War Stories

A Nobel for Trump?

Trump may deserve some credit for the Korea talks, but not as much as he thinks.

Kim Jong-un, Donald Trump, and Moon Jae-in.
Kim Jong-un, Donald Trump, and Moon Jae-in.
Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by Olivier Douliery/AFP/Getty Images, Korea Summit Press Pool/Pool via Reuters.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in said this week that President Trump should win the Nobel Peace Prize for jump-starting the various recent summits with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, so it’s worth asking whether Moon was merely massaging Trump’s ego to gain favor, as many other leaders have learned to do, or whether there’s something to his proposal.

Or, to put the question in less grandiose terms: Does Trump deserve some credit for putting Korean peace on the table after seven decades of warlike tensions?

Trump, of course, believes that he’s entirely responsible for the blooming climate of détente. At his recent rally in Michigan, he quoted a panel on a “fake news” show discussing the Kim–Moon summit. “They were saying, ‘What do you think President Trump had to do with it?’ ” Trump bellowed to the crowd. “I’ll tell you what. Like, how about everything!”

It was an absurd overstatement; the spurt of new and historic diplomacy has been galvanized by Moon and deftly shaped by Kim at every step since the Winter Olympics. However, many have argued that Trump’s “maximum pressure” and belligerent rhetoric—starting last summer with his threat to unleash “fire and fury like the world has never seen” if North Korea didn’t stop testing nuclear weapons and long-range missiles—have driven Kim to the table. The threat was reminiscent of Richard Nixon’s “madman theory,” in which he sought to convince the North Vietnamese that he was crazy and might even launch nuclear weapons if they continued to wage war. Nixon was convinced that the ploy would prod North Vietnam’s leader, Ho Chi Minh, to come begging for peace in a matter of days.

The strategy didn’t work, in part because Ho, a keen observer of world politics and a onetime aspiring U.S. ally, knew that Nixon wasn’t that sort of madman. By contrast, Kim may well have thought Trump was the real thing and responded accordingly, toning down his own rhetoric and slowing down his nuclear program.

There may be something to this theory, but the facts don’t lend it much support. Trump issued his “fire and fury” fusillade on Aug. 8. Three weeks later, on Aug. 29, Kim test-fired an intermediate-range ballistic missile over Japan. On Sept. 3, he detonated a nuclear device at a test site for the sixth time, this one his most powerful explosion to date, so much so that he declared it a hydrogen bomb and Western experts didn’t refute the claim. On Sept. 15, he test-launched another intermediate-range missile. Finally, on Nov. 29, he fired another missile, this one having sufficient range to strike U.S.
territory.

In other words, after Trump’s most bellicose remarks, Kim conducted four major tests honing his ability to strike the United States and our allies. (This was on top of the four tests he’d conducted in 2017 prior to the “fire and fury” tweet.) Far from being intimidated by Trump’s threats, Kim pushed ahead steadily on his path to acquiring a nuclear arsenal or, possibly, accelerated his effort.

On New Year’s Day, just one month after the Nov. 29 missile test, Kim made the pivot and launched his charm offensive, offering to send a delegation to the Winter Olympics, to be held in South Korea, a move that sparked the current round of diplomacy. One interpretation is that he did so not while quaking before Trump’s big guns but rather with the confidence that he now had some big guns of his own—a small but viable nuclear deterrent to assure that neither Trump nor any other foe could attack North Korea without fearing a retaliatory strike.

It’s possible that Trump’s aggressiveness compelled Kim to assemble this deterrent quickly. It’s also possible that Moon embraced Kim’s diplomatic shift so avidly in order to keep Trump’s itchy finger at bay. But this picture is very different from one that portrays Trump as a Nobel-worthy peacemaker.

It’s also possible that Trump’s warnings, and the widespread sense that he might mean them, prompted Chinese President Xi Jinping to tighten sanctions on North Korea—and that this economic pressure helped drive Kim to adopt a more conciliatory approach.

The evidence here is mixed, at best. It is true that China, North Korea’s largest ally and trade partner, has cut off exports of certain goods, with painful results. However, China has also facilitated the rerouting of these goods through back channels—which couldn’t happen without Xi’s consent. In any case, Kim and his entourage haven’t seemed to tighten their belts, and the Kim dynasty—which has ruled North Korea since its creation after World War II and has ordered the expansion of its military forces even in the face of mass poverty and, not long ago, a deadly famine—has never viewed their people’s well-being as a high priority of national policy.

Nonetheless, there is evidence that the current Kim, having built a few dozen of the supreme weapons that his father and grandfather had only dreamed of amassing, seems keen on reforming the country’s economy to some degree—and publicly said so in his recent meeting with Moon, even admitting that he’d be embarrassed to have the South Korean president travel on North Korea’s dilapidated roads.

To some extent, then, China’s tightening grip on North Korea’s economy might have speeded Kim’s turn to diplomacy, and Xi may well have tightened that grip in response to Trump’s pressure—to keep Trump from launching a war that would have disastrous consequences for China and its interests in the region.

However, before Trump starts dreaming of white-tie glory in Oslo, he should consider one more caveat: This deal is not yet done; peace overtures may be on the table, but it’s way premature to think that peace is at hand.

The fact that Kim pivoted toward diplomacy only after acquiring a plausible nuclear arsenal—i.e., only after he could claim the status of a nuclear power—makes it extremely unlikely that he would surrender that status in exchange for mere assurances from any American president, much less from the untrustworthy Trump. Yes, the South Koreans have reported that Kim is willing to end his nuclear program in exchange for a U.S. pledge not to invade North Korea. But first, North Korea hasn’t yet confirmed this report, and second, Pyongyang’s long-standing concept of “denuclearization” involves not just the surrender of its nukes but also the withdrawal from the region of all U.S. forces that could possibly carry nukes—in short, the withdrawal of the U.S. military from within firing range of the Korean Peninsula: the ultimate decoupling of the United States from South Korea, which has long been the Kim family’s fantasy.

American allies and several U.S. officials have two worries about the upcoming summit. The first is that it will fail—Kim won’t agree to give up his nukes in exchange for practically nothing—and thus Trump will have no choice but to back down from his threats or to act on them. The second is that Trump is approaching the talks with such high hopes (intensified by the absurd dangling of a Nobel Peace Prize) that he may sacrifice vital U.S. interests for the sake of making a deal.

NBC News reported Monday that last summer, Trump was so furious at South Korea that White House chief of staff John Kelly had to talk him out of ordering the withdrawal of U.S. troops from its territory. Just as alarming, Trump told reporters on Tuesday that the summit with Kim should take place at the Peace House, near the Demilitarized Zone on the border between the two Koreas—the same place where Kim and Moon met—so that if the talks succeed, the “great celebration” could be had “on the site” instead of in some third-party country.

This remark was alarming for two reasons. First, if he thinks a comprehensive peace treaty could be signed after just one set of meetings, either he will be sorely disappointed or the treaty will be a bad one. Second, in publicly expressing his exuberance, he let the North Koreans know that he’s desperate for a deal—the worst possible negotiating tactic in advance of any talks, much less the boldest and riskiest talks that an American president has ventured in years.