You may have had a chuckle over recent news that the Nobel Peace Prize Committee had received a forged nomination for Donald Trump. It seemed that the culprit, who allegedly stole someone else’s identity to make the pitch and is now under investigation by the Norwegian police, did the same thing a year ago. But at any rate, how utterly preposterous.
This was the man who refused to acknowledge the Nato Treaty’s provision of mutual self-defense, plunging the Alliance into an existential crisis the likes of which it hasn’t experienced in years. Who, while campaigning for president, mused about withdrawing the US military commitments to South Korea and Japan and encouraging them to acquire nuclear weapons.
This is the man whose off-the-reservation rhetoric at the United Nations about North Korea and its leader, Kim Jong-un, sent the rest of the world into paroxysms of anxiety and dread. He would “totally destroy North Korea,” he said. “Rocket man” was on a “suicide mission” as he continued to build and test missiles apparently capable of striking the US with nuclear payloads.
We were beginning to wonder who of the two leaders was more bonkers, Kim or Trump.
But hold up. Top diplomats sent to Pyongyang by Seoul to attempt to carry forward a sudden thaw that began with North Korea’s unexpected participation in the Winter Olympics, have reported a stunning breakthrough. Among the highlights: the leaders of the North and South will hold their first summit in more than a decade, the North will agree to talks with the United States on ending their face-off. And throughout the process it will desist from further testing.
That the US intelligence community isn’t exactly popping the champagne is to be expected. Scepticism is the order of the day. “Hope springs eternal but we need to learn a lot more relative to these talks,” Dan Coats, Director of National Intelligence, told members of Congress. “And we will.”
No less unsurprising was Trump evincing, by contrast, a degree of optimism. “Possible progress being made in talks with North Korea,” he wrote in a tweet. “For the first time in many years, a serious effort is being made by all parties concerned. The World is watching and waiting! May be false hope, but the U.S. is ready to go hard in either direction!”
The amateur antics of Trump with respect to the Korea problem have been terrifying. He has watched as expertise on the region and denuclearisation has drained out of a demoralised State Department. He has attached zero urgency to appointing an ambassador to South Korea. His threats against the North have created unprecedented tensions between Seoul and Washington. He sent Ivanka Trump to Seoul to discuss the situation with President Moon Jae-in.
At the annual Gridiron Dinner in Washington on Saturday, Trump astonished experts claiming he’d talked to North Korea himself. “It was headed for disaster and now we’re talking,” he announced. “They, by the way, called up a couple of days ago; they said, ‘We would like to talk’. And I said, ‘So would we, but you have to denuke.’” It turned out it was South Korea he’d been talking to. But, you know, one Korea is much like another.
And yet... We don't know what will happen next. But we can say this with some degree of confidence: we wouldn’t be where we are now were it not for the extreme pressure applied by Trump, pressure, by the way, which the Obama administration chose, for whatever reasons, not to apply.
First the rhetoric. Trump has been consistent in signalling a willingness to order unilateral strikes again North Korea if sanctions and diplomacy were failing and the risk of missile strikes on the US was becoming intolerable. (The last scenario was made more vivid by the recent fake incoming-missile alarm that scared the bejesus out of residents of Hawaii.) Nobody was more mortified by the notion of renewed conflict on the peninsula than Seoul. The projections for human casualties are terrifying. No wonder it has worked so hard on rapprochement.
Possibly these threats were part of what also drove Kim to his apparent change of gear. But perhaps even more compelling is the case that US sanctions on his country may actually be pinching. Already, the US measures, further tightened by the administration last month, amount, in Trump’s words, to the “heaviest sanctions ever imposed on a country”.
More importantly, this time the US has striven to ensure they work; that the pain they are designed to deliver on North Korea actually gets through. Nothing is ever airtight — there will always be countries still anxious to trade with the regime — and Washington still hasn’t gone as far as it might, for example punishing Chinese banks propping up Pyongyang. But other enforcement steps have been taken, like barring US companies from doing business with a long list of shipping companies and vessels believed to have secretly carried North Korean cargo.
This may yet all fall apart. But if this proves to be the beginning of the end of what was rapidly shaping up to be the most serious international security crisis of our times, then a tremendous amount of credit will be due Trump. Whether or not he always knew what he was doing, his instinct was clear: there will no more pussyfooting around Pyongyang. A dangerous strategy for sure, but one that just may be about to bear fruit.
Obama won the Peace Prize and subsequently got precisely nowhere resolving the North Korea conundrum. Suddenly, Trump getting it down the road doesn’t seem so implausible.
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