Sir Winston Churchill, with his superbly imaginative and insightful mind, once said something like this: “Jaw-jaw is better than war-war.” That means use vitriol, threats, intimidation, even go eye-ball to eye-ball if you must, but do your utmost to stay away from war.
This rare piece of wisdom was cracked to a very large extent in an age of conventional warfare (barring the US having developed the nuclear bomb). At that time, inimical countries could afford a margin of error with provocative words flung against each other; only perhaps amassing of troops along the border with trenches being dug could signal an aggressive design, a little more than “jaw-jaw” posturing. That would have etched a frown at the forehead of the other side, leaving it pondering whether to counter-amass troops—both sides still kept guessing to avert war because it raked up the spectre of carnage and destruction of properties.
But in the case of North Korea and the US, the stakes were infinitely higher. Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump had traded threats, backed by the nuclear arsenal possessed by the US while Pyongyang was “test”-firing missiles, some even claimed to be capable of reaching US shores. A nuclear upstart can be as dangerous as a nuclear device falling into the hands of a perverse ideological terror network. There were butterflies in the stomach and no scope of pussy-footing to get on with the agenda for peace.
At the end of the day, you find that nuclear deterrence, viz. the fear of mutual self-destruction, is the key to avoiding confrontation between nuclearised countries. Although North Korea was clandestinely trying to become nuclear, in its verbal confrontation with the US it must have relented in the face of what I would call inverse nuclear deterrence. Kim's fear held sway over him in inverse proportion to rabble-rousing boastfulness.
It must be realised now that the first step towards peace that has been heralded in the Korean peninsula and the adjoining region cannot be credited entirely to the embattled duo. In fact, China and Russia have been instrumental in getting both the disparate sides to talk and sign a document of commitments to secure peace.
The Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi's words make a resonating echo: “The fact that the two leaders can sit together and have equal talks have important and positive meaning and is creating a new history.”
Russia, dubbing it as a “positive step”, noted that Trump had told Kim after the summit, the joint military exercises with South Korea would be halted.
We also think that China, which had stood by North Korea through the sanctions and might have tried to leverage the US in regard to its South China policy, played a balancing act. It took the form of chaperoning Kim Jong-un to the talks and producing the document.
The point I would like to drive home here to both China and Russia is this: Olive branch anywhere makes a case for spreading it over a festering human rights deficit that nearly one million Rohingya refugees suffer every day along with their host Bangladesh. Couldn't China and Russia, with their potential persuasive powers, have the Myanmar government accord citizenship rights to the Rohingya?
After the rhetoric flourish greeting the accord, experts are hectically at work to dissect it for what it is really worth. Kim “reaffirmed his unwavering commitment to the complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula....”
For Trump's part, war games should stop, meaning military exercises, and by implication, even surreptitious test-firings that Kim had been so fond of.
But more intrinsically, the analysts point out that the vital letter/words “v” and “i” are nowhere to be seen in the joint statement signed by the two men. The US negotiators insisted on setting up a system to verify and pursued it only to draw a blank there.
The letter “i” was important in two ways: “i” was to have been indicative of “irreversible denuclearisation” and of an “inspection” regime.
The generalised nature of the document puts it in the category of previous accords that were violated.
It is said, “Trust not reconciled friends, because old grudges die hard.” Let me turn it around to say, is not a more challenging question that of trust between once implacable foes?
Shah Husain Imam is adjunct faculty, East West University, a commentator on current affairs, and former Associate Editor, The Daily Star. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org