Trump Threatens ‘Phase Two’ If Sanctions Against North Korea That Probably Won’t Work Don’t Work

President Trump continues to make irresponsible and dangerous threats in connection with American policy toward North Korea.

On the same day that the Trump Administration announced new sanctions aimed at companies and nations doing business with the regime of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, President Trump threatened a “Phase Two” if the sanctions don’t work:

Speaking at a news conference with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Trump made apparent reference to military options his administration has repeatedly said remain on the table.

“If the sanctions don’t work, we’ll have to go phase two,” Trump said. “Phase two may be a very rough thing, may be very, very unfortunate for the world. But hopefully the sanctions will work.”

At virtually the same time that Trump was speaking, the Treasury Department offered further details about the sanctions themselves and the motivation behind them, which appear to include ‘frustration’ on the President’s part that current policy doesn’t seem to be deterring the DPRK from the course it embarked on several years ago with respect to its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs:

The sanctions’ targets include a Taiwan passport holder, as well as shipping and energy firms in mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore. The actions block assets held by the firms and individuals in the United States and prohibit U.S. citizens from dealing with them.

The U.S. Treasury said the sanctions were designed to disrupt North Korean shipping and trading companies and vessels and further isolate Pyongyang. They are also aimed at ships located, registered or flagged in North Korea, China, Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Marshall Islands, Tanzania, Panama and the Comoros.

Last month, three Western European intelligence sources told Reuters that North Korea shipped coal to Russia last year and that it was then delivered to South Korea and Japan in a likely violation of U.N. sanctions.

Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said the new sanctions would help prevent North Korea from skirting restrictions on trade in coal and other fuel through “evasive maritime activities.”

“The president is clearly frustrated and rightly so over the efforts that have failed in the past and also over the uptick in testing and the advances we’ve seen in the North Korean program,” a senior administration official told reporters.

At another briefing, Mnuchin stood next to enlarged photos he said showed December 2017 images that revealed ship-to-ship transfers of fuel and other products destined for North Korea in an attempt to evade sanctions.

He said he could not rule out the prospect of the United States boarding and inspecting North Korean ships.

Mnuchin said virtually all shipping currently being used by North Korea was now under sanction and the U.S. government had “issued an advisory alerting the public to the significant sanctions risks to those continuing to enable shipments of goods to and from North Korea.”

Mnuchin said the number of sanctions steps taken by the United States against Pyongyang since 2005 was now 450 with approximately half imposed in the last year.

Christopher Ford, assistant secretary of state for international security and non-proliferation, told reporters sanctions already had affected North Korea’s weapons programs and this was shown by the lengths North Korea was going to try to evade sanctions.

Jonathan Schanzer of the Washington think tank Foundation for the Defense of Democracies said Friday’s move was “the largest tranche of DPRK (North Korea) sanctions” released by the Treasury Department.

“The only thing missing here today is action against Chinese banks,” he said. “We know they continue to undermine our efforts to isolate North Korea.”

While sanctions have proven to be useful in achieving defined diplomatic goals in the past, they are less likely to work in situations such as our current position with regard to North Korea, largely because that policy is aimed at goals that seem impossible to achieve. That policy is currently based on the premise of denuclearization and the idea that any talks with the DPRK could only begin if they were based on the premise of denuclearization by the Kim regime. That option is, for reasons I’ve stated before, entirely unrealistic and any effort to move forward with diplomacy vis a vis our relationship with North Korea is likely to fail as long as we maintain the delusion that Kim Jong Un or anyone in his inner circle is going to accept the premise that they would eventually agree to give up their nuclear arsenal and ballistic missile programs. Indeed, Trump’s “phase two” threat is only likely to increase the resolve of the Kim regime to hold on to and continue making advances in those programs given that they see both of them as the only viable defense they have to threats that would destabilize the regime or threaten Kim’s hold on power. If anything, rhetoric like this is likely to cause the DPRK to accelerate both programs.

More importantly, as Daniel Larison notes, Trump’s rhetoric seems to lead in only one direction:

Referring to a “phase two” that is “very rough” and “very unfortunate for the world” is an obvious threat to attack, and that is how it will be received. That will just convince the North Korean leadership that it must never give up its nuclear weapons and missiles, and it will encourage them to continue developing both as quickly as possible.

