In an unexpected new development, North Korea has stepped out of its long-standing seclusion and taken a few steps to reach out into its neighbourhood, thereby doing something to breach its self-imposed isolation.
Few such gestures have been made by North Korea in the last several years, that country apparently preferring to follow its own course and remain aloof, even though the rest of its region teems with activity and Asia’s fast moving advance has become a synonym for economic progress across the globe.
North Korea has remained relatively quiet at a time when the other part of the sundered peninsula, South Korea, has galloped ahead and found place in the OECD group of developed countries.
So far as India is concerned, Seoul has become one of its valuable economic partners, having outstripped its counterpart, which has been left standing in its wake.
Why this reversal of economic fortune should have taken place in Korea is not easy to divine, but it has happened and a pattern of economic advancement has taken place, and after so many years it is difficult to see what sort of alternative may be available to Pyongyang.
Nevertheless, and without seeing how far change can reach and what sort of pressures for political and economic transformation may be taking shape in Korea, there is a sense that some sort of important change could be in the making.
As yet, North and South have not done much to bring significant easing of their mutual relations: there is no love lost between the different parties on the Korean peninsula which have been at daggers drawn for decades, always on the verge of serious discord and strife.
Pyongyang lags economically behind but never concedes primacy to Seoul, and refuses to acknowledge its own relative economic backwardness. Each of the sides is well-armed and well-prepared for all consequences, as indeed they have been for many years: there have been occasional flashes of open conflict, and only very few calmer moments to provide a touch of relief.
It is because of this long and unhappy background that the most recent developments have given a hint of change and brought a measure of hope that matters could improve.
Internal changes in North Korea have been an important part of the changing scenario, with some slight easing of movement so as to permit a little coming and going between North and South, and there have been other helpful gestures too, with the parties taking advantage of the great Olympic sporting assembly that permitted large numbers of athletes to come together and revive memories and experiences, which remain potent decades after the Korean war of the 1950s.
With all this, the important shift in the situation that brought North Korea into the reckoning was unexpected, even startling. Relations between that country and the USA had long remained hostile and there seemed no prospect of change, both having settled into a frozen relationship that left no room for anything but offensive exchanges, but in the midst of the long-standing harsh exchanges, a wholly unexpected reversal of events took place and North Korea and USA decided to bury their differences and turn a new leaf in their relations.
This abrupt change in events appears to owe much to President Trump, who is believed to pride himself on his deal-making ability and seemed very willing to come to terms with Pyongyang.
Before the parties got together and made common cause, it seemed most unlikely that they would succeed, but President Trump proved his staff and his advisers wrong, wresting himself free of the constraints normally attached to a Head of State, and taking in his own hands his country’s dealings with North Korea.
The foreign policy purists were taken aback, as well they might have been, and nobody would recommend such a course as the standard way of dealing with such situations, but in this particular case, much was achieved through the exercise of Presidential choice.
North Korea and USA may still be far removed from the kind of cooperation that some may desire but their exchanges of the last few weeks have undoubtedly opened a new era that has put away, at least for the present, the bitter exchanges that marked their earlier relationship.
One of the important factors that appear to have had an impact on the changed situation is the rise of China and its enlarged influence on regional affairs.
China has been North Korea’s bulwark from the earliest days and has never lost its pre-eminence in this respect. It has sometimes looked like a difficult balancing act between China and the different countries of the area, riven as they are by diverse interests and conflicting demands.
The regimented, well-drilled society of the North has not lost its ability to take initiative as and when the need arises, and it has now shown readiness to join the USA in the kind of venture that required unaccustomed flexibility from both sides.
Perhaps the crucial factor that has induced a measure of change in East Asia is North Korea’s decision to arm itself with a nuclear weapon.
This has been a profoundly disturbing development, for reasons that are very well known but yet it would seem that North Korea has ventured into this very sensitive territory, to the great complication of its expectation of any sort of normal association with others in its region.
Non-proliferation is a very important doctrine for Japan and will no doubt continue to attract sanctions as it has for many decades, even if the USA finds a less stringent way of expressing its views.
Nor can it be supposed that the nuclear and other challenges remote from India, for neighbouring Pakistan has laboured intensively to obtain a nuclear weapon and has succeeded in meeting its goal.
North Korea took the initiative in this respect, fearing that it could be subjected to nuclear attack and should therefore be enabled to defend itself with all manner of weapons, including nuclear weapons.
Pakistan has ostensibly followed much the same path, though it has been led into a dangerous strategy of brandishing nuclear weapons at its foes, including India.
Asia’s eastern rim has at times been overwhelmed by problems and beset with instability. However, there seems to be a calmer prospect for the immediate future. President Trump’s forceful ways appear to have paid off for the present, to the benefit of the affairs of the region. But further tests lie ahead.
The writer is India‘s former Foreign Secretary