That little rocket man in the Northwest Pacific has turned out to be astonishingly good at statecraft. He might also have been reading an American classic about how to land a really big fish.

His long-range rocket tests were the lure, his request for a meeting was the hook. Once the great white whale took the hook, Kim Jong Un played him like an expert.

Kim held a very public meeting with his South Korean counterpart, walking across the dividing line to embrace Moon Jae In, reportedly the first time a North Korean leader had crossed that line since the war 65 years ago. The "optics", as they say, were profound.

Then he offered to get rid of his nuclear weaponry entirely and invited Western media to film a supposed weapons development facility being blown up. He released three Asian American prisoners for a televised return to US soil.


All of this caused the whale to bask in self-congratulation. Having just fired a Secretary of State who was trying to answer North Korea's nuclear threats with soft, conventional back-channel diplomacy, Donald Trump celebrated the new disarming tone coming from Pyongyang as a vindication of all his tough talk on Twitter.

He held a round of barnstorming rallies to offset the latest tawdry scrap of his life to come to public knowledge, called Stormy Daniels. At the rallies of his faithful he noted commentators were asking how much North Korea's concessions could be attributed to him? "Well, everything," he admitted.

Kim's conciliatory response must be exactly what Trump has been accustomed to when he talks tough and issues threats. It is probably how he bullied contractors when he was in the building business. It is the way most Republicans in Congress have responded to him and most Western leaders, especially those trying to maintain trade agreements or talk him out of reneging on the Iran nuclear deal.

But obviously Kim Jong Un and his strategists had calculated how this American President's outsized ego, self-belief and delusion could work to their advantage, leaving him with so much invested in finally solving the Korean problem that when they sat down together Kim would have the upper hand.

It is often amazing that Americans can be oblivious to the way other nations think and the way they see America. I'm not just talking about Trump. The default channel in our house tends to be CNN. Most evenings when I get home, a panel of commentators are on the screen lamenting something Trump has said or done. But their only debate on North Korea has been about whether the North's offer is serious and can it be trusted?

They don't seem able to imagine the magnitude of the concession the North is offering. Verifiable nuclear disarmament would seem fatally risky if you are not a country in America's good books. But in all the discussion I have heard or read on North Korea's offer I have never seen commentators consider the obvious question, what must they want in return. North Korea will quite reasonably expect something really big in return. Really big.

As big as a withdrawal of US forces from South Korea? I heard this possibility raised only once in a CNN discussion and summarily dismissed. I have not seen it enter the calculations of Washington Post writers and others.

But something of this magnitude must have occurred to those in Washington who set about getting Trump off the hook. They held a military exercise with South Korea and Vice President Mike Pence made a curious remark, predicting a post-nuclear North Korea would resemble Libya. North Korea protested and two weeks ago Trump duly put off the talks but left the door open.


The past two weeks have seen officials of the two sides talking intensely in Pyongyang, Washington and New York. American diplomats will be trying to work out exactly what Kim wants before they let their unpredictable President go head-to-head with him.

Kim's officials are probably saying they need a concrete commitment from the US to some sort of action, not words, to give them the confidence to give up a nuclear defence. They will be invoking Iran.

A withdrawal of American forces from the Korean peninsula is one of those possibilities that sounds unthinkable — until it is announced. Then it becomes logical and sensible in the context of an agreement to end an absurd 65-year "ceasefire" with a peace settlement.

The prospect of a US withdrawal frightens South Korea and Japan, and US officials have been talking to those countries over the past fortnight too. Something is happening, something really big.

If it brings normality to the Northwest Pacific at long last, the Nobel Peace Prize should be shared by this cunning Captain Ahab and his Moby-Dick.