The announcement by United States President Donald Trump that he will meet North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un marks an epochal moment in the post-1945 world. In 70 years, no serving US president has reached out to the secretive regimes of North Korea That no one saw this moment coming is in keeping with the ad hoc style of the Trump presidency. His own administration was taken aback by the abrupt announcement. Just last month, the US announced tough new sanctions against illicit shipping to North Korea. And weeks earlier, at the Winter Olympics in South Korea, vice-president Mike Pence had made a point of conveying that the US was not thinking about a thaw in relations with North Korea. Through most of last year, Trump and Kim hurled invective at each other on Twitter — the US president called Kim “little rocket man” and the North Korean leader mocked Trump as “the mentally deranged U.S dotard”. No one could have imagined that the conversation would change overnight.
And indeed, it did not happen overnight. South Korea, in the direct line of North Korea’s fire, worked overtime to bring Kim to the table. From the time the North and South Korean teams walked together at the Winter Olympics, and Kim sent a delegation headed by his sister to the games, and Trump sent daughter Ivanka to the closing ceremony, there have been signs of an outreach by North Korea. But nothing has changed on the ground yet. Despite Trump’s yes, US sanctions against North Korea are to continue, and the Trump administration has said it will continue to exert “maximum pressure” to achieve the stated goal of North Korea’s denuclearisation. It is hazardous to guess if a deal can be worked out, or even if the talks themselves will be held. Both leaders are the most unpredictable that the world has seen in recent times, and it’s more than six weeks to May, when the meeting is planned to take place.
It is easy to read motives behind Trump’s decision, such as an attempt to deflect attention from his Russia woes, but if it works, the 45th President of the United States can expect to be remembered more positively by history than what his track record so far suggests. For that to happen, the Trump administration would need to put in the sort of effort that the Nixon administration made for the breakthrough with China in 1972. The wider message from the development is that talking as a means of conflict resolution has still not gone out of fashion, even though the outcome is not always certain. Leaders wishing to leave a positive legacy still feel the need to fall back on jaw-jaw rather than war-war.