Trump announces tough North Korea sanctions -- Here’s what may happen next

In announcing new sanctions Friday against North Korea, President Trump made it clear that the communist nation will pay a big price for stockpiling nuclear weapons and long-range missiles that pose a threat to the U.S. and other countries.

The president spoke to the Conservative Political Action Conference about the tough new sanctions designed to make the rogue regime in Pyongyang feel even greater economic pain for its decision to become a nuclear power.

Make no mistake, these sanctions will have some bite. They apply to 27 shipping companies and 28 ships registered in North Korea, China and five other nations. The Trump administration says the companies and ships are helping North Korea evade international restrictions on fuel imports and a ban on coal exports.

The sanctions are designed to cut off foreign cash that North Korea desperately needs. The action by the Trump administration blocks assets held by the sanctioned entities in the U.S. and bars U.S. citizens from dealing with those entities.

The North Koreans could even decide that it’s time to up the ante and prove to the world beyond the shadow of any doubt that they can start a nuclear war.

Coming on the heels of multiple United Nations Security Council resolutions – as well as unilateral sanctions imposed earlier by the U.S., South Korea and Japan – the new U.S. sanctions will intensify the diplomatic and economic isolation of North Korea under a “maximum pressure” strategy that can only mean trouble for dictator Kim Jong Un and his regime.

Indeed, these sanctions are coming at the worst possible time for the North. With reports Pyongyang could be tapped out of foreign exchange and dollar reserves come October, this is tantamount to bankruptcy for the regime.

So where do things turn next? There are only two paths I can see going forward.

The first is what I would wish would happen, but seems highly unlikely.

Under my hoped-for scenario, North Korea comes to its senses and decides to negotiate not just with South Korea but also with the U.S. The Kim regime decides to make an effort to reach out to Ivanka Trump – who is in South Korea right now to attend the closing of the Winter Olympics.

Remember, Ivanka Trump is not just the president’s daughter but a trusted adviser who has the president’s ear. The North would be wise to take the opportunity to approach her seriously. From such an opening, both sides could slowly work towards a framework to denuclearize the Korean peninsula. Such negotiations would be difficult and could take years.

However, any effort that would result in atomic disarmament of North Korea – which may have as many as 60 nuclear bombs – would be a welcome breakthrough. This is the Trump administration’s goal.

But my heart and a decade-plus of studying the North tell me we are closing in on a spring crisis.

As I noted just this week, the Olympic pause in tensions will be short-lived.

I believe that North Korea will demand in the coming days and weeks the complete cancellation of large U.S.-South Korean joint military exercises, which have already been delayed until the end of April.

My own sources in the Pentagon have suggested that as of this moment those military exercises – especially the large Foal Eagle exercise that involves 300,000-plus South Korean soldiers – are still a go. This will enrage the North Koreans and they will respond in some fashion.

And, in fact, in its propaganda outlets North Korea has already declared that the U.S.-South Korean military exercises need to be cancelled. Once the North realizes that this will not happen, it will have many options to push back. I would expect Kim to test at least one more nuclear weapon as well as send long-range missiles into the sky.

The North could even decide to fire an intercontinental ballistic missile deep into the South Pacific and show off new warhead technology that can pierce the atmosphere and destroy a city. This would make clear to the world that North Korea can destroy an American city and kill millions of our own people.

From here it could get worse. The North Koreans could even decide that it’s time to up the ante and prove to the world beyond the shadow of any doubt that they can start a nuclear war.

Kim could decide on an atmospheric test of a nuclear bomb. If that were to happen, I would argue that the Trump administration might feel it had no choice but to launch what has been called a “bloody nose” strike on the regime.

Enjoy the last few days of the Olympics and the Paralympics. After that, it seems all but certain all hell is going to break loose in Northeast Asia. Again.

Harry J. Kazianis (@grecianformula) is director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest, founded by former President Richard M. Nixon. Click here, for more on Mr. Kazianis.