The Trump administration persists in using punitive measures and threats, but these are the very things that have consistently failed to change North Korean behavior for the better and have usually pushed them in the direction that Washington doesn’t want them to go. At the same, they rule out the one thing-real diplomatic engagement-that has produced significant positive results in the past. When the Bush administration blew up the Agreed Framework, they sabotaged the one thing that had been at least partly successful in getting North Korea to limit its nuclear program. Ever since then, North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs have steadily advanced amid international condemnation, sanctions, and threats of attack. We already know that the “maximum pressure” campaign will fail because it is simply intensifying a punitive approach that has been repeatedly tried and found wanting.

All of this brings to mind the reports that we’ve seen since the beginning of the year that the Administration is considering what has been dubbed a “bloody nose” strike against North Korea that would be intended to inflict at least some damage on the nuclear weapon and missile research programs without provoking a wider war. Apparently, such a strike might only come after another nuclear or ballistic missile test by the DPRK, or even in the form of a completely unprovoked first-strike.  In any case, the idea appears to be inspired at least in part by the attack that the President ordered on Syria last year after it was reported that the regime of Bashar Assad had once again used chemical weapons on a civilian target. That strike was aimed at one of the bases where the chemical attack was believed to have come from, but apart from some damage to buildings, it doesn’t appear to have had any real impact on Syria’s campaign against rebels and civilians in the months that followed. A similar attack on North Korea would likely prove to be just as ineffective and poses the real danger of inflaming an already unstable situation.

As Mria Rapp-Hooper notes in a piece that was published in The Atlantic in January, there’s every reason to fear that such a strike could provoke a wider conflict that would be a disaster for all concerned:

It makes little sense for American war planners to assume a “limited” strike like this would stay limited. A U.S. operation may not achieve its objectives, and even if it does, it would still leave the decision of whether or not to retaliate up to Kim. The North Korean leader would make that decision based on his own beliefs about the strike once it took place, not based on American wishes for his response. If he did decide to hit back, the result could be the most calamitous U.S. conflict since World War II.

As a result, American alliances would likely suffer irreparable damage. Competitors like Russia and China would capitalize on the blunder to advance their own interests, and U.S. foreign policy would be consumed by the task of reconstruction for years. Jeffrey failed to acknowledge this horrific toll.

In addition to the ruinous human, financial, and political costs of U.S. military action against the North, it’s hard to see how Kim Jong Un could take the South and live to rule it. With America’s heavy troop presence and longstanding security guarantees with countries across the region, his expansive objectives would undermine his most central one—survival. He simply cannot take the South while holding the North.

McMaster’s logic, then, is undermined by both the history of the Korean Peninsula, as well as the military realities of invading it. Basic strategic analysis further unravels his case.

Consider McMaster’s assessment of Kim’s supposed irrationality. If Kim is irrational on matters concerning his nuclear weapons and missiles, it’s reasonable to assume he’d be similarly irrational across the board. If he cannot be stopped from trying to reunify the two Koreas, further U.S. or UN sanctions are also unlikely to alter his cost calculations. Why would a first strike by America restrain him? Irrational actors are irrational in all domains—Washington does not have the luxury of picking and choosing where deterrence prevails.

The belief that Kim can’t be deterred from conquest but can be deterred once the United States has brought force against him demonstrates a highly selective strategic understanding. What form retaliation would take, again, is up to Kim, not McMaster. Yet the national security adviser seems to hold an erratic view of strategic dynamics that conveniently supports a use of force by the United States against North Korea, and privileges this path over all other options.

In a piece for The Australian, James Law sees similar problems with the strategy:

As the nuclear crisis has heightened, world leaders have recognised that the North Korean leader is not a madman; he is a rational leader out to ensure his regime’s survival.

“The danger here is that there are some folks who actually think when they’re thinking about a limited military strike that Kim Jong-un might not retaliate or would just retaliate in a very limited way and that’s going to take us back to the negotiating table. There are people who actually make this argument, using Kim Jong-un’s rationality as a reason,” Dr [Sue Mi Terry, a former director for Korea affairs at the National Security Council under presidents George W Bush and Barack Obama] said.

“The problem is, we do not know that. That’s an assumption. I don’t think anybody really knows what Kim Jong-un will or won’t do.

“If North Korea retaliated in a massive way, unleashed chemical weapons in Japan and there were millions of casualties, I think it’s going to be hugely problematic for the region, in terms of everybody’s response and our relationship with all the regional powers.

“So it really depends upon how things unfold, which nobody knows and that’s my point. I don’t think anybody can say for sure how things will unfold.”

