Backing away from brinkmanship?

Even in a global community where the international relations agenda is teeming with other issues of pressing importance – the Syrian crisis and its related superpower confrontation; the resurfacing geo-political tensions in the Middle East; political instability linked to regime change in Africa; the protracted crisis confronting the Maduro administration in Venezuela; and Russia’s fast-eroding relationship with the West –  no current global development comes close to matching the recent dramatic turn of events than relations between the United States and North Korea. Perhaps not surprisingly, it took what appeared to be the real threat of a nuclear faceoff to trigger a hurried and still unfolding diplomatic effort to try to get Pyongyang and Washington to sit down together.

A prevailing atmosphere of mixed signals and apparent pre-conditions for talks emanating chiefly from the US administration – or perhaps, more accurately from US President Donald Trump himself – still leaves a meeting between the two leaders somewhat up in the air, though it can hardly be denied that the altogether unexpected confirmation from both Kim and Trump that they are prepared to sit down together has to go down as perhaps the most dramatic global diplomatic development anywhere in decades.

It comes after many months of continual decline in what, hitherto, had already been a heavily toxic relationship between the two countries. More recently, significant further slippage has occurred in the wake of North Korea’s test-firing of more than twenty Inter Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM) in a matter of months.  Since then, things have taken a more worrisome turn in the wake of Pyongyang’s test-firing of its Hwasong-15 missile late last year and its accompanying claim that the device had the capacity to deliver a “super-large heavy warhead,” that could reach mainland United States targets. Trump had himself sought to up the ante, threatening his now famous “fire and fury” response whilst berating South Korea for being soft in its approach to treating with the north.

For sheer high drama and global attention-getting, nothing, it was felt, could upstage Pyong-yang’s repeated missile tests and the accompanying high-octane invective that underlined President Trump’s responses; and yet, whilst the environment, fast-moving and unpredictable as it has become,  is still laden with uncertainty, it has, since earlier this year, delivered a quite breathtaking burst of diplomacy, beginning with the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics initiative, that significantly redirects the narrative even if it still has to be said that the longer-term picture remains far from clear.

From Donald Trump’s perspective the seeming diplomatic breakthrough can be accounted for by his own tough-talking to Pyongyang. The soberer and arguably more valid view, is that it is the still lingering desire on the part of the two Koreas to maintain at least a working bilateral relationship that has done more to take the process forward. Unquestionably, South Korea’s President, Moon Jae-in has to take considerable credit in seeking to keep relations with the north on an even keel (never mind the fact that there could be more tough-talking across the border once the next round of joint military exercises between the United States and South Korea begins). It is largely the pragmatic levelheadedness of President Moon’s administration and of course the acquiescence of Kim, that facilitated the recent Winter Games Diplomatic Offensive at a time when north-south relations were threatening to go off the rails.

On March 5, Moon outdid the Winter Games diplomatic offensive, dispatching a 10-member delegation on a demarche to Pyongyang, the outcome of which – not least agreement on a possible meeting between North Korea’s Kim and Trump ‒ was not only altogether unexpected but, in a very real sense, spectacular, whatever the preconditions and lingering uncertainties that still surround such a meeting.

It is North Korea’s backing away from what had seemed to be a determined excursion into brinkmanship that has been the more surprising development. The signal from Pyongyang that a Kim-Trump meeting is conceivable,  (and more significantly that Pyongyang might be disposed to trading its nuclear weapons programme for strong security guarantees) points to Pyongyang’s concern with the possible regime survival considerations that attend this issue.

No less surprising has been the disclosure that Trump, after his well-remembered “Rocket Man” remark directed at Kim now says he is prepared to meet with the North Korean leader, though the point cannot be made too strongly nor too frequently that the whole ambience surrounding the current public discourse about talks is a decidedly fluid one.

Still, this would appear to be the most promising ever opportunity for any kind of discourse between the leaders of the United States and North Korea. Such talks and a positive outcome, can take the international community safely over the most recent (and arguably the most worrisome) nuclear hurdle, offering up a game-changer for the security of the Korean peninsula as much as for the wider international community. President Moon’s perspective that the ensuing diplomatic offensive (which has now been extended to embrace other key Asian countries including China and Japan) “has the potential to change world history,” is by no means an exaggeration.

A critical factor in determining the outcome of a Kim-Trump meeting is whether or not verifiable agreement can be reached on North Korea’s abandonment of its nuclear weapons programme, given everything that it would have invested in creating what it considers to be the surest guarantee of its security. Trump, in the wake of his tough rhetoric over many months, is likely to accept nothing less. There are other things, however, that Pyongyang is bound to consider, not least, the reliability of such security guarantees as it might extract from talks with the United States. North Korea would also not be unmindful of the gains to be derived from existing economic sanctions that have stifled the country for years and the likelihood that these might be lifted as part of a wider deal. There is, too, the opportunity that a diplomatic breakthrough could create a normalized interface between North Korea and the rest of the international community with all of the benefits that could accrue therefrom.

What must unquestionably be described as significant diplomatic progress in the quest for a relationship between Washington and Pyongyang, underpinned, at the very least, by a reduced level of bellicosity remains, however, hostage to what, in the circumstances is a slippery diplomatic path. It would be naïve, to say the least, to assume, that the two key players, both idiosyncratic and unpredictable in their separate ways, will retain their ‘balance’ in the period ahead. A great deal still depends on the persistence of what we have already seen of the considerable diplomatic skills of South Korea’s President Moon whose country, of course, has much at stake here.

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