The risk of a war between North Korea and the US has been mounting steadily for the past year. So the sudden announcement that the leaders of the two countries are to meet for talks is very welcome. Of course, there are big risks attached to a summit meeting between Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump. Both leaders are volatile and the nuclear crisis is inherently intractable. There is plenty that can go wrong. But the alternatives to this meeting were hardly attractive.
North Korea’s nuclear programme has been developing rapidly. The Kim Jong Un regime is getting ever closer to its goal of developing a nuclear-tipped missile that could strike the US. President Trump has vowed this will never happen and threatened “fire and fury” in response to any nuclear provocations. The risks of armed — possibly even nuclear — conflict on the Korean peninsula have been rising inexorably.
Many diplomats have pointed out that, traditionally, a leaders’ summit comes at the end of a negotiation process, rather than the beginning. To allow the two heads of state to meet, without painstaking preparation and a draft text for them to agree, undoubtedly raises the stakes. But the North Korean nuclear programme has been progressing so rapidly that time was running out for traditional diplomacy. It is also likely that South Korea has done at least some of the preparatory work for a possible agreement on the de-nuclearisation of the Korean peninsula.
Nonetheless, there should be no doubt that a Kim-Trump summit is a risky endeavour. There is little indication that North Korea is prepared to give up its nuclear or missile programmes. Mr Kim evidently believes that his ultimate insurance policy is the possession of nuclear weapons. The grisly fates of Saddam Hussein of Iraq and Muammer Gaddafi of Libya — leaders who never crossed the nuclear threshold — lends some force to this line of thinking. Even if the Kim regime were to agree to freeze or dismantle its nuclear programme, North Korea is notorious for violating international agreements. To guard against that possibility, any agreement would require intrusive outside verification — something the isolated and paranoid North Koreans are highly unlikely to accept.
The US and South Korea also face difficult choices. The North Koreans may propose that US troops should withdraw from the Korean peninsula, in return for de-nuclearisation and a permanent peace treaty to replace the armistice that ended the Korean war in the 1950s. South Korea would then have to decide whether it is prepared to face its well-armed totalitarian neighbour, without the protection of American troops or the US nuclear umbrella. Mr Trump, who has often complained of the cost of providing protection for US allies, might be tempted by troop withdrawal. But a US pullout from Korea would mark a fundamental strategic shift in east Asia, at a time when China is becoming more assertive.
The prospect of a Kim-Trump summit also raises vital questions for Beijing. The Chinese government will be relieved if the threat of war on the Korean peninsula recedes. But it is likely to be uncomfortable that a major security crisis — right on China’s border — is being discussed without direct participation from Beijing.
All sides to the dispute, those directly involved in talks, and those watching nervously from the sidelines, will be aware that this is a high-stakes bet. If the talks go wrong, or if an agreement is made and then reneged on by North Korea, the chances of war could actually increase. But after a year of threats and missile tests, it is still good to see diplomacy being given a chance.