Ignatius: North Korean nuclear crisis will resume after Olympics

Ignatius: North Korean nuclear crisis will resume after Olympics

January 13th, 2018 by David Ignatius in Opinion Times Commentary

WASHINGTON — Sometimes diplomacy is the art of going in two directions at once, and the Trump administration seems to have chosen that sweet spot of ambiguity, for now, in managing its continuing confrontation with North Korea.

President Trump has paused his "Little Rocket Man" rhetoric and boasts about the size of his own nuclear button. He's insisting this week that talk of a U.S. military strike is "completely wrong," and calling for discussions with North Korea "under the right circumstances."

A fragile detente seems to have begun. North Korea hasn't tested weapons in more than a month and is talking to the South. North Korean athletes and spectators will attend the Pyeong-chang Olympics. The U.S. has delayed scheduled military exercises until after the last gold medal is awarded. Call it speed-skater diplomacy, if you like; but the table for negotiations has at least been set.

Trump administration diplomacy is like the oft-quoted description of New England weather: If you don't like it, wait awhile. But at least through late February, we're likely to experience a thaw on the Korean Peninsula, and it's interesting to explore what it means.

Trump is already taking credit for the success of "peace through strength," and you can't dismiss his argument that firmness brought some benefits. But the real winners in this round are probably North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who pivoted toward diplomacy in a Jan. 1 speech, and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who responded positively to the overtures. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson probably gets a "save," but not a win, for persisting with his diplomatic agenda despite periodic thunderbolts from Trump.

The problem with this Olympic peace parade is that nothing has really been resolved. Once the games have ended, all the same problems will exist.

Ideally, the next step would be direct U.S.-North Korean talks. A senior State Department official told me he hopes face-to-face talks will start before the Olympics end; the U.S. will characterize the goal as eventual de-nuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. The North may offer a different formula, but Washington probably won't care so long as the other side shows up. There's no sign yet that it will, however.

The State Department official explains that the conversation with Pyongyang can "start at the edges," with each country describing how it sees the future, and then "work toward the center," meaning de-nuclearization.

Who has blinked here? It's hard to argue that it's Kim. The mutual stand-down for the Olympics looks very much like the "freeze for freeze" approach that Russia and China were recommending last year, although U.S. officials resist the characterization.

For all Trump's bluster and self-congratulation, the past month's diplomacy really has been a Korean show, with Kim and Moon both showing considerable finesse. Kim gave his New Year's speech with the confidence of a member of the nuclear club, but he was also deferential toward Seoul. Moon responded avidly, but he also kept faith with Washington by stressing that diplomacy must eventually encompass denuclearization.

What the Trump administration can take credit for is building a robust international coalition around the demand that North Korea must eventually give up its nuclear weapons. Russia and China have joined in a series of U.N. Security Council resolutions sanctioning North Korea, and this slow squeeze is beginning to hurt. Diplomats report the beginnings of food shortages in North Korea, and China is sending some North Korean workers back home.

Tillerson will meet in Canada next week with diplomats from countries that sent troops to fight the Korean War nearly 70 years ago. That gathering is meant to signal global solidarity and resolve. But it will also highlight the failure of the U.S.-led coalition, so far, to stop North Korea from becoming a de-facto nuclear power.

A pause for the Olympics, and then, alas, the crisis resumes.

Washington Post Writers Group

Getting Started/Comments Policy

Getting started

  1. 1. If you frequently comment on news websites then you may already have a Disqus account. If so, click the "Login" button at the top right of the comment widget and choose whether you'd rather log in with Facebook, Twitter, Google, or a Disqus account.
  2. 2. If you've forgotten your password, Disqus will email you a link that will allow you to create a new one. Easy!
  3. 3. If you're not a member yet, Disqus will go ahead and register you. It's seamless and takes about 10 seconds.
  4. 4. To register, either go through the login process or just click in the box that says "join the discussion," type your comment, and either choose a social media platform to log you in or create a Disqus account with your email address.
  5. 5. If you use Twitter, Facebook or Google to log in, you will need to stay logged into that platform in order to comment. If you create a Disqus account instead, you'll need to remember your Disqus password. Either way, you can change your display name if you'd rather not show off your real name.
  6. 6. Don't be a huge jerk or do anything illegal, and you'll be fine.

Chattanooga Times Free Press Comments Policy

The Chattanooga Times Free Press web sites include interactive areas in which users can express opinions and share ideas and information. We cannot and do not monitor all of the material submitted to the website. Additionally, we do not control, and are not responsible for, content submitted by users. By using the web sites, you may be exposed to content that you may find offensive, indecent, inaccurate, misleading, or otherwise objectionable. You agree that you must evaluate, and bear all risks associated with, the use of the Times Free Press web sites and any content on the Times Free Press web sites, including, but not limited to, whether you should rely on such content. Notwithstanding the foregoing, you acknowledge that we shall have the right (but not the obligation) to review any content that you have submitted to the Times Free Press, and to reject, delete, disable, or remove any content that we determine, in our sole discretion, (a) does not comply with the terms and conditions of this agreement; (b) might violate any law, infringe upon the rights of third parties, or subject us to liability for any reason; or (c) might adversely affect our public image, reputation or goodwill. Moreover, we reserve the right to reject, delete, disable, or remove any content at any time, for the reasons set forth above, for any other reason, or for no reason. If you believe that any content on any of the Times Free Press websites infringes upon any copyrights that you own, please contact us pursuant to the procedures outlined in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (Title 17 U.S.C. § 512) at the following address:

Copyright Agent
The Chattanooga Times Free Press
400 East 11th Street
Chattanooga, TN 37403
Phone: 423-757-6315
Email: webeditor@timesfreepress.com


Loading...