Donald Trump said on Friday that he would lift economic sanctions linked to North Korea which his own administration had announced just 24 hours earlier.
In a bizarre public about-turn, the US president tweeted that he would withdraw the sanctions despite two members of his cabinet endorsing them on Thursday.
His comment appeared to refer to the US Treasury’s action against two Chinese shipping companies who were punished for helping North Korea evade existing sanctions.
It was the first time fresh sanctions over North Korea had been imposed since Mr Trump and Kim Jong-un’s talks in Vietnam collapsed without a deal on denuclearisation last month.
Mr Trump tweeted:
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. I have today ordered the withdrawal of those additional Sanctions!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 22, 2019
The US president’s reference to “today” triggered confusion. No new action that matched the description was announced on Friday and it appeared he was actually discussing Thursday's move.
No detailed explanation was given for the change of heart. Sarah Sanders, the White House press secretary, said: “President Trump likes Chairman Kim and he doesn’t think these sanctions will be necessary.”
The about-turn was embarrassing given that both Steven Mnuchin, the US Treasury secretary, and John Bolton, the White House national security adviser, endorsed the sanctions on Thursday.
Mr Bolton, who is believed to have pushed for a tougher line on Pyongyang since joining the White House, had tweeted that the sanctions amounted to “important actions”.
Mr Mnuchin was quoted in a government press release saying: “Treasury will continue to enforce our sanctions, and we are making it explicitly clear that shipping companies employing deceptive tactics to mask illicit trade with North Korea expose themselves to great risk.”
One possible cause for the change in US position was North Korea’s decision to pull out of an inter-Korean liaison office on Friday – a step back for dialogue with South Korea.
The move came a week after Choe Son-hui, Pyongyang’s vice foreign minister, threatened to pull out of nuclear negotiations with the US, citing a lack of American steps to match disarmament measures the North took last year.
Friday's withdrawal from the office, which was opened last September in the North Korean border city of Kaesong, represents a major setback for Moon Jae-in, the South’s president.
He had been seeking improved relations with Pyongyang alongside the nuclear talks between the North and the US.
Mr Moon's office said on Friday that his national security adviser, Chung Eui-yong, had convened an emergency meeting of the National Security Council to discuss the withdrawal.
The US Treasury’s initial announcement froze the US property and interests of two companies which it said “used deceptive practices” to help North Korea obtain oil and other goods banned under United Nations sanctions.
Pyongyang has signalled its anger at the renewed pressure. On Thursday, an article in Rodong Sinmun, the mouthpiece of the Workers’ Party of Korea, said the nation would rather “starve or freeze to death” than give up its “self-esteem”.
Progress to convince North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons has stalled since two days of talks between Mr Trump and Kim were held in Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital, last month.
Despite upbeat comments from both leaders throughout the summit both sides hit an impasse, with Pyongyang insisting all sanctions imposed since 2016 were lifted in turn for the destruction of a key nuclear complex.