Updated Feb 12, 2018

After "fire and fury," more strategic patience with North Korea

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics opening ceremony. Photo: Carl Court / Getty Images

While stopped in Tokyo en route to the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, Vice President Mike Pence signaled that the Trump administration plans to impose more sanctions on North Korea, further isolating Kim Jong-un’s regime “until it abandons its nuclear and ballistic missile programs once and for all.”

Why it matters: Last year in South Korea, Pence said, “The era of strategic patience is over.” But anyone who has worked on North Korea understands one thing: Patience is essential. Notwithstanding the president’s talk of “fire and fury,” strategic patience is his current policy. The vice president’s latest pronouncements say as much.

Pence’s comments followed the surprise withdrawal of the nomination of Korea expert Victor Cha to be U.S. ambassador to South Korea. Cha expressed skepticism of the so-called “bloody nose” option, a limited military strike to retard Pyongyang’s surge toward a demonstrated nuclear capability. While feasible in the abstract, it elevates the risk of escalation in reality. Hundreds of thousands of Korean, Japanese and American citizens would be in immediate danger.

President Trump believes the problem should have been solved years ago. It’s not due to a lack of effort. He wants China to handle it, but Beijing fears a unified democratic Korea more than a nuclear North Korea.

On his way back to Washington, Pence suggested a new openness to negotiations with Pyongyang, a step the president seemed to reject just weeks ago. South Korea will try to jump start that process after the Olympics, but a substantive breakthrough is unlikely. North Korea long ago perfected the art of “talks about talks” while preserving its nuclear options.

The bottom line: Kim’s odious regime may implode some day, but not anytime soon, and there’s little prospect “Rocket Man” will give up his nukes and missiles to someone he considers a “deranged dotard.” For now, deterrence is the only realistic answer.

P.J. Crowley is a former Assistant Secretary of State and author of "Red Line: American Foreign Policy in a Time of Fractured Politics and Failing States."

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