Just as President Michael D Higgins told a United Nations meeting in New York that Ireland’s peace process could inspire countries to talk rather than go to war, the leaders of North and South Korea announced that they would work together to rid their peninsula of nuclear weapons.
The welcome news came after a historic summit at Panmunjom “truce village”, on the southern side of the Koreas’ demarcation line.
The venue meant that Kim Jong-un became the first leader of North Korea to visit South Korea since the Korean war ended in 1953, underlining how very divided the two Koreas remain, unless the pact leads to a better, less bellicose relationship.
The announcement, which was not widely anticipated, comes after months of drum-beating from North Korea and the White House.
Kim Jong-un, who succeeded his father and grandfather as the Stalinist state’s unquestioned leader, tested almost 90 ballistic missiles and carried out four of North Korea’s six nuclear tests.
Until last month, his refusal to meet any other heads of state was consistent with his country’s policy of rigid isolationism and a complete refusal to engage with the outside world.
That siege mentality seems a kind of national paranoia incomprehensible to western eyes. That state of mind, that officially-endorsed victimhood, was exacerbated by US President Donald Trump’s intemperate and dangerous “rocket man” tweets.
Over the last year, Kim Jong-un and Trump have rattled their nuclear sabres at each other and, for a period, seemed oblivious to the international community’s fears that they were goading each other towards a new military confrontation. Historians may, in time, discover how those bilious exchanges ended — or were ended. As ever, effective diplomacy is rarely transparent.
What was China’s role, if any? Was the imposition of sanctions a gamechanger?
Yesterday’s joint announcement, which also formally ended the Korean War, makes the immediate prospect of
confrontation seem remote. However, history confirms that optimism must be qualified.
This is not the first time the Kim dynasty has sought dialogue, when a confrontation seemed imminent. Neither is it the first time North Korea has offered the carrot of ending its nuclear programme.
On previous occasions, the offer of dialogue seemed more a strategy to secure foreign aid and have sanctions lifted. Once those objectives were realised, the dictatorship reneged on its commitments and refused to cooperate on pivotal strategic issues.
That Kim’s recent embrace of diplomacy is almost a Road to Damascus conversion must mean something, too.
However, and until something happens to dent it, the response must be one of optimism, especially for the hundreds of thousands of Koreans who live in the shadow of each other’s armies.
A situation that so very recently seemed to have the capacity to provoke catastrophe has stabilised and the Korean people have an opportunity denied them for 65 years.
Now, if we only get Stormont’s intransigent politicians to take President Higgins’ excellent advice.