In other words, whether its in response to another nuclear or ballistic missile test or as a first-strike, a “bloody nose” attack is just as likely to lead to something far wider depending on how Kim Jong Un decides to respond. That, perhaps, is the biggest mistake that such a strike would represent, the fact that it would essentially leave it up to the Kim regime to decide if it leads to a wider conflict or not. On the one hand, Kim could decide to essentially ignore the attack, especially since it’s unlikely that the attack would do long-term damage to either the nuclear or missile research programs. Reacting in this manner could allow him to continue to try to drive a wedge between the United States and South Korea if he continues the “olive branch” strategy that he’s been pursuing toward the Republic of Korea since his New Year’s Day speech. On the other hand, an attack like this could lead to a wider conflict if Kim believes its the opening shot in a plan to destabilize his rule over North Korea. Whichever option he chooses, a strike would be a mistake primarily because it would leave it to North Korea to decide what comes next and, if the strike fails to significant damage its research programs, then it will only cause them to double down and increase the pace of research.

Instead of considering a military strike, it seems to be becoming increasingly clear that the United States needs to seriously reconsider its goals with regard to North Korea, and to start moving toward diplomatic talks based on realistic and achievable goals. The current goal of denuclearization isn’t going to happen for the reasons I’ve stated before, and the Kim regime isn’t going anywhere. Demanding either as a pre-condition for talks, or as the goal that such talks would be meant to achieve is a non-starter. Military action would result in ceding the high ground to Kim and, potentially, would lead to a wider conflict that would be far more destructive than the Korean War itself.  The only sane strategy is one that recognizes these realities rather than being based on threats from a President who clearly doesn’t understand what he’s dealing with and who is likely to make decisions based more on emotion than reason. Unfortunately, we’re stuck with the President we’ve got.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Mister Bluster says:

    Unfortunately, we’re stuck with the REPUBLICAN President we’ve got.

  2. michael reynolds says:

    I predicted many months ago that Trump would need a war. A great big military parade and a nice war – the usual wanna-be strong man’s cocktail of choice. Someone must have told him about ‘rally-round’ effects. He imagines a war will have us rush to him and the excitement will give him a free hand to fire Mueller.

    Won’t work that way. The 50% of Americans who don’t just oppose Trump but despise him will see this for what it is. And if it goes wrong we get a whole bunch of body bags.

  3. mattb says:

    Again, it bears repeating that the Trump Administration still have not appointed an ambassador to South Korea (the last candidate, a Korea expert, rejected because of his opposition to the bloody nose strike). The president claims it was Ivanka Trump who briefed President Moon on the latest sanctions.

    My dear movement conservative friends, I know one key reason you gave not to vote for Clinton was her “liberal interventionist” streak that would “start a war.” What’s your position on Trump’s continued saber rattling towards NK?

    Additionally, I know that there were many complaints against Clinton’s nepotism and the issue of a dynasty. I’m really curious as to how you think you would have reacted to the idea of Chelsea Clinton, versus an ambassador, briefing the South Korean government.

  4. Just 'nutha ig'nint cracker says:

    @michael reynolds: Yeah, but most of them will be body bags with Koreans in them, so how much will that really matter in a country where we can’t agree on what to do when our own children are being shot on a regular basis?

  5. Just 'nutha ig'nint cracker says:

    @mattb: A TRUMP brand war is a completely different thing from some sleazy generic CLINTON war. Haven’t you figured that out yet? MAWA!

  6. CSK says:

    Yesterday Trump Tweeted this: “My daughter, Ivanka, just arrived in South Korea. We cannot have a better, or smarter, person representing our country.”

    It seems as if Ivanka is now the de facto ambassador to South Korea.

  7. Kathy says:

    Nest Trump will be bragging about secret weapons.

    Seriously, he seems to think wars can be like action movies. Sanctions, even if they work and have broad backing, take years. I’d bet he’s not willing to wait that long.

  8. CSK says:

    No, because he has the attention span of a flea with AHDH.

  9. Kathy says:

    @CSK: You really think his attention span is that long?

  10. CSK says:


    Yes, if it’s something he thinks will portray him in a heroic light.

  11. mattb says:

    BTW, you would think after spending the last week or so constantly justifying how any form of gun control would leave everyone more vulnerable to attack (not to mention arguing for the necessity of further arming people like teachers for the overall safety of society), populist conservatives might come to understand why forced disarmament is a non starter for North Korea.

    If you argue that you need guns to secure your safety and security (and that any attempt to disarm is going to lead to a fight), don’t then call the other side crazy for feeling the exact same way.