In the classic British children’s story Alice Through The Looking Glass, the Red Queen tells Alice: “Sometimes I believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
I was reminded of those words when I met a South Korean diplomat recently who told me: “We would like to see the promise of peace emerging from something seemingly impossible.”
He was talking of the much anticipated summit between America’s President Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un.
A year ago, it would have seemed impossible to imagine such an event taking place. Then, after Mr Trump said he would cancel the summit, it would have been impossible to still expect it go ahead in Singapore in June. Now there are signs that it will indeed happen.
Diplomats thrive on a calm optimism; it is their job to keep hope alive. They can take inspiration from history, which shows us that during most seemingly intractable disputes, the promise of a resolution looks far off when the peace talks start. Nevertheless, conflicts are sometimes resolved in unexpected ways. So in diplomatic circles across Asia, one can still hear prayers of hope being muttered that a sustainable peace on the Korean peninsula can finally be achieved.
The Japanese government is backing the idea of talks between Mr Trump and Mr Kim. It is not particularly enthusiastic about the summit in Singapore but will do nothing to prevent it. Japan’s Ambassador to London, Koji Tsuruoka, wishes the meeting success but says that holding the summit is not, in itself, a goal. “The goal that the world is expecting is complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearisation of North Korea,” he said.
“We’ve always been consistent in asking North Korea to comply with all the United Nations security council resolutions, which were unanimously adopted and represent the will of the people of the world. What we are now looking for is action which will bring us towards peace and stability,” said Ambassador Tsuruoka.
“We are looking for is action which will bring us towards peace and stability” Ambassador Koji Tsuruoka
Japan’s Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, has been in regular touch with Mr Trump but cannot completely trust his ally. His concern is that Donald Trump could become so focussed on his America First agenda that he will compromise on protection of its allies in Asia.
If the meeting goes ahead, Kim Jong-Un is likely to say that any offer to scale back his nuclear programme should be balanced by a reduction of the American military presence in South Korea and Japan. Would Mr Trump offer concessions on that point if he felt he could extract a deal which would protect US cities from missile attacks?
Tokyo under threat
In Japan, Mr Kim remains a sinister figure who has threatened to obliterate Tokyo. Mr Abe has called the prospect of a nuclear-capable North Korea “absolutely unacceptable” and has said that the security situation is the severest since the Second World War.
Japan has the bitter memory of having been the only country to have suffered devastating atomic attacks. To put things in perspective, the Hiroshima bomb was 15 kilotons. Last year, the size of North Korea’s nuclear test was more than ten times that at 160 kilotons. With the prevention of another catastrophe uppermost in his mind, Shinzo Abe has ordered a review of Japan’s defence capabilities and advocates constitutional reform to strengthen the military’s role.
A clear agenda
Mr Abe also wants Mr Trump to use America’s enormous military advantage to press North Korea into line and he wants clarity on what a peace deal and denuclearisation actually mean in a Korean context.
For the talks to succeed, they require carefully preparation, which is why a delay would be no bad thing from Japan’s perspective. As things stand, a lack of trust all round puts the summit in the high risk category. But for those with sufficient faith, nothing is impossible.