When South Korea and North Korea agreed to march into the Winter Olympics under a single flag, it seemed as though sunshine had suddenly burst through the clouds over a dark part of the world. The two countries, who have been pointing sabers at one another for 65 years, appeared to be acting to reduce tensions.
They'll even field a joint women's hockey team.
But a closer look, and later developments, tell a less cheery story.
The opening ceremonies included North Korean musicians singing propaganda, a 100-woman cheerleading squad, and VIP treatment for a delegation led by two top Pyongyang officials with careers in burnishing the image of the northern tyranny. Kim Yo Jong, the dictator's sister, is attending the games, flouting the United Nations' sanction on her for running the state's ruthlessly effective censorship and propaganda operations.
What we're watching is quite different from thawing relations between two neighbors. It is appeasement and the normalization of a murderous dictatorship.
Were appeasement an event at the Olympics, South Korean President Moon Jae-in would win gold and maybe set a world record. As with South Korea's failed sunshine policy of 1998-2008, today's Olympian appeasement is a recipe for disaster. It buys North Korea time to perfect its nuclear strike capability.
This would be bad by itself, but making matters worse is that President Trump doesn't seem to recognize what's going on under his nose. In his State of the Union address, the president declared that his "maximum pressure" approach was working.
Not so much, Mr. President. That strategy is dead and buried, although you have not noticed, and the opening ceremonies will dance on its grave.
Chinese President Xi Jinping is breaking his promise to put pressure on Kim Jong Un to change his behavior. China and Russia are, rather, laughing as they actively undermine U.N. sanctions against Pyongyang, thereby keeping Kim's regime afloat and his belly rotund. Were China actually helping American efforts, we'd see Chinese lockouts of North Korean money flows and a genuine crackdown on Kim's energy imports.
It gets worse. With perhaps the exception of Japan, no American ally is pledging more than words to support Trump against the North Korean threat.
Time is not on America's side.
The lack of recent ballistic missile tests could be a sign of North Korea softening, but it is more likely to be a sign of Kim's growing capability and confidence. The latest missile test last November indicated that Kim can strike Washington, D.C. The only outstanding issue would now seem to be the timetable for North Korea perfecting a warhead vehicle that can survive atmospheric reentry and hit its target. Much of that work can be done in a laboratory. North Korea doesn't need highly advanced intercontinental ballistic missiles of the kind China and Russia possess. It needs just one ICBM to give it confidence that American policymakers will avoid risking a showdown.
Once Kim arrives at that point, and CIA Director Mike Pompeo says he will do so in a matter of months, Trump will be left with just two very unpleasant choices.
Either he lets America live with a possibly irrational North Korea able to launch nuclear weapons against U.S. cities, or he could launch a military attack and risk a war that might kill hundreds of thousands of civilians.
Trump still has time to stop this dangerous progression, but not much.
He should call out Moon and Xi, and Russian President Vladimir Putin, by name. He should state his grave disappointment that Xi and Putin have betrayed their U.N. sanctions votes, and that Moon has abandoned the maximum pressure strategy for a bit of Olympic flag-waving. He should also recommit that his first priority is American security and that delivering on that priority is not subject to a South Korean veto.
Second, the moment the Olympics end, Trump should order the U.S. military, with regional allies Australia and Japan if possible, to enforce U.N. sanctions and inspect vessels shipping illegal supplies to the hermit kingdom. Smugglers should wake up to find their bank accounts empty and, more threateningly, their car tires slashed.
Trump should ask for NATO contributions towards a military buildup on Guam, which is far enough away from South Korea to avoid political sensitivities, but close enough to provide assistance should war break out.
Citing evidence of Chinese and Russian noncompliance with U.N. sanctions, the president should also instruct the Treasury Department to introduce immediate sanctions on Chinese and Russian financial entities that operate Pyongyang's capital lifeline.
But most of all, Trump must wake up and take action. His maximum pressure strategy is toast. Its resuscitation is still possible, but diplomacy is dying in the darkness gathering over the Korean peninsula.