Is President Moon Jae-in Really Rooting for a Trump Nobel? Not So Fast.

Let’s talk about how fake news happens.

Not just news that’s completely made up, but news that’s stripped of its original context and placed in a made-up narrative, a narrative that might have substantial consequences otherwise.

This weekend, a former Korean First Lady, Lee Hui-ho, sent congratulations to President Moon Jae-in regarding the historic summit at Panmunjom on Friday. Lee is the widow of former president Kim Dae-jung, who implemented the Sunshine Policy upon ascending to the presidency in 1998. After a similar summit in Panmunjom in 2000 with Kim Jong-il, he received the Nobel Peace Prize that year.

While quotations in the Korean media are treated very liberally compared to the United States, a quick search indicates that Lee’s congratulations noted that a war would have been disastrous for all involved and included a line stating that President Moon should receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

Moon’s response, as stated to his aides in a private meeting, has been widely reported in the American media and has been framed consistently by most sources. Per the Washington Post: “President Trump should win the Nobel Peace Prize. The only thing we need is peace.” Per the New York Times: “It’s really President Trump who should receive it; we can just take peace.” Per Reuters: “President Trump should win the Nobel Peace Prize. What we need is only peace.” Per NPR: “It’s President Trump who should receive the Nobel Prize.”

Is that what he said? No reason to doubt it, right? After all, all of the major news outlets agree. And, what’s more, President Moon has already been on the record giving Donald credit for things that may or may not be traceable back to him.

But let’s look at the original text of the remark: “노벨상은 도널드 트럼프 미 대통령이 받아야 하고 우리는 평화만 가져오면 된다.”

By the text itself, the translations above get close to the true meaning. However, in context, noting that President Moon is deflecting a platitude AND speaking to his senior aides, I think this remark changes substantially.

First off, the way that this remark has been interpreted is as two separate sentences. I think that’s incorrect. The Korean language is lousy with ridiculously long dependent clauses, and that’s what seems to be happening here. The first clause is, “The Nobel Peace Prize goes to American President Donald Trump”, followed by the conjunction “하고”. The second clause is “We take and bring (or create) peace”, likely referring to North and South Korea collectively, followed FINALLY by the verb “된다”.

The conjunction “하고” is best understood in this case as “and”, and the verb “된다” translates as “that would be acceptable”/”that will do”. Each of the translations above assumes that “된다” is referring ONLY to the second half of this remark: Trump gets the Nobel Peace Prize, and it’s acceptable that we have peace.

However, each half of this sentence already has its own verb: Donald receiving the prize, and the Koreas creating peace. Rhetorically, it also makes more sense for a “that would be fine” verb to refer to a set of multiple circumstances: in this case, the positive of creating peace would render moot the question of who gets the Nobel Prize that might accompany it. (Or, read more strongly, peace would outweigh the negative of Donald receiving the prize.)

As such, my reading of this goes something along the lines of: “Even if Trump wins the prize, as long as we have peace, it will be worth it.” (Or, more strongly, depending on the context of the meeting: “Give the prize to Trump for all I care; peace is more important.”)

This reading makes more sense particularly given that this is a response to praise from an elder generation of Korean leadership. The Korean language, while not typically understood as florid, is very sensitive to variations in tone and framing; you can change the level of formality of almost any sentence depending on relative social status. (This works both ways: you can use more informal wording to convey a lack of deference, but you can also use an overly formal construction in order to needle somebody who you might find too self-important.)

In this case, President Moon was walking a fine line: his aides are necessarily junior to him in the social order, but as an elder statesman, Ms. Lee deserves the utmost deference. (Korean social order is highly deferential to relative age and experience, although it is not the only relevant factor.) His response must be both graceful and modest, or he will come off as too self-absorbed. And yet, he must remain relatively casual, as he is speaking with those junior to him, those he interacts with regularly, those he is presumably comfortable with.

Reading in an affirmative preference for Donald to win would be inconsistent with this social order; it is far more likely that he’s merely trying to deflect with another platitude while reaffirming that his primary commitment is to peace. And not for nothing, this is exactly the position President Moon would be expected to take given his campaign promises and how he has conducted himself during his first year in office. (His approval ratings as a result have skyrocketed, and currently stand at 86 percent following the summit on Friday.)

Indeed, I think it’s entirely open to interpretation, since we didn’t hear how President Moon said this remark, whether he intended it to be a compliment of Donald or not. (Anybody who thinks they know for sure is just trying to read the same tea leaves you and I are.)

But if you look just at the headlines from the four articles above, you’d have no idea. Per the Washington Post: “Trump should get the Nobel Peace Prize for North Korea talks, Moon says.” Per the New York Times: “A Trump Nobel Peace Prize? South Korea’s Leader Likes the Idea.” Per Reuters: “South Korea president says Trump deserves Nobel Peace Prize.” Per NPR: “Trump Should Win The Nobel Peace Prize, South Korea’s Moon Says.”

This narrative is simply incorrect, given the context we have in front of us. Indeed, global-facing Korean media has this framed very differently: “Moon Says He Wants Peace, not Nobel Peace Prize“.

News that is entirely fake, of course, is corrosive to any functioning society. But facts that get distorted at the edges and stripped of context can also create narratives that are equally misleading or damaging. Indeed, the overwhelming endorsement of this view in the American media could have legitimate foreign relations consequences, depending on how President Moon might be forced to conduct himself moving forward. I trust that NPR, Reuters, the Times, and the Post share this view and are aware of the power of their reporting, which is why I am disappointed in each of them parroting a view that is, at best, far from established based on the facts available to us.

And yet, I recognize how difficult the truth can be. Facts matter, but facts can be complicated. That complexity also matters. We must embrace it even as the sound bites might call to us.

We cannot settle for less.

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