The whiff of euphoria still hangs over the peace meeting between Kim Jong-un of North Korea and President Moon Jae-in of South Korea at the end of last week. Noises of doubt, and skepticism even, have been heard here and there, it is true – from South East Asia, the USA and here in the UK.
Despite all the talk of taking the nukes out of the Korean peninsula and turning the uneasy armistice that ended the Korean war in 1953 into a genuine peace treaty, John Everard, one of the most distinguished British envoys to Pyongyang, has urged caution. A peace process will take a long time, and on past experience, the whole initiative may just collapse.
At the weekend Pyongyang and Seoul continued to wax lyrical about the path to peace and mutual understanding. North Korea has said it will dismantle one of its three main test sites for nuclear weapons at Punggye-ri, which has collapsed partly anyway from the impact of the explosions. International experts and journalists are to be invited to inspect the site during the clean-up process – and visitors from the US are very welcome.
Furthermore, Kim Jong-Un has said he is prepared to get rid of nuclear weapons provided his regime is recognised by international treaty, with South Korea and its allies signing a pledge not to attack him and his country. President Trump has hailed the developments as a major breakthrough – in which we are to assume, of course, that he is the prime architect.
He aims to seal the deal permanently in a meeting with the North Korea’s Young Leader – “in the next four weeks or so.” The venue, and a lot more besides, still has to be decided.
There is now a real chance that the main attraction of the foreign news agenda over the past weekend – the Kim and Moon peace stroll, and Trump’s cheering from the stands – could grow to be a main distraction over the coming month. It could deflect attention from more urgent matters of nuclear war and peace.
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The main elements to a settlement with North Korea will take a long time to negotiate, and even longer to achieve. Trump has demanded immediate abandonment of nuclear weapons by Kim Jong-Un. This brings to the borders of fantasy diplomacy. Without his nukes, Kim and his dynasty are vulnerable, and could face oblivion. So they won’t be surrendering them any time soon.
Kim needs a treaty that guarantees recognition and respect of his regime. The whole raison d’etre since 1948 of the dynasty founded by his grandfather Kim Il Sung is based on uniting the Korean peninsula under their rule and ideology.
The best that can be hoped for in the short term is a moratorium and a freeze on Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal. It will be very hard to inspect and monitor. There have been two previous peace meetings between the leaders of the north and south, in 2000 and 2007, and they came to nothing. In 1994 Bill Clinton thought he had a deal for North Korea to give up nuclear weapons development, in return for subsidising two civil nuclear reactors. It didn’t work out, and weapons development continued, covertly.
Kim Jong-Un is a gamble for his long-term survival. In this the crucial international partner is China, much more so than the USA. Given the dire state of the North Korean economy – even regime sources have begun admitting that the military programmes have cost too dear – it is what China can do in terms of lifting sanctions, buying North Korean exports, and mediation that will ensure stability in the peninsula, rather than the bluster-and-tweet show from the White House.
Meanwhile, team Trump seems almost to be stampeding towards another nuclear crisis – this time with Iran. Despite interventions from Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron, Donald Trump has indicated that he intends to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, the JCPOA -joint comprehensive plan of action of 2015 – unless he can radically overhaul it. He wants to get rid of the “sunset clauses”, which are said to allow Iran to resume building nuclear weapons in 2025. The other five partners to the agreement, Russia, China, UK, France and Germany dispute this. The High Representative of the EU for foreign and security affairs, Federica Mogherini, says that the agreement cannot be renegotiated under its present terms. She has also stated that Mr Trump is wrong to assert Iran has broken key parts of the JCPOA. The inspectors of the IAEA – the international atomic energy authority – have generally found full compliance.
So from threatening nuclear confrontation in one part of Asia, Korea, Mr Trump seems to be conniving at triggering a nuclear arms race at the other end of the continent, on the Gulf. That will be the result of the “fix it or nix it” approach to the JCPOA agreement by Trump, his new secretary of state Mike Pompeo, and their Israeli allies. Both the Korean and Iran portfolios demand time, attention to detail and strategic patience – attributes not even Mr Trump’s friends accuse him of having in abundance.
If Korea and Iran aren’t demanding enough, there is now the growing storm in Gaza. The day Mr Kim and Mr Moon shook hands across the DMZ, Israeli forces confronted another demonstration on the borders of the Gaza strip. Four died, one an unarmed 15-year old, and some 170 were injured. Conditions inside Gaza are deteriorating, intermittent, electricity, dwindling water and sewage in the street. Bankruptcy looms in the standoff between the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority on the West Bank and the Hamas regime in Gaza itself.
Despair is compounded by the lack of jobs an opportunity for most under the age of 25.
In the past month of the ‘Great March of Return’ demonstrations on the edges of Gaza, Amnesty International has reported 45 Palestinian demonstrators killed and more than 6,000 injured. The culmination is expected on 15th May, known as the Nakba (catastrophe) to Palestinians. It is the day on which Israelis celebrate the foundation of the independent state of Israel, 70 years ago.
This year on 14th May, the day before the anniversary, Mr Trump has let it be known that he will honour his election pledge to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Given the present climate of tension in Gaza, Israel and the region, it’s a bit like pouring oil on troubled waters, and setting light to it.