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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 October 2018

North and South Korea: an improbable alliance for unpredictable times

A year ago, such close relations between these old enemies would have seemed like the stuff of fantasy

South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un summit talks ended with a set of sweeping agreements. AP
South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un summit talks ended with a set of sweeping agreements. AP

When US President Donald Trump took to the podium at the United Nations exactly one year ago and warned North Korea would be “totally destroyed” if America was forced to defend itself, the world seemed one impetuous decision from catastrophe. “Rocket man is on a suicide mission,” said Mr Trump, as Pyongyang’s chair lay empty, its ambassador to the UN having marched out in protest. Just a month earlier, North Korea had threatened to fire ballistic missiles near the US territory of Guam.

But in the 12 months since, headway has been made at almost breakneck speed, and with each new development the likelihood of peace on the Korean peninsula grows. In January, the two Koreas negotiated for the first time in two years. Three months later, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un made history when he entered the South, vowing to end hostility and reduce arsenals. In June, Mr Trump and Mr Kim shook hands in a historic meeting in Singapore and, this week, the South Korean President Moon Jae-in visited Pyongyang in pursuit of a breakthrough.

The North has now reportedly agreed to dismantle a key missile test site, connect roads and railways with the South and continue its march towards denuclearisation.

Most astonishingly, the two Koreas will launch a joint bid to host the 2032 Olympics. The prospect of thousands of nations flocking to North Korea – long the world’s most politically isolated state – would have seemed fanciful just months ago.

Even a superficial understanding of nuclear warfare is sufficient to generate immense fear of a confrontation between the US and North Korea. And while peace now looks more probable than ever, a number of questions linger, most notably why Mr Kim would surrender his nuclear deterrent when it has, for three generations, been the sole source of North Korea’s international leverage. “There will be challenges and trials, but the more we overcome them the stronger we will become,” said Mr Kim.

It is also clear that the greatest progress on this once intractable situation has been orchestrated by the two Koreas themselves.

The US president deserves some credit for defying protocol to breach the divide, but on the peninsula – as in Washington – the Trump doctrine reigns. It works broadly as follows: Mr Trump makes spectacular pronouncements and his administration, diplomats and even foreign leaders set about realising them.

But the pursuit of spectacle poses its own problems. Mr Trump’s escalating trade war with China – North Korea’s biggest ally and benefactor – for instance, will not help peace efforts.

And after an astonishing year, we must not start to believe in the inevitability of a lasting accord. Because when it comes to the world’s two most mercurial leaders, the descent into conflict will always be shorter than the road to peace.