Coral, one of the top British bookmakers, has Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un as favorites - at 2/1 odds - to win the Nobel Peace Prize this year. They’re ahead of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Saudi activist Raif Badawi, Pope Francis and other potential winners. If their talks go as well as Friday’s summit between Kim and his South Korean counterpart Moon Jae-in, and peace is restored to the Korean peninsula, they’ll both deserve it.
There’s a lesson in this, and it’s about more than “normalization” - a phrase we’ve been endlessly cautioned to avoid with both Kim and Trump. The nastiest, most distasteful people, even ruthless dictators and mass murderers, can and should be celebrated for specific actions that make the world a safer place. In some cases, these actions will - and should - form their principal legacy.
Take Winston Churchill. Reacting to the 2017 movie Darkest Hour, which presented the British war leader as a brilliant, idiosyncratic contrarian battling an anemic elite to end Nazi appeasement, Shashi Tharoor, head of the Indian Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee wrote provocatively in The Washington Post: “He was one of the great mass murderers of the 20th century, yet is the only one, unlike Hitler and Stalin, to have escaped historical odium in the West.” He cataloged scorched earth tactics against rebels in the British colonies, a part in engineering the 1943 Bengal famine and the firebombing of Dresden in 1945.
The precise accusations and their context are for historians to argue about. Churchill is rightly lionized for standing up to the Nazis, his greatest achievement; it doesn’t just tip the scale in his favor when weighed against his dark side - for many whose family histories would have ended or taken a gloomy direction under victorious Nazis, it tends to wipe the slate clean.
Similarly, one could argue that nothing that has happened since the millennium could match a potential Korean peace deal. The conflict that split Korea is probably the biggest piece of unfinished 20th century business that carried over into this century. It began in 1948, grew into a hot proxy war between the Soviet Union and the U.S., dragged China in and continued to its current, arguably even more complex phase. It has created one of the last divided nations on earth, ruled by regimes that couldn’t be more different - the South Korean technocracy and the North Korean ideological state driven by a cult of personality.
It also continues to stand as a lasting consequence of the old U.S. approach to war, with the merciless carpet-bombing that Japan and Germany have worked to forgive but the North Korean regime has made sure its citizens continue to hold against the U.S.
Perhaps the breathless coverage of the talks between Kim and Moon, their smiles and handshakes, their seemingly unstaged forays to the opposite sides of the world’s most fortified border is premature. Perhaps Kim’s words about the start of “a new history” and “an age of peace” are just rhetoric meant to get the West to soften sanctions against North Korea in exchange for some meaningless promises.
North Korean hackers have just been linked to a massive worldwide cyberattack meant to steal data about Western critical infrastructure and key industries. And Kim is still the same ruler who has used torture, hard labor, relentless propaganda and dehumanizing social practices to beat his subjects into submission, as his father and grandfather had done before him. There’s no reason why he should suddenly stop and act more like the popular Swiss private school student he once was. It’s difficult to see how he can afford to without losing power.
Trump is also still Trump. He mocked Kim as “Little Rocket Man,” then switched seamlessly to a respectful tone - all without displaying any understanding of the Korean issue’s complexities. He can easily switch back once the difficulties of actually negotiating something bigger than an awkward dance across the border line or a state dinner loom large. Strict, real international control over the North’s nuclear program and major cuts to the U.S. military presence, to name just a couple of necessary concessions the sides might need to make, are by no means assured. Trump likes to win and turns petulant when others don’t give him what he wants.
But the possibility of a breakthrough should make even both men’s enemies careful not to disparage their efforts. If a working Korean peace deal is the only good thing they do in their lifetimes, it may well be enough to redeem them and to supplant all the nasty stuff they’ve said and done. In a similar way, Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader who is blamed for many different things in Russia and its ex-Soviet neighbor states won his Nobel Peace Prize for, well, choosing peace over war - and ending Germany’s division in the process. That, and not his ineffectual leadership, poor choice of underlings or feeble attempts to put down revolts on the Soviet periphery, is what Gorbachev as a historic figure is about.
So don’t count on me to scowl at the “normalization” of Trump and Kim. Peace is fragile. It’s also the ultimate achievement for a leader. Those who attain it are heroes, whatever else they are.
Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.