- - Thursday, February 22, 2018


Sometimes what doesn’t happen is the telling clue to what’s actually going on, like Sherlock Holmes’ “dog that didn’t bark.” Consider the case of the meeting between Washington and Pyongyang that didn’t happen at the Blue House in Seoul.

When Kim Jong-un dispatched his sister, Kim Yo-jong, along with the North’s nominal head of state, Kim Yong-nam, to the Winter Olympics earlier this month, it wasn’t merely to get a little good press for the regime, though he got that, from the credulous likes of CNN, The Washington Post and other easily gulled organs of the Western media. The new South Korean presidential administration, still green and eager to get a little good press for making nice with the north, was rooting for a meeting between the Trump administration and Rocket Man’s government.

The White House agreed to such a meeting, and the vice president was duly briefed and prepared. But the meeting, like Sherlock’s barking dog, didn’t happen. The North Koreans blinked. Mr. Pence was looking forward to “driving home the necessity of North Korea abandoning its illicit ballistic missile and nuclear programs.”

North Korea’s backing out is interpreted in some quarters as a bad sign — evidence, in the conventional wisdom, that relations between the Kim regime and the Trump administration are further deteriorating, as if they could get much worse. But it might be evidence of something else, a sudden case of North Korean cold feet. The Trump administration’s strategy of pressing “maximum pressure” on the regime in Pyongyang may be working as planned.

North Korea has a record of meeting representatives of governments from the civilized world to extract concessions, usually financial. This has happened several times. North Korea gets to soak up aid of various kinds, sometimes of money, sometimes of technology and sometimes of groceries, and offers nothing in return. The magnum opus of all misbegotten deals with North Korea is the 1994 “agreed framework,” when the Clinton administration agreed to help the North build light-water nuclear reactors, and in the meantime, while the plants were under construction, dispense oil to the energy-deprive regime. Surprise, surprise, the regime cheated, and continued with its weapons programs.

Cancellation of the meeting scheduled for Seoul’s Blue House suggests that Mr. Kim has figured out that Donald Trump is not the usual easy mark in Washington. Figuring that he was not likely to shake down Mike Pence, he decided not to waste his time, even though the North Korean delegation was likely looking forward to eating well in Seoul.

This is all to the good, because it suggests that Washington is committed to keeping the pressure on Pyongyang, with a U.S. administration that for once is not sending mixed signals. That’s the only way the Korean peninsula will be rid of Mr. Kim’s nuclear weapons. Either he will be coerced into doing the right thing, or, best of all, his regime falls. Sometimes it’s best not to pursue “the art of the deal.” Tough sanctions sometimes work better.

This has become a debate, sometimes fierce, within the White House. The president has never been a fan of direct talks so long as Mr. Kim shows no sign of having learned anything, and obviously regards President Moon Jae-in as naive, or at least foolishly credulous. He has called Mr. Moon’s overtures to North Korea “appeasement.”

Skeptics of direct dialogue point out that North Korea dashed President Obama’s hopes for opening a back channel for talks conducted out of the public eye. Mr. Trump, however, has taken pains to insist that North Korea will not be rewarded for just talk. “We’re not using a carrot to convince them to talk,” the secretary of state recently told interviewers for the CBS News program “60 Minutes.” Instead, “we’re using large sticks.”

The North Koreans have clearly learned a thing or two about playing the American academic and media establishment, if not the American government. On the very day that the vice president’s office confirmed that he intended to meet a North Korean delegation for the talks now aborted, Kim Jong-un’s sister invited President Moon to visit North Korea. This was clearly intended to make Pyongyang look open and generous, and the Americans to look obstinate and unyielding. Right on cue, some American players swooned.

“The White House and State [Department] are clumsily attempting damage control after [Mr.] Pence’s PR performance in South Korea last week,” said Prof. Lee Sung-yoon at the Fletcher School of Diplomacy at Tufts University. The Pyeongchang Olympics will be remembered as the best Olympic Games yet — for Pyongyang.” But what’s afoot are not games, but diplomacy that for once is tough and to the point.

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