A chance for peace lost for now

Friday, May 25, 2018

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Anyone who was keenly observing the high-stakes brinkmanship between US President Donald Trump and North Korean President Kim Jong-un over recent months should not have been surprised by Mr Trump's cancellation of what would have been a historic summit between both leaders.

Mr Trump, who announced the brakes on the summit yesterday, blamed “tremendous anger and open hostility” by the North Koreans, apparently sparked by Pyongyang's caustic labelling of US Vice-President Mike Pence as “ignorant and stupid”.

Like many people across the world, we had hoped that this summit, which was scheduled for June 12 in Singapore, would have laid the foundation for peace, particularly on the Korean Peninsula.

Indeed, just last month in this space we pointed out that the move towards that peace shows that diplomacy is always possible, but sometimes a palpable threat of use of force is necessary to galvanise the parties to resort to diplomacy.

We had come to that conclusion based on the fact that in the last year there has been an escalation of disparaging rhetoric and threats between presidents Kim and Trump and, while China helped to calm North Korea, the unpredictable nature of Mr Trump made his expressed willingness to use nuclear weapons a real possibility, which was not lost on North Korea.

In fact, international news reports told us that in preparation for the proposed summit, Mr Kim had made good on his promise to demolish North Korea's nuclear test site. But even after that there was growing frustration — and fresh antagonistic rhetoric — from Pyongyang over comments attributed to Mr Trump's aides about Washington's expectations for “denuclearisation” in North Korea.

As we have stated before, we believe that the North Koreans, remembering the Korean War, harbour a genuine fear that the US could attack them with nuclear weapons.

Over the past number of years, the North Korean strategy has been to indicate that they are prepared to complete or perfect the development of nuclear weapons. Their firing of rockets was to give the threat credibility and to stoke the fears of the Japanese to, in turn, put fear into the US on whom they rely for a nuclear shield.

Yesterday, in his letter to President Kim cancelling the summit, President Trump warned that South Korea and Japan stood ready to respond, along with the United States, “should foolish or reckless acts be taken by North Korea”.

He also threw in a threat of sorts about the US's military might, saying: “You talk about your nuclear capabilities, but ours are so massive and powerful that I pray to God they will never have to be used.”

This nuclear sabre-rattling is really unnecessary, especially as Mr Trump has offered some hope that the talks could still take place, telling Mr Kim that “it's possible... at some later date”.

In response, the North Koreans issued a statement saying they are still “willing to give the US time and opportunities” to reconsider talks “at any time, at any format”. They also described Mr Trump's decision as “unexpected” and “very regrettable”.

Whether President Trump's decision will make the situation worse is yet to be seen. Analysts have speculated that President Kim could take offence at Washington's hard-nosed approach, especially after he released American detainees and destroyed a nuclear site.

What we do know, though, is that,as it now stands, a good opportunity to work out a peace agreement has been lost. Our hope is for a reversal of that.

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