Three months ago, amidst a flurry of intercontinental ballistic tests and the detonation of a nuclear device by North Korea, and a fiery rhetorical response by United States President Donald Trump to shower “fire and fury” on the regime of Pyongyang, it looked as if diplomatic options were well and truly off the table. Military conflict – and the very real prospect that it would escalate out of control with horrific and untold consequences for all living in the vicinity of the Korean peninsula – seemed inevitable.
But saner heads seem to have prevailed, and there is a hope – and hope is a commodity that one can never have enough of – that common sense might yet win through, and that all sides seem prepared now to face one another, not at the end of a gunsight or a weapons targeting system, but across a table.
This extraordinary prospect seems to have come about by the very fact that the Winter Olympics are now underway in the Taebaek Mountain town of Pyeongchang in South Korea, with the North sending a team across the De-Militarised Zone to compete as a unified Korea in some disciplines. Kim Jong-un’s sister as well as the nominal head of state, have both gone south as well, with Kim offering a return visit to South Korean President Moon Jae-in. The strategy is two-fold: To embrace these newfound opportunities for diplomatic engagement in face-to-face meetings; and to exert extreme pressure on Pyongyang by squeezing it economically through United Nations sanctions, targeting its foreign currency reserves and opportunities, its energy supplies and its exports.
Let’s be clear: North Korea has wilfully and deliberately escalated tensions on the peninsula by thumbing its nose at previous agreements, developing its nuclear arsenal, engaging in rough nuclear tests, and firing a series of increasingly more powerful ballistic missiles, provoking its neighbours and warranting the rounds of increasingly tougher sanctions from the international community.
But let us also acknowledge that the paranoid and unpredictable regime faced a US president who used the UN to threaten the obliteration of a nation through his big red nuclear button. Neither side have helped themselves – but maybe now we are about to take a big stride back from the brink. And no one ever died from talking.