Strange things are happening in international relations; strange things always do. There is wide-eyed incredulity with the ebullient Donald Trump agreeing to meet the belligerent Kim Jong-un.
This must rank as quite the quirkiest development in recent world affairs. Whatever the upshot of the meeting in May ~ on the invitation of Kim ~ it would be presumptuous to aver that history is set to be enacted as farce.
Suffice it to register that the two worthies, who not very long ago had lampooned one another as “little rocket man”, “dotard”, and had even threatened mutual “obliteration”, have agreed to engage in a historic bout of jaw-jaw ~ a sharp deviation from the characteristic bluster of “war-war”.
There has been considerable fire and fury in recent months. Viewed through that chilling prism, the talks do deserve to be welcomed… even if they signify merely a deferment of confrontation.
For both leaders, it will be a long, hard road to peace though not necessarily with good intentions. Should a peace agreement materialise, historians will record the development as a classic triumph.
For some time yet, international opinion will be divided on whether the summit ~ the first time a US President has met a North Korean leader ~ is a diplomatic coup carried out by Washington or Pyongyang.
As the President of North Korea, Kim will be in a position to claim that he has met the world’s superpower on equal terms.
Vis-a-vis his domestic constituency, the impact of such a claim is profound. Yet it shall not be easy to convince the world that the North will readily de-nuclearise… according to the lights of the US.
Arguably, a freeze on nuclear weaponry would be a plausible outcome, but the task is easier contemplated than achieved.
The fundamental contradiction cannot be overlooked. Short of a forward movement, both leaders can at best agree to disagree.
As South Korea has swiftly remarked, the North “must match words with concrete action”, and there is little doubt that Kim remains an unpredictable quantity.
Credit for de-escalation should go primarily to South Korea, where President Moon Jae-in’s administration has worked tirelessly towards a rapprochement, exemplified very recently with Kim’s sister visiting Seoul and the attendant bonhomie.
Should the meeting be reduced to a fizzle, the risk of a confrontation is dangerously real. The summit in May lacks the diplomatic build-up and professional finesse that had once marked Richard Nixon’s mission to China.
Yet this ought not to detract from the dramatic nature of diplomacy both on the part of Washington and Pyongyang. Ergo, it is fervently to be hoped that both countries will abjure a confrontation… should the talks yield nothing in tangible terms.
It will be a famous grandstanding at the high table, but some good must come of it. Winston Churchill’s dictum ~ from which we borrow the title to this piece ~ has seldom been so acutely relevant.