With each advancement that North Korea makes in its nuclear-weapons program, Donald Trump responds with predictable petulance.
He warned that North Korea would face “fire and fury like the world has never seen” after learning it had produced a miniaturized warhead that can fit inside its missiles. In the past, U.S. leaders usually exercised calm resilience when Pyongyang escalated its rhetoric or progressed in its nuclear ambitions.
He prefers to match crazy with crazy. But supreme leader Kim Jong Un may not be that crazy at all, given what we know about Trump and about North Korea’s own place in world affairs. Sure, Kim has displayed signs of irrational behavior himself with his repeated nuclear-weapons tests and launching of ballistic missiles. Kim presides over a nation that engages in some of the worst human rights violations on earth. And he regularly warns that he plans on bombing South Korea into oblivion.
Comparatively, Trump, who presides over the most powerful military that history has ever known, is matching immaturity with even more immaturity. His childish responses to Kim give the appearance of a bigger kid picking on a smaller one, which consequently diminishes the exalted position America has traditionally assumed as leader of the free world.
Trump’s lust for and ignorance of nuclear warfare, for example, make him appear as extreme as Kim. He tweeted in December that the United States must expand its nuclear arsenal even though it already competes with Russia for being the biggest and most advanced in the world. He called for an arms race during an MSBNC radio show around the time of the tweet, though he didn’t name whom the arms race should target. I guess he wanted Russia, North Korea and Iran to play musical chairs among themselves to figure out who’d respond to Trump with their own bellicose reactions.
But even more terrifying than Trump’s lust for nukes is his ignorance of them. It was clear he didn’t know what the nuclear triad was during a December debate in 2015. His actions in office have been equally incompetent. Trump hired Rick Perry to be his energy secretary even though the former Texas governor had no idea that the department he’d ultimately preside over controlled the nation’s nuclear arsenal.
Then we have the time Trump held an open-air meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at his Mar-a-Lago Club in response to a North Korea ballistic missile launch with documents and laptops spread over a table as club guests looked on.
And folks continue to assert that Kim is the crazy one, huh?
I get it. It’s easy to make fun of North Korea with the “Hermit Kingdom” references and the jokes about Kim’s reported love of cheese, but no one really understands the country or its people that well. No foreign leader is known to have met Kim since he took power in 2011. Outside of China and maybe Russia, Pyongyang has no real diplomatic relationships of note. Kim doesn’t do interviews with international press, and the ones he does at home are all staged propaganda. His country is arguably the most sanctioned nation on earth. And technically, it is still at war with South Korea, a staunch U.S. ally that hosts nearly 30,000 U.S. troops on its soil. If you were in North Korea’s shoes, you’d likely want to hold on to your nuclear weapons if it meant keeping Washington, D.C., and the unpredictable nut job who sits in the Oval Office at bay.
For North Korea, threatening to use nukes and insisting on maintaining them isn’t the thinking of crazy state actors. It is a rational but extreme approach to survival. And can you blame them, given that Trump is the U.S. commander in chief?
I am not apologizing for North Korea, but its leadership is not beyond the scope of rational engagement as many think it is. There was a time many thought America would go to war with the USSR, but cooler heads prevailed. And former President Barack Obama brokered the Iran deal when most thought it impossible. U.S. leadership regularly negotiates peaceful resolutions with those who are deemed irrational actors without resorting to the childish playground antics to which Trump routinely resorts.
Kim’s rhetoric is indicative of a leader nervous about losing power to a much more powerful adversary. Trump’s behavior proves that he lacks the maturity to realize as much. Instead of using the White House for hard-nosed diplomacy, he’s turned it into a playpen where the cult of personality reigns supreme.
America is looking more like the Hermit Kingdom by the day.