A breakthrough in North Korea

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Shahid M Amin

IN the last few weeks, North Korea has taken a dramatic U-turn in its policy towards USA. It announced on April 20, 2018 that it will halt missile and nuclear tests and would be shutting down a test site. Earlier, an announcement had been made that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un would be holding a summit meeting with US President Trump. The halt of nuclear testing fulfils a pledge that the mercurial Kim Jong Un had made, ahead of his planned summit meeting with Trump, which might take place next month. These developments are in sharp contrast with the abusive messages Kim Jong Un and Trump had been exchanging ever since the latter took over as US President, and even during Trump’s long presidential campaign. In the recent past, to show his defiance of the US, among other considerations, Kim Jong Un carried out several missile and nuclear tests. He has often threatened that his country has the capability to attack targets deep inside the US mainland. In their war of words, Trump derided Kim Jong Un as the “rocket man” and had threatened to use overwhelming force to annihilate North Korea. All such war talk seemed highly dangerous and was creating deep fear and anxiety, particularly among North Korea’s immediate neighbours, South Korea and Japan, which would suffer the most in case of a nuclear war.
Ever since their independence and partition, the two parts of Korea have been at loggerheads. The north has been a dictatorial Communist regime, strong in military power but economically hollow, while the south has prospered economically. They fought a bloody war in 1950-53, which became an international war with the involvement of USA and China, and others. They also came close to fighting each other on several other occasions. But a change in North Korea’s stance became apparent in February 2018 when it belatedly decided to take part in the Winter Olympics being held in South Korea. There was a hint of detente when Kim Jong Un decided to send his sister and close aide Kim Yo Jong to the winter games. She met the South Korean President in signs of a thaw. Following some more diplomatic exchanges, the decision was made to hold a US-North Korea Summit meeting. This was confirmed on March 8, 2018, by the White House. But it also said that “in the meantime, all sanctions and maximum pressure must remain.”
The planned US-North Korea Summit would be the first time that a sitting US President will be meeting the leader of North Korea. (Two ex-Presidents Carter and Clinton did visit North Korea some years ago, but that was not in an official capacity.) The Trump-Kim Jong Un summit looks like a breakthrough in US-North Korea relations. However, prudence demands that we recall that in the past three decades, there have been some other occasions as well when agreement was reached between Washington and Pyongyang on some of the divisive issues, including North Korea’s nuclear and missile development programmes and testing, sanctions against North Korea, denuclearization and disarmament of the Korean peninsula, and the elusive issue of union of the two Koreas. But each time, the hopes raised were dashed to the ground due to one reason or the other, amidst accusations of breach of promise between the two sides. Around 2003, former President George Bush Jr. vitiated the atmosphere by describing North Korea as part of the ‘axis of evil’ (along with Iran and Saddam’s Iraq). The two US allies in the region, Japan and South Korea, sometimes took an even tougher line towards North Korea and thwarted agreement. Throughout this period, the only country that had some influence in reclusive North Korea (sometimes also called the Hermit Kingdom) was China, which must be credited for its restraining influence all along, including facilitation of the planned US-North Korea Summit.
How should one explain this change of events in Korea that look like a breakthrough? Trump is widely criticized for his boorish behaviour and threatening posture, but clearly this has worked in the case of North Korea. For his part, Kim Jong Un is no less a loud-talking, sabre-rattling, leader. Perhaps these two complement each other. In case their Summit meeting produces a meaningful agreement, all would be forgiven and forgotten and Trump and Kim Jong Un would presumably be getting Nobel Prize for Peace. The denuclearisation of Korea and the possible withdrawal of US forces from the peninsula would be epoch-making developments.
But the possibility cannot be ruled out that the two leaders, each a megalomaniac and highly unpredictable, might quarrel at the Summit, in which case the threat to peace would become greater than ever before. It would be wise to do solid spadework ahead of this meeting through the diplomatic channel. Already, the incoming US Secretary of State and current CIA chief Mike Pompeo has made a secret trip to Pyongyang and met Kim Jong Un. Trump used his favourite Tweet to declare on April 18 that the meeting “went very smoothly and a good relationship was formed. Details of Summit are being worked out now.” Some experts have been of the view that there is a method in the madness of Kim Jong Un, who has often talked loosely about starting a nuclear war. It is likely that he has been using the nuclear and missile threats as a card to secure respectability, thereby putting an end to his country’s isolation, and securing foreign economic aid that his country so badly needs.
— The writer served as Pakistan’s Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Soviet Union, France, Nigeria and Libya.

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