- The Washington Times - Friday, March 16, 2018

The Trump administration is scrambling behind the scenes to beef up its National Security Council Team on North Korea in anticipation for intense and potentially bare-knuckle diplomacy with Pyongyang, according to sources close to the White House.

As part of the push, the administration is hiring Anthony Ruggiero, a former Treasury Department sanctions expert and advocate of sharper economic pressure on Pyongyang and its allies, to join a North Korea team currently headed by Matthew Pottinger, NSC senior director for Asian affairs.

The NSC did not respond to a request by The Washington Times for a statement on the development and Mr. Ruggierro, currently a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank in Washington, flatly declined to comment when reached by telephone Friday.

However, three former officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity with The Times, said the Ruggiero hire represents the first calculated step by the administration to build out a North Korea strategy staff to work directly inside the White House at a moment when Mr. Trump has faced criticism for failing to fill other key diplomatic posts relating to the North Korea crisis.

While the CIA has established a special Korean Mission Center over the past year, the administration has still not appointed a U.S. ambassador to South Korea, a position some analysts say should be central to managing clarity around Washington’s posture toward any potential negotiations with Pyongyang.

The prospect for such negotiations has soared recently, following South Korea’s claim to have have received assurances from North Korean leader Kim Jong-un that he’s open to talks with Washington on abandoning his nuclear weapons and committed to halting all nuclear and missile tests while such discussions play out.

Mr. Trump embraced Mr. Kim’s reported gesture last week and officials have predicted a direct Trump-Kim meeting could occur — potentially in the neutral location of Sweden — as early last May.

But with the president having since fired Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson, and uncertainty now swirling around when CIA Director Mike Pompeo might be confirmed to replace Mr. Tillerson, speculation is soaring over how prepared the White House really is for a Trump-Kim summit.

The former officials who spoke with The Times said the hiring of Mr. Ruggiero is central to the administration’s scramble to prepare, not only for a potential summit, but as well as for wider negotiations and talks anticipated to surround it and to come after it.

“This is all about the possible summit,” said one of the sources. “There needs to be a team in place that can be prepared and nimble and able to move quickly.”

According to his biography on the Foundation for Defense of Democracies website, Mr. Ruggiero was formerly head of the Treasury Department’s office of global affairs, focusing on terrorist financing and financial crimes. He previously spent 13 years at the State Department, working on countering Iranian and North Korean WMD financing and was, at one point, an adviser to the U.S. delegation to 2005 talks in Beijing on North Korea’s nuclear program.

Two of the former officials who spoke with The Times suggested Mr. Ruggiero, who’s become known in recent years for advocating deeper and wider reaching sanctions against not just Pyongyang but also Chinese and Russian banks, is being added to send a message to Pyongyang that if it’s not totally serious about denuclearization, the Trump administration will respond with sharply increased sanctions.

Following the administration’s issuance in January of a sanctions package targeting two Chinese firms and a handful of North Korean shipping companies, Mr. Ruggiero argued publicly that the White House should actually have gone further than it did.

In a policy brief published at the time by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, he wrote that sharper sanctions, specifically targeting Chinese Banks seen to be holding North Korean assets, were needed to make it clear that North Korea’s growing diplomacy with South Korea around the Winter Olympics would not work to undermine Washington’s ongoing “maximum pressure” campaign against Pyongyang.

“The Trump administration’s latest actions increase the pressure on Pyongyang as it tries to sabotage the ‘maximum pressure’ policy during the inter-Korea talks,” Mr. Ruggiero wrote. “But the administration must escalate these sanctions to the next level, including targeting Chinese banks, in order to have a true ‘maximum pressure’ policy.”

Roughly a month later, the White House came through with what Mr. Trump personally described as the “heaviest sanctions ever,” targeting some 50 vessels and companies doing business with Pyongyang from shipping locations in North Korea, China, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

Mr. Ruggiero is “being hired to strengthen NSC’s hand on the North Korea sanctions front, specifically to focus on the potential to more aggressively target Chinese banks with sanctions,” said one of the former officials who spoke with The Times.

“Basically, they’re going to be setting up a desk that’s focused specifically on the future of sanctions vis-a-vis North Korea,” the former official said, adding that the desk will be tied in directly with any negotiation team involved in a potential Trump-Kim summit.

• Guy Taylor can be reached at gtaylor@washingtontimes.com.

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