Over recent weeks, events involving North Korea have been dramatic, to say the least. In rapid succession, we have gone from Pyongyang’s surprise participation in the Winter Olympics to a highly choreographed and visually compelling meeting between the leaders of the two Koreas. This is all prelude to an imminent Summit between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump. All of this represents a sudden break in a narrative that began with the Korean War, followed by 70 years of deep hostility and hair-trigger military preparations on both sides of the DMZ, and culminating in Pyongyang’s threats to attack the US mainland.
The astonishing moments were too many to count during the summit on Friday, April 27 between North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and South Korea’s Moon Jae-in. Kim pulling Moon over to the northern side of the border in an unscripted move, Kim and Moon marching down the red carpet to the tune of traditional Korean music, Kim’s team of bodyguards running alongside his Mercedes Benz when he went back into the north—it’s almost impossible to pick out one moment as more astounding than other.
At a time when “ordinary” doesn’t seem to exist in Korean affairs, Kim Jong-un’s recent visit to China affirmed that for all the change, some fundamentals remain the same on the Korean peninsula. Not that the trip was clearly or easily foreseen. The visit was Kim’s first public one to a foreign country since he came to power in late 2011. The first concrete signs that a high official was travelling from North Korea to China came in the shape of added security along the railway route from Pyongyang to Beijing, at Dandong station in China, across from the North Korean border town of Sinuiju. Both North Korean and Chinese authorities kept the visit secret, and it was only confirmed when the countries’ media outlets reported it after it happened.
The news that North Korea’s Kim Jong-un has invited Donald Trump for talks, and that Trump has accepted, is surely a breakthrough given the past months of sky-high tensions over North Korea’s nuclear and missiles program. The two are tentatively set to meet in May of this year, but there is still a long way to go: talks could falter at the planning stage over issues such as what should be on the table, or where the parties should meet (or who should represent the countries). But for now, this is at least a step back from the brink that the world looked to be standing at only a few weeks or months ago.
The recently finished 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea took place amidst some of the highest tensions in years around North Korea’s nuclear program. It comes as no surprise that the games would be—and were—about far more than sports, particularly after North Korea’s participation went from lofty goal to reality. The two Korea’s may have marched in under a unified flag at the opening ceremony, but with the Olympics finally over, it’s important to bear in mind that whatever progress the games may have spurred, the real test begins now: will the contacts that the games facilitated actually lead anywhere?
President Trump’s speech in South Korea’s National Assembly on Wednesday, November 8, 2017 was likely the best foreign policy speech he has ever given. And that is not only because expectations were low. It would be more accurate, perhaps, to say that fears were high. After months of unpredictable diplomacy-by-Twitter—calling Kim Jong-un names, making seemingly off-the-cuff-threats, undermining diplomatic efforts by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson—many feared that Trump’s speech would be yet another moment of this sort.
The current situation is no ordinary escalation of tensions on the Korean peninsula. Those happen with regular frequency, but tend to fizzle out after a few days or weeks. Not so this time. Rhetoric is certainly more extreme than it has been in the past. North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho’s declaration on September 25th that North Korea reserves the right to (note: not that it “will”) shoot down American bombers even in international airspace is an eerily concrete threat. Its logic is easy to understand: in a situation as tense as this one, North Korea cannot be sure whether approaching bombers are merely intended to signal U.S. resolve in its defense of South Korea, or if they are out on a mission. When tensions run as high as they do right now, the potential for misunderstandings between the two parties poses enormous risks.
So now we have a North Korea armed with long-range missiles and thermonuclear weapons. Make no mistake. This is the new normal. Pyongyang will never give them up, and no one can make them do so. The follow-on effects of this development will transform global politics and security policy. A wave of nuclear proliferation and military buildup is definitely to be expected. So one must ask: given our knowledge of what was going on in North Korea, how did we ever let this happen? Also we must ask, what realistically can be done to lower the threat of war?
It would be hard to deny that rhetoric on and around the Korean peninsula is at a high mark. United States President Donald Trump’s words about “fire and fury” aimed at North Korea sounded almost like the typical rhetoric coming from North Korea. North Korea’s response, seemingly implying a threat of bombing Guam, was unusually direct and concrete.