Are we anywhere near solving the North Korean puzzle? President Trump seems quite hopeful. Indeed, after his first summit in Singapore with North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, he declared that the nuclear threat was over. Notwithstanding that, the follow up visit by Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of the state, was cancelled then (though it is on again) because Pyongyang was not prepared to go ahead with is denuclearisation commitment, without a reciprocal quid pro quo. That quid pro quo has two broad aspects. First, the US must lift its sanctions, which have crippled the country’s economy, which was not in good shape even before the UN Security Councils’ sanctions’ regime. Second, the 1953, armistice, which ended the Korean war, was replaced by a peace declaration/treaty to end the technical state of war in the Korean peninsula. So far, there has been no forward movement in this direction, with the US insisting on denuclearisation prior to any US concessions. However, President Trump continues to trumpet his special relationship with Kim. He has praised Kim as “very open” and “terrific”. He told a rally that, “He [Kim] wrote me beautiful letters and they’re great letters. We fell in love.” And as a testimony to the progress made so far, Trump pointed out that his efforts to improve relations have taken the two countries back from the brink of war- ending rocket tests by North Korea, and getting the remains of American servicemen returned home. This is Trump’s way of talking to his home constituency. Whatever gloss Trump might put on his efforts, the fact remains that North Korea is not ready to denuclearize as a starting point to advance the relationship. And this was forthrightly spelled out by Ri Yong-ho, North Korea’s Foreign Minister, in his address to the UN General Assembly. He said, “Without any trust in the United States, there will be no confidence in our national security, and under such circumstances there is no way we will unilaterally disarm ourselves first.” He did, however, reiterate “a firm determination to turn Korean peninsula into a land of peace”, though he regarded the US-backed sanctions as a “hostile policy.” In other words, any substantive progress would require unwinding of comprehensive sanctions, which has economically crippled North Korea. At the same time, from Pyongyang’s viewpoint, denuclearization would need to proceed alongside a peace treaty to formally end the technical state of war. Which would involve, at some point, the withdrawal of US military presence from South Korea, which is designed against a North Korean military threat. And woven into all this is the eventual unification of the divided Korean peninsula. North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, is playing his diplomatic cards very well, particularly with his summits with President Moon Jae-in of South Korea. President Moon of South Korea is proving to be a useful conduit between Kim and Trump. He recently delivered a message from Kim to Trump, after the inter-Korean talks, relaying Kim’s words, “You [Trump] are the only person who can solve this problem.” Imagine what it must to do to Trump’s ego who is already of the view that he has done more to advance the Korean question than any of his predecessors. And to advance it further, there is already talk of another summit between the two leaders. Trump has asked his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, to bring about another summit between the two leaders. That would feature in Pompeo’s talks in Pyongyang. Justifying his boss’s unconventional approach to seek another summit in the absence of any real progress on the denuclearization question, Pompeo said, “ We’ve been at this [the Korean question] the other way an awfully long time and failed”, adding: “We tried to do details. We tried to do step for step. We tried to do trade for trade. Each of those failed.” The question that we posed in the beginning about whether the world is anywhere near solving the Korean conundrum has a long way to go? And that is because there are so many inextricable elements to it, for instance a peace treaty, prospects or otherwise of unification, the issue of sanctions et al, that any substantive progress might take a long time Elaborating, Pompeo said, “We’re bringing the two senior leaders, the individuals who can actually make the decisions that will move the process forward” , in the hope they can make a breakthrough.” Trump, for his part, has reportedly said that, “ We are in no rush. We are no hurry” to bring about a nuclear agreement, apparently satisfied that North Korea is no longer testing its weapons and missiles and has disabled its testing facility. The question that we posed in the beginning about whether the world is anywhere near solving the Korean conundrum has a long way to go? And that is because there are so many inextricable elements to it, for instance a peace treaty, prospects or otherwise of unification, the issue of sanctions et al, that any substantive progress might take a long time. In the meantime, Pompeo’s Pyongyang visit might offer some clue to the difficult puzzle, that is Korea. The writer is a senior journalist and academic based in Sydney, Australia Published in Daily Times, October 9th 2018.