Opinion: ‘Little rocket man’ cleverly changes debate around North Korean nukes

The unexpected thaw between North and South Korea has subtly changed the dynamics of the nuclear crisis there.

It has lowered the probability of any U.S. military strike aimed at derailing the North’s nuclear weapons program and breathed new life into the tit-for-tat diplomatic solution promoted by China and Russia.

It also threatens to side-swipe next week’s Vancouver summit on North Korea, a summit jointly hosted by the U.S. and Canada.

Calling the summit divisive and counterproductive, China said this week that it would not attend.

A senior Japanese official, meanwhile, questioned the utility of a summit on North Korea that included on its guest list countries such as Greece and Colombia.

In fact, there is a logic behind who was invited to Vancouver. But I’ll get to that later.

Before this month’s limited rapprochement between North and South Korea, matters were grim. North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un refused to give up his plans to develop nuclear-tipped missiles capable of reaching the United States. U.S President Donald Trump threatened war unless Kim did so.

Economic sanctions designed to force Kim to comply with demands from the United Nations Security Council that he abandon his nuclear program weren’t working.

Russia and China had suggested a quid pro quo compromise whereby Kim would freeze his nuclear program in exchange for a commitment by the U.S. and South Korea to suspend their regular military exercises. But the Americans weren’t interested.

This was the context in which Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson came up with the idea of the Vancouver summit.

Invitees would include most of the 16 so-called sending states that contributed troops to the American-led UN command, which fought the North during the 1950-53 Korean War. That’s why Colombia and Greece were, initially at least, on the list.

Also invited would be South Korea, Japan and China (for obvious reasons), Sweden (because it has functioning diplomatic relations with the North) and India (because it is a big regional power).

North Korea was not invited. Neither, it seems, was Russia.

The final list of attendees to Tuesday’s conflab remains secret, according to a Canadian government spokesperson, but will be revealed “in due course.”

Exactly why Tillerson and Freeland wanted to build their peace summit around belligerents from one side in the Korean War is unclear. Perhaps they thought this was the only way to make the idea palatable to Trump.

In any case, for those anxious to avoid war, the Vancouver summit was the only game in town – until North Korea’s Kim made his New Year’s address.

In it, he made two major points: first, North Korea’s quest to develop nuclear weapons capable of reaching the U.S. had been successfully completed; second, Pyongyang was willing to talk with Seoul about taking part in the Winter Olympic Games the South is hosting this year.

South Korea jumped at the chance. Its President Moon Jae-in had been elected on a platform that promised improved relations with the North. This was his opportunity and he took it.

This week, the two sides agreed on the North’s Olympic participation. They also agreed to discuss unspecified military matters.

Trump took credit for the breakthrough and Moon, cannily, let him.

In fact, the real architect of this rapprochement is Kim who, in spite of being routinely mocked by Trump as “little rocket man,” has shown strategic cleverness throughout.

Temporarily at least, he has spiked Trump’s guns. Yet he has done so without surrendering any of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.

By showing some flexibility, he appears to have pleased his patrons in Beijing while driving another wedge between the U.S. and China.

Internationally, he has shifted the focus of attention away from his standoff with Washington and toward his newly flowering relationship with the South.

When foreign ministers attending the Vancouver summit meet next week, they will be dealing with a political situation very different from the one that existed when this conference was dreamed up.

Thomas Walkom is a national affairs writer.

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