takes us to a dark, deadly place.  And the more we escalate pressure, the more we increase that risk.  I don’t like it; it’s just how it is.  And that’s really why the crisis got so bad – pressure for pressure was the theme of the crisis.”

– with additional reporting by AFP