Tuesday’s summit between President Trump and Chairman Kim Jong-un is a very positive development. At a time of escalating militarisation and increasingly dangerous policy developments – the US’s new nuclear posture review and recent strategic defence review to name but two – an outbreak of dialogue in an exceptionally tense region is a welcome step.
Commentators are eager to say that the summit statement is nothing new, but the key is that it has taken place. Just months ago we were looking at the possibility of nuclear war. Today the world has pulled back from the brink. Only cynics would think that a negligible achievement.
This is the first meeting between a sitting US president and a North Korean leader. Negotiations were under way for such a meeting in the late 1990s – indeed US secretary of state Madeleine Albright held talks with Kim Jong-il in 2000, to prepare for him to meet with President Clinton. These positive initiatives were completely derailed by the arrival on the scene of President Bush in 2001 who promptly named North Korea part of the Axis of Evil.
The current crisis dates from that catastrophic speech – North Korea subsequently withdrew from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty saying it had a ‘deterrent’ need to develop nuclear weapons to safeguard its security and rapidly took steps to do so. But the longer roots of the problem are found in the disastrous Korean war which lasted three years in the early 1950s, cost the lives of an estimated five million people and left the peninsula almost entirely destroyed. Furthermore, while the war ended in armistice in 1953, a peace treaty has never been concluded and so a stalemate persists with North and South Korea technically still at war.
Since North Korean withdrawal from the NPT in 2003, there have been repeated rounds of negotiations, many through the Six Party talks with South Korea, North Korea, China, Japan, Russia and the United States. Throughout it has been clear that North Korea’s primary goal is to bring a formal end to the war with security guarantees from the US that it will not come under attack. It has also sought to secure energy supplies and economic engagement. Far from wishing to remain completely closed to the world, it has made tentative steps in the direction of foreign investment and market development through its Rason Special Economic Zone, modelled on China’s very successful SEZs. In a sense it has used its nuclear weapons programme to leverage access to international engagement although this seems a high risk and potentially counter-productive strategy.
So it may be that the current negotiations can provide what both sides want – as the statement puts it:
“President Trump committed to provide security guarantees to the DPRK, and Chairman Kim Jong Un reaffirmed his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
This really encapsulates it all although of course the devil is in the detail. The leaders’ subsequent remarks shed a little more light and will go some way towards making the fine words a reality – such as Trump’s commitment to halt his provocative ‘war games’. These exercises included flying nuclear capable bombers close to North Korea’s border. So Trump’s step back is a step towards denuclearisation too, as well as North Korea’s destruction of nuclear test centres.
But the truth is, if this latest initiative can be made to work, not only will we all be the winners and the world a safer place, but the peoples of Korea will finally be able to draw a line under almost seven decades of conflict and insecurity and contribute to a greater and truly lasting peace in the region.