By Walter Russell Mead
Feb. 12, 2018 6:41 p.m. ET
The toughest event at this year’s Winter Olympics has turned out to be the diplomatic lunge. Kim Yo Jong, sister of North Korea’s ruthless dictator, emerged as the early favorite, dazzling her hosts and earning points for inviting South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in to visit Pyongyang. The media went into full fanboy mode, giving Ms. Kim the best publicity since Vogue magazine gushed in 2011 that Bashar al-Assad’s wife was “the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies . . . a thin, long-limbed beauty with a trained analytic mind.”
In contrast, a dour Mike Pence not only avoided Ms. Kim during Friday’s opening ceremonies but did not stand when the “united” Korean athletic team was introduced, which angered some South Koreans. The Trump administration has assiduously worked to isolate North Korea; is Ms. Kim’s charm offensive now driving a wedge between the U.S. and the South?
The answer, at least for now, turns out to be no. In the past, South Korean presidents who jumped at North Korean offers of talks and exchanges ended up suffering political consequences when Pyongyang failed to follow up with real concessions. Moon Jae-in was too smart and too cautious to take the bait. Rather than accepting the invitation to Pyongyang, he urged the Kim regime to talk directly with the U.S.
By the time the buzzer sounded, it was Mr. Moon who had won the diplomatic gold medal, while Ms. Kim went home empty-handed. Mr. Moon got a political boost from Ms. Kim’s visit and the appearance of a thaw between the Koreas, but he avoided the backlash from appearing naive or overeager. He also reminded the Americans that South Korea cannot be taken for granted; without Seoul’s support, the Trump administration’s North Korea policy is unsustainable.
That matters, since North Korea has become the centerpiece of President Trump’s emerging foreign policy. By assembling the most severe and comprehensive sanctions ever levied against the reclusive state, while threatening military action, the U.S. hopes to force North Korea to the nuclear bargaining table.
This has been Mr. Trump’s most effective diplomatic and political effort to date. The administration has moved B-1 bombers and F-35 fighters to the Korean Peninsula during annual military exercises. It has reached out diplomatically to countries ranging from China to Indonesia. It has coordinated speeches by officials at the Pentagon, State Department and White House to keep the government on message.
This is the sort of orchestration that the Trump administration, and the president in particular, is supposed to be too undisciplined to carry out. The relative success of the North Korea process suggests that Mr. Trump and his staff may be more capable than critics expected in operating the complex machinery of American power.
Even so, it is far from clear that any sanctions, however draconian, can force the North Korean regime to give up the nuclear weapons that represent not just the Kim dynasty’s greatest achievement but the key to its long-term survival. Widespread famine in the 1990s killed up to three million people, out of a total population of 23 million. Yet that neither loosened the regime’s grip on power nor persuaded it to change course. A government that is willing to watch its people die en masse from starvation is an unpromising target for economic pressure.
Yet the military option is hardly appetizing. Past presidents rejected the idea of war against a nonnuclear North Korea; attacking now that it has dozens of nuclear weapons is even less attractive. In the event of war, North Korea could devastate Seoul or Tokyo. China could intervene, widening the conflict. The risks are extraordinary and to some degree incalculable. If South Korea believed that the U.S. was poised to launch a war, President Moon might move quickly to try to keep his country out of it. From Seoul’s point of view, its alliance with the U.S. is intended to prevent a war with Pyongyang, not to provoke one.
All this is to say that the effort to denuclearize North Korea is an uphill climb. That does not mean the effort is futile or should not be made. Sometimes diplomacy is about taking a series of small steps without having the summit in view. As you trek patiently upward, new paths appear—and new choices have to be made.
An important aspect of this kind of slow diplomatic slog is the need to keep America’s alliances united. The Winter Olympics kerfuffle should remind the White House that maintaining coordinated policies with Mr. Moon will be vital in the months and years to come. Kim Yo Jong and her big brother will be watching.