Inheriting a Mess

Member Group : Matt Mackowiak

You can blame Donald Trump for a lot of things, but the North Korean dilemma is not one of them.

The Obama team gift-wrapped a highly complex and urgent foreign policy challenge, after doing nothing of consequence for eight years to deter or interrupt the efforts of Kim Jong Un’s regime to build nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles that threaten the U.S. mainland.

It should surprise no one that Wendy Sherman, the same State Department diplomat who negotiated the Iran deal for Mr. Obama, negotiated a similar deal with North Korea during the Clinton administration.

This week dropped several consequential developments from the Korean crisis on Mr. Trump’s desk.

Kim Jong Un delivered a New Year’s message that was both bellicose and comforting.

After months of ignoring entreaties from South Korea, Mr. Kim suddenly expressed a willingness to participate in talks on sending a North Korean delegation to the Winter Olympics, which begin on Feb. 9 in Pyeongchang, South Korea, about 50 miles south of the demilitarized zone.

The economic and security risks to the Olympics are staggering. Heads of state will be attending, hundreds of billions of dollars have been invested and billions of people will be watching the events live around the world.

The Kim regime appears to be using the Olympics as a bargaining chip, given their massive importance to South Korea and the region.

Aiming to drive a wedge between Washington and Seoul, Mr. Kim expressed an urgent desire to negotiate directly, without the U.S. involved, and required that planned joint U.S.-South Korean military drills be delayed until after the Olympics. That seems to be a reasonable demand, but the underlying crisis remains unresolved.

The Trump administration is demanding an end to the North Korean nuclear program before it relieves pressure on the regime. North Korean officials say they will never give up their nuclear program and now openly admit that they possess such weapons to ensure that the U.S. never attacks them.

It’s hard to see a middle path there.

Despite Mr. Kim’s New Year’s statement opening the door to at least short-term negotiations, President Trump saw fit to lash out on Twitter, writing provocatively: “North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un just stated that the ‘nuclear button is on his desk at all times.’ Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a nuclear button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my button works!”

This is a tense moment for the world, and especially for China and U.S. allies through east Asia – not to mention Guam, Hawaii and the U.S. west coast. Millions of people are directly in the flight path of Pyongyang’s nukes. This is a time for measured statements and robust diplomacy.

But let’s not ignore why North Korea decided to come to the negotiating table at this moment.

The Trump administration, through bilateral talks with China and sustained pressure at the U.N. Security Council, has forced the international community collectively to take more dramatic steps than ever before to pressure the Kim regime, further isolating it and making importing food and fuel harder than ever before through stepped-up sanctions.

When coupled with the show of U.S. military might in the region, Mr. Trump has presented a credible deterrent to North Korea.

Now is the time to follow that up. The pressure must continue to be increased, although a pause for the Winter Olympics is surely in everyone’s interests.

The president may be using his social media platforms to display unpredictability, to communicate directly with the world without the media’s filter, or perhaps for some deeper strategic motive. But now would be a good time for the Trump administration to display a measure of thoughtfulness, caution, calm and focus to advance U.S. security interests.

The stakes are immensely high – Mr. Kim and his generals fired 15 ballistic missiles last year and staged the country’s sixth nuclear test.

America must rise to this unique and vexing challenge to keep our country and our allies safe.

Matt Mackowiak is the president of Austin, Texas, and Washington, D.C.-based Potomac Strategy Group, a Republican consultant, a Bush administration and Bush-Cheney re-election campaign veteran and former press secretary to two U.S. senators. His national politics podcast, “Mack on Politics,” may be found on iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher and on the web at

Matt Mackowiak
Potomac Strategy Group, LLC

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