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What Trump is getting right about North Korea

  • In times of possible military conflict, a president needs to be very clear with the American people.
  • So far, President Trump is being unusually clear and consistent on North Korea.
  • Here's what he needs to do next.
Sailors conduct flight operations on the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) flight deck in the South China Sea
Matt Brown | Handout | REUTERS
Sailors conduct flight operations on the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) flight deck in the South China Sea

What does President Donald Trump need the most as tensions with the rogue leaders of North Korea continue to escalate? It's a simple but essential question to ask right now, and it has a simple and essential answer: Clarity. And so far, President Trump is actually providing it.

Low stakes endeavors are rare for any president of the United States. But that's especially true when military action is being considered or already underway. In those times, it's crucial for a president to be clear in his or her messaging. The public, and that includes America's allies and enemies, needs to know why military action is necessary and what the next steps may be.

The public is fully aware that Kim Jong Un is pursuing nuclear weapons and threatening the U.S. and our allies, so convincing them that something needs to be done is the easy part and will help guard against any "Trump is starting a war" nonsense.

The tougher job in this case is to ease concerns that tough talk might set off North Korea unnecessarily and lead to American military action in North Korea, or a much more serious military or economic conflict with China.

In what may be a surprise for those who consider President Trump to always be overly boorish and combative in his messaging, he's doing it right so far. This is especially the case with the way he's diplomatically framed the handling of North Korea as something where China can play a positive role:

But another side of the Trump administration's messaging clarity is harsher, and necessarily so. That would be Vice President Mike Pence's statement Sunday that the "era of strategic patience" is over with North Korea.

The decision to send the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier group into the waters off the Korean Peninsula is clearer still. For those who cling to the idea that no provocation or tough talk concerning North Korea is going to produce good results, the last 20+ years stand in stark contradiction to that belief.

Softer talk and action in relation to Kim Jong Un and his late father for many years have resulted in this nuclear threat from Pyongyang. No one can reasonably argue that what the situation needs now is more of the same.

That leaves us with the question of what comes next.

President Trump has been letting the public know that he's still working with China to resolve the threat, again providing a clear message to the public.

Going into detail about what he'd do militarily runs contrary to Trump's oft-repeated boast that he doesn't believe in telling our enemies when and how he's going to attack them. That should not preclude him from assuring the American people that he isn't looking for a massive invasion or longstanding engagement in the area.

At this point the most important thing for Trump to do is to keep doing what he's doing: Working with China and making public as much of that work as possible. He needs to remind everyone that North Korea cannot be allowed to threaten everyone in the region and beyond. And he needs to continue to show that he trusts the U.S. military to handle the situation properly even as it enters hostile waters.

While President Trump adjusts his positions on so many other topics like trade, health care, and Russia, he's remained steadfast and clear in regards to North Korea. And that's exactly what the world has needed for a long time when it comes to the glorified gangsters running things in Pyongyang.

Commentary by Jake Novak, CNBC.com senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.