A Nobel for Donald Trump over Korea?

In the Stockholm syndrome, the victim starts to identify with the captor. In one of the most famous examples, the heiress Patty Hearst took up arms on behalf of the radical group that abducted her. She denounced her old friends and began to make speeches in praise of the Symbionese Liberation Army.

To a certain extent, Donald Trump has taken the entire world hostage. He commands the most powerful military in the world. He can launch a nuclear war. His tweets send stock markets into a frenzy.

Nowhere is this hostage situation more obvious than on the Korean peninsula. Up until recently, Donald Trump called all the shots. He tightened sanctions against North Korea. He pushed South Korea to go along with the containment of the North and participate (as usual) in large-scale military exercises. And he engaged in a tit-for-tat exchange of insults with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. He bullied the world into accepting this conduct as normal.

But something changed at the beginning of 2018. Kim Jong Un made an overture to the South. The two Koreas agreed to cooperate around the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang. And an Olympic truce settled on the peninsula.

Even more remarkably, the truce has outlasted the Olympics. South Korean representatives have met with Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang. Discussions are underway for a third inter-Korean summit, to be held for the first time in the South (just over the DMZ). Moreover, these South Korean representatives managed to extract a promise from the North to consider denuclearization.

All along, South Korean President Moon Jae-in has diplomatically given credit to Donald Trump for facilitating this inter-Korean cooperation. Trump himself has also claimed that his hardline policies and bellicose threats have made North Korea more amenable to compromise.

Now, thanks to the diplomatic moves on the part of the two Koreas, Washington and Pyongyang might resume direct talks. Donald Trump has even pledged to meet Kim Jong Un by May. This prospect has generated some talk in the media, and on social media, of putting Donald Trump forward for a Nobel Peace Prize if he seizes the opportunity to talk with Kim Jong Un and sign a peace treaty that ultimately ends the Korean War.

Indeed, so the argument goes, broaching the possibility of such a prize might even push Trump to pursue such a diplomatic solution if only to burnish his own reputation. After all, Trump is obsessed with proving that he is a better president than Barack Obama. He has sought to destroy every single legacy of the Obama administration, from health care to the Iran nuclear agreement. Trump has performed poorly on every metric in comparison not only to Obama but most of his predecessors, from his popularity ratings to the number of scandals that have engulfed his administration.

And, of course, Obama famously received a Nobel Peace Prize for doing little more than promise peace. A Nobel Prize could compensate for all of Trump’s failings and put him on par with Obama at the same time.

The yearning might come from both sides. After all, Kim Jong Un no doubt wants to prove that he, too, is accepted and honored by the international community. His father, Kim Jong Il, notably did not share a joint Nobel Peace Prize with South Korean President Kim Dae Jung after their historic inter-Korean summit in 2000. So, the current North Korean leader may also want to demonstrate that he is better than his predecessor.

It might seem like a small sacrifice for the cause of world peace to award Donald Trump (and perhaps Kim Jong Un) a Nobel Peace Prize. Plenty of unworthy people have won the award in the past, such as Henry Kissinger. The award itself is tarnished by the reputation of its founder, Alfred Nobel, who made much of his money off weapons production (and who was born in Stockholm, by the way).

But here’s why I think it’s a bad idea. It goes back to the notion of the Stockholm Syndrome.

It is a symptom of this syndrome that anyone would even consider rewarding Donald Trump for what he has done on the international stage. The world has become dangerously accustomed to his outrageous conduct – his close friendships with autocrats, his contempt for human rights, his indiscriminate use of violence (for instance the uptick in drone attacks in Afghanistan), his disgust for international institutions, the continual profits made by his corporation during his presidential tenure, and so on. Indeed, he has been so outrageous that the world breathes a sigh of relief when he doesn’t do something even worse, like start a war.

The real problem with considering a Nobel for Trump is that it would convey a certain legitimacy to Trump’s overall foreign policy. The president believes that he can bully anyone into anything, and this applies to North Korea as well. If Trump and Kim manage to bully each other into a peace agreement, that’s one thing. But it would be the worst kind of precedent for a Nobel committee to reward Trump’s bullying with the highest honor.

Giving Trump the Nobel would be comparable to Patty Hearst switching sides, taking up a gun, and mouthing the slogans of her captors.

In any case, peace on the Korean peninsula depends upon a great more than just the leaders in Washington and Pyongyang. It depends on South Korean leadership. It depends on ordinary Koreans in south and north. It depends on civic movements in Asia, Europe, and the United States. It depends on the good offices of NGOs and international agencies.

Also, the negotiations to end the Cold War on the Korean peninsula are going to take a long time. North Korea is not going to give up its nuclear weapons because the United States promises not to attack or simply signs a pledge to that effect. Conflict de-escalation and confidence-building mechanisms take a long time to put into effect.

So, if the Nobel committee should wait and resist the Stockholm Syndrome.

However, if it feels the need to give out a prize for jumpstarting peace on the Korean peninsula, my vote would go to the Korean women’s hockey team. It didn’t matter that they lost all of their games. What mattered was that they showed the world that the DMZ doesn’t have to divide Koreans.

The hockey team didn’t win any medals. But it does deserve a prize.

Hankyoreh, March 8, 2018


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