Donald Trump, Nobel laureate? It is a jarring vision, but one that inched a little closer to reality after the seemingly amiable meeting between the U.S. president and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un on Tuesday morning in Singapore. South Korean President Moon Jae-in had already proposed Trump for the prize following the Panmunjom talks between North and South Korea that preceded the summit.
Some of Trump’s fans gave him credit for achieving peace in our time even before the summit, chanting “Nobel, Nobel, Nobel” at a rally in late April. But the truth is that if there is a trip to Norway in the offing, Moon himself will be a far more deserving winner than Trump, even if his modesty — or cunning — means giving Trump the credit. And much as we might dislike it, Kim probably belongs on the stage too.
Talk of the peace prize is obviously premature. Trump’s meeting with Kim had great visuals, but there was no real deal struck and certainly no pledge of denuclearization from the North. And this isn’t the first summit to cause hopes to soar for inter-Korean reconciliation.
The blusterer-in-chief might blunder into a good deal with North Korea. But that won’t happen without the actions of several worthier candidates.
Still, definitive pessimism is overdone. In important ways, Kim appears different from his father and grandfather — more interested in economic development, more comfortable on the international stage, and perhaps even serious about a deal, though one that won’t come cheap.
But let’s optimistically assume that the deal does make substantial progress — if not toward the “full and speedy denuclearization” the Trump administration insists upon, then at least toward a formal peace on the peninsula and a serious thaw in relations between North and South.
Denuclearization is desirable but not essential for American security, because a nuclear North Korea could be deterred. Thus, understandings short of full nuclear disarmament still could leave the peninsula more stable. A freeze on missile and nuclear development, especially if backed by inspections, could promote peninsular and regional peace and stability. Conventional forces and deployments also could be adjusted to make war less likely. Regular communication could be established. Any of these would represent significant progress in a region where hostilities have flared for decades.
If so, should Trump be standing on the stage in Oslo?
The theory is that by trading insult for insult and threatening to blow up Northeast Asia, the president frightened North Korea into coming to the table. That might seem plausible, but Kim seems like a man confident in his power, not scared. North Koreans I spoke with last year seemed befuddled by the administration, not afraid of it. Most U.S. analysts view a U.S. attack as a wild gamble. And despite his bluster, so far, Trump has avoided any actions that would actually prompt serious conflict.
If Washington’s confrontational behavior forced anything, it likely was a change in strategy rather than objective. Kim told a high-level Korean Workers’ Party meeting earlier this year that the regime had finished the nuclear prong of its byungjin, or parallel development policy, so Pyongyang now would concentrate on economics. He did not suggest that his government completed the program only to give it away. To the contrary, in his New Year’s address this year, Kim proclaimed that North Korea now possessed “a powerful and reliable war deterrent, which no force and nothing can reverse.”
But continuing to formally resist denuclearization would ensure continued confrontation with the United States. That may explain Pyongyang’s feint toward South Korea. The latter creates the possibility of deals short of full denuclearization, while making U.S. military action less likely. This is not a strategy of desperation, but one of patience. So much for the president taking credit.
Another possible Nobel nominee is Chinese President Xi Jinping, for applying economic pressure on North Korea. But did Trump force China’s leader to do America’s bidding?
Probably not. Although U.S. pressure may have accelerated the China’s move up the sanctions ladder, the Xi government’s patience already was running thin. Beijing was tightening sanctions and enforcement every time North Korea conducted another missile or nuclear test. Xi also refused to meet Kim, despite having regular contact with South Korea’s president, until the crisis seemed to be reaching a breaking point.
The sanctions caused the North’s economy significant pain, but hardship isn’t new for North Koreans: a half-million or more people died of starvation in the late 1990s, and the North Korean economy kept growing throughout the sanctions. There is no reason to assume that Kim would sacrifice geopolitical ends in order to improve his people’s lives.
Moreover, Kim’s summit gambit generated leverage with China. By engineering a bilateral meeting with the United States, Pyongyang isolated Beijing. Rumors that the North would no longer insist on withdrawal of U.S. military forces from the South may have been a signal to China that North Korea was not going to protect the former’s interests. Anyway, Xi invited Kim to visit. Beijing may have made additional concessions to ensure its involvement in upcoming negotiations. So, Xi doesn’t appear to be the prime mover behind the North’s pirouette.
Give credit to Kim Jong Un. He set off the present process with his New Year’s address, in which he suggested that “the south Korean authorities should respond positively to our sincere efforts for a detente” and “a climate favorable for national reconciliation and reunification should be established.” He even “earnestly wish[ed] the Olympic Games a success” and offered “to dispatch our delegation and adopt other necessary measures.”
This was not Kim’s first expression of interest in diplomacy. In the Washington Post, David Ignatius pointed to North Korean statements five years ago indicating a desire for better relations with the United States. After “completing” the North’s nuclear deterrent, Kim probably believed he was negotiating from a position of strength, not the weakness Trump hoped he could prey on.
Kim’s New Year’s offer was particularly potent because it responded to South Korean fears that the North would attempt to disrupt the latest Olympics, like the one three decades before. Kim followed up by offering to meet Trump and take a number of conciliatory steps. If the latter prove to be ploys, as many believe, there will be no Nobel for anyone. However, if peace and stability advance, Kim will be the one taking his nation into a brighter future.
But one of the best candidates may be Moon himself. Shortly after taking office, the South Korean president announced that he planned to sit in the “driver’s seat” when it came to North Korea.
His pacific nature made the apparent breakthrough possible. Moon was elected last year more in spite of than because of his commitment to reconciliation with the North, and he tempered his policy in response to a skeptical public and a hostile Trump. Nevertheless, Moon — who cut his teeth in high-level politics as one of the architects of the old Sunshine Policy — made outreach to North Korea a priority after his inauguration last May. Most important, he ran through the opening made by Kim. The Olympics cooperation led to the inter-Korean summit, with the official slogan “Peace, a new start,” and plans for the Kim-Trump meeting.
If Kim and Trump reach a real agreement, they will owe their success to Moon’s persistence. The progress made by the two Korean leaders might even survive a Trump tantrum if North Korea kicks back against his claims of nuclear compliance. South Koreans have an obvious reason to resist U.S. threats of war. Given images of a seemingly reasonable Kim meeting leaders of both South Korea and the United States, even Americans might not be convinced that there is an urgent need for military action that could lead to full-scale war. And after his fulsome praise for Kim at the summit, the president’s madman shtick can no longer seem as plausible.
Who gets the Nobel for Korean peacemaking? We’ll have to wait and see if there is a peace to reward. In any case, there are better candidates than Donald Trump. The blusterer-in-chief might blunder into a good deal with North Korea. But that won’t happen without the actions of several worthier candidates.