Have we actually dodged the threat of a nuclear war?
I’ve got some good news and some bad news: The good news is that South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un will meet on April 27 in the border village of Panmunjom to discuss political reconciliation and perhaps – finally – formally end the Korean War, 65 years after a truce ended hostilities. The historic summit will be the first time the two Korean leaders engage in face-to-face talks in a decade. The outcome of the summit is likely to impact Kim’s prospective meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump sometime in late May or June.
All these summits might not have been possible without Kim’s recent and dramatic U-turn. Last August, we came to the brink of a global nuclear war as Trump threatened to “rain down fire and fury” on North Korea due to Pyongyang’s missile tests. Since then, however, Trump’s policy on North Korea – which is based on increasing the economic pressure on the country while keeping diplomatic channels open – seems to have paid off.
Now, North Korea has announced that it will suspend nuclear and inter-ballistic missile (ICBM) tests, close its nuclear test site and focus on economic development. To justify his decision, Kim claimed that his country no longer needed to conduct any tests since it has finished constructing all its nuclear warheads. But the real reason for North Korea’s opening is the sanctions regime, which is causing pain in Pyongyang.
Here, it is important to underline how crucial China’s collaboration with the international community has been in terms of enforcing economic sanctions against North Korea. As the country’s main trading partner, China’s decision to impose sanctions on Pyongyang’s exports such as coal, iron ore, seafood and textile goods have hit citizens hard at a time when North Korea’s access to the international financial system became restricted. But the deadliest blow came when China reduced oil exports to North Korea.
Accordingly, it’s hard to comprehend Trump’s motive in adopting hostile rhetoric and tough measures against Beijing so as to decrease the trade deficit. A further deterioration of bilateral relations may jeopardize China’s cooperation and even result in Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s lifting of economic and political pressure on North Korea.
While it’s too early to say that we have completely dodged the threat of a nuclear war, the de-escalation of tension in Asia, particularly between the United States and North Korea, is something to be welcomed. Still, we do not know whether Pyongyang is truly willing to dismantle its nuclear program or what it will demand in return. The content of negotiations is likely to determine the framework of a possible reconciliation.
But that was the good news. As for the bad: While Trump’s administration is busy showing its eagerness to negotiate a nuclear agreement with North Korea, it’s preparing to scrap another nuclear deal with Iran, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
The deadline Trump set for the Congress to improve the accord – which he characteristically branded as “the worst deal ever” – will expire on May 12. European signatories have been beating a path to Washington to convince Trump to stick by the agreement in return for adding new terms, such as extending the deal to address Iran’s ballistic missile program and revising sunset clauses, so as to appease critics of the deal. It’s highly unlikely, however, that either Russia or China will agree to any amendments to the JCPOA, which is already sealed with a U.N. resolution.
If Trump eventually pulls out of the deal or causes its collapse, it will not only provoke Iran to resume its nuclear program, but will also damage credibility of the U.S. as a reliable partner. And who knows, it may also disrupt the positive developments with North Korea as well.