As a journalist, I have always dreaded reporting on meetings between world leaders billed as ‘historic’ or ‘momentous’ or just plain ‘significant’. Such pretensions are usually phoney or, even if something of interest really does happen, its importance is exaggerated or oversimplified.
But plus ca change is not always a safe slogan for the cautious reporter, because real change does occasionally take place and professional cynics are caught on the hop.
Watching the “historic” meeting between the leaders of North and South Korea at the Panmunjom border crossing this weekend – and listening to reporters bubbling over with excitement – it was difficult not to be captured by the enthusiastic mood.
But I recall similar meetings that were once billed as transforming the world for the better and are now largely forgotten. How many people remember the Reykjavik summit between Reagan and Gorbachev in 1986, which once seemed so important? Then there was the famous handshake on the lawn of the White House between Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat confirming a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians in 1993 that, whatever else happened, did not produce peace.
Rabin was assassinated two years later by a religious fanatic and Arafat died with his hopes for Palestinian self-determination in ruins. Sceptics who had argued that disparity in political and military strength between Israel and the Palestinians was too great for a real accord turned out to be right.
The meeting in Panmunjom feels as if it has got more substance, primarily because the balance of power between the two sides is more even: Kim has nuclear weapons and claims to have a ballistic missile which could reach the US. Their range and reliability may be exaggerated but nobody wants to find out the hard way. It is these intercontinental ballistic missiles which make Washington and the rest of the world take North Korea seriously as a state, though otherwise it is an insignificant, economically primitive, family dictatorship. Despite Kim’s pledge that he is seeking a denuclearised Korean peninsula, this is the last thing that is going to happen because he would be foolish to give up his only serious negotiating card. North Korea has a long track record of dangling nuclear concessions in front of its enemies only to snatch them back later.
This does not mean that serious things are not happening. Relations between North and South Korea are being normalised symbolically and, to a degree yet to be seen, in practice. There is to be a formal end to the Korean War replacing the 1953 armistice, an end to “hostile activities” between the two states, family reunification, road and rail links and joint sporting activities. Ritualistic propaganda broadcasts across the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) are to cease, though it would be interesting to know if they are also going to remove the minefields in the DMZ.
President Trump is claiming that it was his bellicose tweeting and harsh sanctions that forced Kim to negotiate. Maybe they had some impact, but there are limits to what sanctions can achieve against a dictator firmly in power (witness UN sanctions on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq between 1990 and 2003). Trump’s threats of “fire and fury” may or may not frighten the North Korean leader, but they certainly make US allies nervous and less willing to let their fate be unilaterally determined by an unpredictable and dysfunctional administration in Washington.
Compare the de-escalating crisis over North Korea’s nuclear weapons with the escalating one over the 2015 Iran nuclear deal from which Trump is likely to withdraw the US on 12 May.
This article has been excerpted from: ‘De-escalation With North Korea, Escalation With Iran’.