With optimism prevailing even as the threat to peace looms larger, one avenue perhaps remains
For the regime governing North Korea it was cause for celebration, but for the rest of the world, last week’s test firing of a dangerous new weapon was very much a matter of grave concern. State media published photos of supreme leader Kim Jong-un laughing and hugging his rocket scientists following the launch. Kim was quoted as saying the North had built “the most perfect weapons system in the world” and he was ready to use it against the United States if attacked.
The media reports claimed the Hwasong-12 “medium-long-range” ground-to-ground ballistic missile could carry a heavy nuclear warhead as far as the US mainland. “The Pacific operations region” is within “sighting range for a strike”, they warned.
While weapons specialists elsewhere expressed doubt that the missile had such unprecedented reach, the test itself was highly significant, given current anxieties. It succeeded in killing several birds with a single stone.
First, it posed a direct challenge to new South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who assumed office just days before test. He had campaigned on a promise to reverse his predecessor’s hard-line stance on the North Korea, preferring negotiation with Pyongyang. Hours after the missile launch, following an emergency meeting with security advisers, he reiterated that position. Moon might be unswerving in his optimism about dialogue with the North, but he is entirely dependent on Pyongyang’s willingness to respond, and at the moment Kim instead seems solely interested in flexing military muscles.
Washington, in its response to the missile test, called on “all nations to implement far stronger sanctions” against North Korea. That strategy too appears overly optimistic. The international community continues to hope that China – the only country with any meaningful leverage in Pyongyang – can temper Kim’s belligerence. Yet the test coincided with a global conference in Beijing regarding China’s US$1.8-trillion “One Belt, One Road” initiative. The test might be seen as a slap in the face to Chinese President Xi Jinping, belligerence compounded by arrogance.
It’s becoming clear that Beijing might actually lack the ability to curb Kim’s penchant for destabilising regional geopolitics. The time for talk may have already passed, and yet efforts must be sustained.
The US is by policy unwilling to negotiate with the North Koreans unless they yield their nuclear-arsenal programme. President Donald Trump’s reckless declaration last week that he would be “honoured” to meet Kim under the right circumstances had to be later cushioned, as is often the case with his pronouncements. The White House press secretary pointed out that “clearly conditions are not there right now” and Pyongyang would first have to cease its provocations.
The North and the US have not formally spoken since 2008, when the six-nation talks were seeking to halt Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions. Those discussions went nowhere and are unlikely to resume anytime soon. In lieu of that, it’s possible that Choi Sun-hee, the North’s top diplomat in charge of relations with the US, might gain fresh ground in his so-called “Track 2” meetings with retired American officials and scholars. These more informal meetings take place in Norway and cover a range of issues beyond the nuclear conundrum. They might just be hope’s last repository.