The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Korea is built to be unsolvable

President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908 and President Trump.
President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908 and President Trump. (Associated Press; Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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Arguably no four words are better calculated to explode the heads of liberals the world over than “Donald Trump’s Nobel Prize.” That was reason enough for thousands of Trump devotees to chant “Nobel! Nobel!” at a weekend political rally in Michigan. His putative claim on the laurel had come days earlier, when the whole world saw North Korea’s Kim Jong Un attempt an awkward hug with South Korean leader Moon Jae-in at the conclusion of their summit. Kim is a third-generation despot known for ordering senior officials executed by shooting them at close range with antiaircraft fire. So any hug, no matter how awkward, is going to look like a momentous breakthrough, and President Trump’s team is of course going to credit his Twitter diplomacy.

Liberal heads also went blooey back in 1906, when another brash, wealthy, self- ­promoting New York Republican president received a Nobel Peace Prize. According to keepers of the Nobel records, “the Norwegian Left argued that [Theodore] Roosevelt was a ‘military mad’ imperialist who completed the American conquest of the Philippines. Swedish newspapers wrote that Alfred Nobel was turning in his grave.”

What is most pertinent about this parallel is not how much or how little Trump resembles this role model. (It’s possible Roosevelt wrote more books than Trump has read.) Instead, the key takeaway is that Roosevelt won his peace prize for mediating an agreement involving the future of Korea. More than a century later, the U.S. president is still working on the same problem. This simple fact ought to give the triumphalists pause.

For all the focus on personality — “Little Rocket Man” and so on — Korea’s destiny as a global problem patch is dictated by its geography more than its leaders. It is the strategic peninsula where imperial powers converge. Korea shields China’s vital ports on the Yellow Sea; it lures Russia with the hope of warm-water access to the Pacific; it juts at the Japanese home islands “like a dagger pointed at the heart,” as one military strategist put it sharply. Dominated for centuries by China, Korea found itself at the crossroads of two wars in the decade between 1895 and 1905, and nothing afterward has resembled true peace.

Roosevelt’s role in ending the second of those two wars, between Russia and Japan , led to his Nobel Prize and left the peninsula under Japanese sway. Over the next generation, that sway deteriorated into an increasingly brutal occupation, ending only with Japan’s defeat in World War II. After Tokyo’s surrender in 1945, the victorious United States divided the peninsula with the Soviet Union, creating a buffer zone between the rival superpowers, but the tense coexistence failed. A savage war in the early 1950s carried the world to the nuclear brink and never officially ended.

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For all the hopes Trump will carry into his proposed summit with Kim — hopes for peace, denuclearization and even visions of eventual unification — this tangled skein of history and geography presents some formidable knots. On a scale of difficulty from one to 10, this is a 13. Consider just a few of the intractable questions facing the U.S. team:

First, what is Kim’s future? Today, he is the absolute ruler of an impoverished but militarily dangerous nation protected by his own arms and the suzerainty of China. Like his father and grandfather, he holds power by wielding violence, favoritism and propaganda, while keeping his people on a constant wartime footing. How, exactly, does he fit this family-business model into any vision of a peaceful, unified Korea in which the wealthy, open South would have overwhelming economic superiority?

Second, how can global powers reconcile competing interests in Korea over the long term without a permanent division, and the attendant threat of renewed tensions? Since November 1950, when China sent hundreds of thousands of ill-equipped troops across the Yalu River in human waves, Beijing has made clear it will never accept U.S. dominance of the peninsula. Over the same period, the United States has invested enormous blood, treasure and human resources in building the South into a dynamic democracy. If the bright line of the 38th Parallel is to be gradually erased, as Kim and Moon agreed in vague but idealistic language, how will these competing commitments be separated?

And supposing that the United States can somehow coexist with China in a peaceful Korea, how does Russia fit into the mix? The struggling but proud petro-state has designs on turning Korea into a major customer, and perhaps a transshipment hub for its natural gas. There is friction all around the globe where Russia rubs against the West. Can it be safely managed in the tinderbox of Korea?

Everything we have seen in the past few months, we’ve seen before. The North Koreans pause their arms buildup. The South Koreans extend their hands. Promises of peace are exchanged.

This has happened repeatedly because it’s the easy part. What comes next is devilishly difficult. And if Trump pulls it off — truly, lastingly — he will deserve the prize.

Read more from David Von Drehle’s archive.

Read more on this issue:

Karen Tumulty: A Nobel Peace Prize for President Trump? It could happen.

Paul Waldman: On Iran and North Korea, Trump prepares to screw everything up

Max Boot: Don’t let the Korea summit hype fool you. We’ve been here before.

Victor Cha: The inter-Korean summit has only raised the stakes for Trump