There was talk a couple of weeks back – among Trump supporters anyway – there was talk of Donald Trump winning the Nobel Peace Prize. Before you laugh, remember Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009. Nominations for the prize that year closed eleven days after he took office.
And, I have to admit that I laughed a bit when I heard the suggestion of Trump getting the Nobel Prize, it sounded like a joke, but at that point, there was a plan for a summit between him and Kim Jong Un, there were clear de-escalation steps being taken on either side of the Korean border – blaring propaganda speakers were being switched off, the leaders of each side were meeting, and biggest of all, North Korea agreed to destroy its nuclear test site.
Trump supporters do have a point when they say, if Obama had achieved that, his people would be organising him a ticker tape parade. Obama got the Nobel for basically just winning the election. But let’s have a look at exactly what Trump has achieved.
It’s important to remember that North Korea, under its present leadership, is an extremely dangerous country, to say nothing of the suffering of their own people. Kim and his clique are clearly ruthless and paranoid. They have a huge arsenal of non-nuclear artillery pointed at Seoul, the capital of South Korea and its 25 million people. The North could kill hundreds of thousands of them in the time that it would take Trump to give the command to launch missiles.
And, a surprise strike from the North with nuclear missiles would be far worse; so diverting them from the nuclear path is important, but it’s not the only goal.
When Obama, and George W Bush before him, dealt with the Kim dynasty, they were extraordinarily careful. They targeted sanctions at products known to be loved by the leadership, such as brandy – that was hardly going to do any damage to the living standards of the average citizen. Also, they never agreed to personally meet Kim, or his father or grandfather.
They barely even said the name of the Korean leader in public. They didn’t even talk about him, just about the country. When they made any statement, it was usually done via junior spokespeople. I strongly suspect that they were taking advice from strategists and psychological analysts, being careful neither to provoke him, nor build up his ego. It may also have aimed at preventing internal instability in North Korea, and that’s just the behaviour we can see. You can be sure that behaviour was matched tenfold by their strategies in their private communications with the regime, and in espionage operations.
I think that all that caution was directed towards nudging North Korea towards the least risky path. That’s not surprising; given how many lives are at stake if things go wrong, they carefully weigh the pros and cons of every step.
That’s not how business deals are done, and Trump is above all a dealmaker. Making business deals means taking chances. Sometimes, they come up good, sometimes not. Remember, 90 per cent of businesses fail. Trump and his ventures have gone bankrupt four times, and that’s not even a bad thing. If nobody took those risks, our economy would never develop.
But, in politics, how good is the deal that Trump seems to be making with Kim? The minor things, the switching off of the propaganda speakers and so on, they are important, you can bet that they were agreed in advance, staged to be symmetrical, but of course the big thing is the destruction of the nuclear test site.
But how important was that nuclear test site? North Korea has already done a total of six test detonations.
Is that enough to develop a bomb? The answer is yes. How do we know? Because India developed a nuclear bomb with exactly six test detonations. India use their bomb to threaten and counterbalance Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. How many test detonations did Pakistan need to develop their bomb? Answer: six.
So in all likelihood, Kim has given away something that was of no more use to him. He basically sold Trump the nuclear disarmament version of a course at Trump University. What did Kim get in return? He got the promise of meeting the US president. He has clearly been hankering after that for years. And, I suspect, not just for the photograph. That type of a meeting, apart from inflating his ego, would be likely to cement his position in North Korea. He’s not now getting the meeting, but Kim did get the US president talking and tweeting about him non-stop, which is something that is clearly important to him.
Is that a good thing? I don’t know, but I suspect that there is a roomful of analysts in the Pentagon, or the CIA, or the State Department – or all three – whose job is analyse if that makes the world a safer, or more dangerous, place.
That meeting now seems to be cancelled, perhaps because those analysts or their bosses came banging on the Oval Office door to tell Trump to knock it off.
I’m not totally condemning a new approach here. Previous US policy in Korea has prevented war, but it hasn’t prevented an arms race, and certainly hasn’t produced a softening in the crazy regime in Pyongyang.
But you can’t transfer all business skills to politics. I’m not sure that Trump has the bandwidth or concentration for the amount of detail that exists in the Korea situation. Risk-taking in international affairs is a different thing to risk-taking in business. The stakes are of a different order of magnitude. When businessmen make bad deals, money is lost. When statesmen make bad deals, lives are lost; maybe even wars are lost.