Trump winning the Nobel Peace Prize? Why experts give him credit for North Korea talks

Yes, experts say. U.S. President Donald Trump — who once sympathized with violent white nationalists, implored a crowd at a campaign rally to "knock the hell out of" protesters, and threatened nuclear annihilation against North Korea — is a contender for a Nobel Peace Prize.

U.S. president cited for enforcing sanctions that have led to the bargaining table

Trump speaks in the Oval Office on Monday. (Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images)

Sung-Yoon Lee snickered at the suggestion, dismissing it as "absurd" and "premature" at first. Then the scholar on the Koreas at Tufts University reconsidered the prospect.

Actually yes, Lee conceded. He thinks U.S. President Donald Trump — who once defended some white-nationalist marchers as "very fine people," implored a crowd at a campaign rally to "knock the crap out" of protesters, and threatened nuclear annihilation against North Korea — is a probable contender for a Nobel Peace Prize.

He might even win.

"I think odds are he will," said Lee, the Kim Koo-Korea Foundation Professor of Korean Studies. "But for all the wrong reasons."

If the upcoming historic U.S.-North Korea summit proves to be successful, at least in terms of optics, possibly resulting in, say, the release of a handful of Americans detained in North Korea and the halt of further major weapons tests this year, Lee said, "then I really wouldn't rule it out."

Trump's base would certainly love to see it happen. On a weekend campaign rally in Michigan, he paused mid-speech, smiling as supporters broke into chants of "Nobel! Nobel!"

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, left, prepares to shake hands with South Korean President Moon Jae-in over the military demarcation line at the border village of Panmunjom on April 27. (Associated Press)

South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who held a hopeful inter-Korean summit with North Korean ruler Kim Jong-un, also seems in favour ahead of Trump's expected meeting with Kim in May or June at an undetermined location.

"President Trump should win the Nobel Peace Prize," Moon told his staff, according to the Blue House.

The South Korean leader deflected praise from himself, commending Trump's "maximum pressure" policy of aggressive rhetoric and enforcement of harsh sanctions, for bringing Kim to the negotiating table.

"I give President Trump huge credit for bringing about the inter-Korean talks," Moon said. "And I'd like to thank him for that."

The South Korean president's Nobel suggestion came on Monday, after the widow of his predecessor praised him for working with Kim toward "complete denuclearization" of the Korean Peninsula.

From the sounds of it, an unexpected peace process is now within grasp. But that's just the thing, Lee warns. 

The proliferation of weapons is part of the North Korean regime's vast criminal enterprises — illicit activities that, experts say, account for a significant portion of the country's economy. (Associated Press)

"It's simply verbal palliative from the North Korean leader," he said. "Kim Jong-un has a new disposition, a sunnier face, but there's nothing substantial accomplished yet."

Stephen Noerper, senior director for policy at the Korea Society, said the previous three U.S. administrations and this one have had largely similar bipartisan policies on North Korea.

While Barack Obama's administration may have been the era of "strategic patience," he said, Trump has described his approach as one of "peace through strength."

"I wouldn't rob the current administration of their being more activist," Noerper said. "But the difference, really, is the circumstances."

What can't be discounted is how much of a bargaining chip Kim now has, owing the hermit kingdom's demonstrated ability to launch a nuclear missile to strike the U.S. mainland.

A man watches a TV screen showing file footage of Kim, Moon and Trump during a March 27 news program at the Seoul Railway Station. (Lee Jin-man/Associated Press)

Noerper noted Kim is a younger, more dynamic leader who appears eager to "strike a bolder path" than his late father and predecessor by pursuing economic sustainability, not just military power, for the survivability of his regime.

Under Kim's signature two-plank "byunjin" policy, the pursuit of nukes and economic modernization is likely viewed as "two wheels on the cart," Noerper said. While he doesn't expect Kim would trade one for the promise of the other, Kim does appear to have prioritized economic growth for now, with the promise to suspend ballistics tests.

It's not the most obvious of peace workers. I would have assumed that if he was indeed nominated, he doesn't really have any capital as a man who has engaged in working on the cause of peace.— Torbjorn Knutsen, expert on the Nobel Institute

So far, Kim has promised to shutter its main nuclear test site at Punggye-ri and cease testing ballistic missiles. He also pledged to invite outside observers to help dismantle the facility.

All good signs that Harry Kazianis, director of defence studies with the conservative Center for the National Interest, attributes to Trump.

"We're not going to have a nuclear war any time soon, so that's as good a reason as any to give Trump the Nobel."

Kazianis points to two key factors. There's the maximum-pressure campaign on North Korea, which he said "by October" should drain their foreign currency reserves, "meaning they're broke." And there's pressure on China and Russia to enforce harsh sanctions, the easing of which would allow Kim to pursue his goal of economic modernization.

At the same time, Kazianis believes the inter-Korean dialogue amounts to little more than a "Potemkin summit" — big on theatrics but thin on substance.

Despite its feel-good emphasis on relationship-building, the first inter-Korean summit in more than a decade has a lot of questions around denuclearization. That puts the ball in Trump's court, with his sit-down with Kim expected within weeks. (Associated Press)

Ultimately, the Trump administration wants the irreversible termination of the North's nuclear program. It won't be easy to get there.

"The challenge is we have to remember what North Korea has given up to build those nuclear weapons. Hundreds of thousands of North Koreans have died so Kim could build those nuclear weapons," Kazianis said.

$100 billion price tag?

"Think about all the food and resources denied to this population to build them. The price tag is going to be astronomically high, not just some small promise of economic aid."

An opening bid might be at least $100 billion in economic aid, the removal of sanctions and a security guarantee from the Chinese to ensure there is no invasion of North Korea.

Who deserves credit for the peace talks is already a complicated matter for Torbjorn Knutsen, an expert on the Nobel Institute at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

"I am sure somebody will nominate Trump," he said from Trondheim, Norway. "I don't know what to say. It's not the most obvious of peace workers. I would have assumed that if he was indeed nominated, he doesn't really have any capital as a man who has engaged in working on the cause of peace."

U.S. President Bill Clinton presides over White House ceremonies marking the signing of the peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, left, and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in 1993. (Ron Edmonds/Associated Press)

Another possibility, Knutsen said, is that the leaders of the two Koreas might share a Peace Prize — leaving Trump out of it.

Knutsen was reminded of the 1993 handshake and signing of the Oslo Accords between Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, seen as a reconciliation that was facilitated by U.S. president Bill Clinton. In the end, it was Arafat, Rabin and Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres who split the prize in 1994, with Clinton moved to the sidelines.

Honouring a brutal autocrat

Lee, the Koreas expert at Tufts University, can see that bearing out in this case, even if it means the Nobel Committee honouring a brutal autocrat.

"As absurd as it is, I think Kim deserves it more than anyone else," Lee said. "Without his compliance, there is no meeting; there is no summit."

That could make it difficult for many to overcome some cognitive dissonance. Still, few would have also predicted months ago that Kim and Trump would meet soon to resolve the nuclear crisis.

How serious the North Koreans are about negotiating is an open question, however. During his charm offensive in South Korea, Kim even made light of his frequent missile tests to Moon, referencing the early-morning hours of the launches.

"I will make sure not to interrupt your sleep anymore," Kim said, according to reports.


Matt Kwong


Matt Kwong was the Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong