You could see this coming: President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un are calling each other names again. Kim once more is “Rocket Man” instead of the writer of “beautiful letters.” North Korean propagandists are focusing their adolescent insults on Trump, declaring him to be suffering the “Dotage of a Dotard.” Whatever that means.
Does it matter? Is this worth more than a roll of eyes? Some of it is undoubtedly theatrics, but Kim does appear to be doubling down on his nuclear program, doubting he can strike a deal with the United States – unless he can maneuver Trump into a corner. But that will be tricky, since the U.S. president won’t want to look weak and gullible during an election campaign.
After Trump threatened Kim a couple of years ago with “fire and fury like the world has never seen,” the two leaders have largely managed to keep North Korea off the front pages. Last June, after his first meeting with Kim, Trump even declared that the North Korea nuclear threat was over.
Except it really wasn’t, as many people – including his third former national security adviser, John Bolton (“Defective Human Product” to the North Koreans) — kept telling Trump. Numerous reports suggest Kim has been using the breathing space to improve his arsenal. He has been busy this year, launching 13 missiles and testing what experts say are three new systems. Trump professed not to care because none of them were long-range missiles.
But plenty of other people do care. Those missiles, according to Massachusetts Institute of Technology security studies professor Vipin Narang, quoted by the BBC, “are solid fuel, they are mobile, they are fast, they fly low,” and one is maneuverable in flight. Any one of them would be a challenge for North Korea’s neighbors, Narang said. “Together, they pose a nightmare.”
Kim has been pushing for concessions by the end of the year, demanding sanctions relief and an easing of U.S. demands for unilateral denuclearization. An effort to restart talks in Stockholm in October went nowhere. On Saturday, North Korea’s ambassador to the United Nations said denuclearization is off the table.
What comes next? There are hints North Korea could restart long-range missile launches, or at minimum tests of engines for such weapons. It announced that it had conducted a ‘very important test’ Saturday at a launch site that Trump previously said he had persuaded Kim to close, a possible precursor to a satellite or ICBM test. Then there is the iconography of Kim riding a white horse to North Korea’s most revered mountain, accompanied by the message to his people that hard times are ahead. Plus, there will a meeting of senior party leaders at the end of the month.
In one oft-quoted remark, a deputy foreign minister declared that it was up to the U.S. “what Christmas gift it will select,” offering Trump the option of making concessions that might keep North Korea largely out of the news during an impeachment trial and political campaign.
Trump told reporters in London last week that the U.S. would use military force against North Korea if it had to. And he pulled up the “Rocket Man” label, as well. (That’s what prompted the “Dotage of a Dotard” response.) The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Kelly Craft, reiterated U.S. concern about North Korea’s missile tests at a news conference on Friday.
Writing after the failed meeting in Stockholm, the Brookings Institution’s Jung H. Pak detailed the reasons why Kim might have concluded he had Trump where he wanted him. Prime among them were Trump’s apparent lack of concern about continued weapons development and his firing of Bolton. But Kim also has been spending a lot of time making sure that China and Russia have his back. Chinese President Xi Jinping was widely reported in the past to be deeply frustrated with Kim, but the atmosphere around his visit to North Korea in June was notably friendly.
Finally, Trump continues to fumble relations with allies South Korea and Japan, hurting coordination of their actions in the region – and perhaps providing North Korea with an opportunity to deepen those divisions.
Although things are heading in the wrong direction, it wouldn’t be a total surprise to see another Trump-Kim meeting in coming months. Throwing around insults hasn’t stopped them in the past. It would appeal to Trump the showman. It’s probably the best shot Kim has left to wring some concessions from Trump – who now more than ever is without a deep bench of senior foreign policy experts. And in a perverse way, increasing the tension could sharpen the before-and-after contrast if Trump came away declaring a foreign policy triumph (even if it wasn’t).
But Kim must be careful. It wouldn’t do to push too hard. He probably still would prefer to see Trump win a second term and continue dealing with a disorganized, distracted and transactional White House. And Trump could decide his best option is to resurrect his “fire and fury” rhetoric.
We’ve been here before. “Rocket Man” and “Dotard” don’t want a war. But each time we come back to this point, there’s a chance someone makes a big mistake.