When they hurled insults at each other such as “little rocket man” and “dotard,” and traded threats of nuclear annihilation, few could imagine that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump would develop such a lasting bromance in so little time.
Like any other close relationship, there must have been some sort of chemistry between the 36-year old North Korean leader and the septuagenarian US president. Think not only about their age g ap and geographical separation, but also the fact that their countries fought a war and have since remained ideological archenemies.
The chemistry, however, is not as natural and wholesome as it is in most relationships between ordinary men. The relationship between Kim and Trump may well be calculated and purposeful, which makes their bond a potentially dangerous one.
One of Kim’s motives for personally grooming Trump is to preserve the nuclear status quo. Kim declared in November 2017 that his country had completed the work needed to become a nuclear power, citing a successful test-firing of an intercontinental ballistic missile that can deliver a nuclear device to the US mainland. Trump is playing into Kim’s hands if their bromance only helps the North hold on to its nuclear weapons.
In fact, Trump insists that there is no problem with his handling of the North, as long as Kim keeps his promise not to order another nuclear or ICBM test.
This does not bode well for disarming the Pyongyang regime, which is believed to have tens of nuclear weapons and a massive bio-chemical arsenal as well. Trump is soft on Kim and Kim is exploiting this by continuing to test new types of short-range missiles and rockets. Trump had already given tacit approval to the North’s “microaggressions” by saying that many countries test short-range missiles. Most recently, Trump, citing the contents of a personal letter, said that Kim made a “small apology” to him for the tests. It is apparent that the two of them now take North Korea’s missile testing for granted.
In other words, thanks partly to his bromance with Trump, Kim is able to hold on to his nuclear weapons and has no qualms about continuing to improve missile technologies. South Korean officials say the missiles North Korea tested this year include new types that are harder to intercept.
Another benefit Kim is drawing from his bond with the US president is that, unlike his forebears, he can live without fear of a US preemptive attack as long as the peace mood continues. Kim must be well aware that Bill Clinton planned to make a precision strike on the North’s key nuclear facilities in Yongbyon in 1994 during the first nuclear crisis, which started with Pyongyang’s withdrawal from the Non-proliferation Treaty the previous year. The plan was aborted due to opposition from then South Korean President Kim Young-sam.
Elsewhere, Kim’s bromance with Trump helps boost the young dictator’s political and personal profile at home and abroad. His grandfather, the North’s founder Kim Il-sung, and his father Kim Jong-il were notoriously aloof. Overseas trips were rare, except to China and Russia, and they even kept their wives out of the public eye.
The Swiss-educated junior Kim is breaking that mold, using his relationships with Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in to earn him and his country international exposure. The series of summit meetings Kim has had with Trump, Moon, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin have put him and his wife Ri Sol-ju in the global limelight.
Through such high-profile events, Kim has avoided the image created by his father and grandfather: one of a chieftain of an isolated rogue state. Instead, he has presented himself to his people and the international community as a legitimate leader of a normal country willing to engage the outside world. The North Korean issuance of postage stamps depicting Kim and Trump standing together at the inter-Korean border reflects Kim’s wish to be seen as an equal negotiating partner with the leader of the most powerful country in the world.
For his part, Trump needs his bromance with Kim to tout his self-proclaimed success in taming one of the world’s most troublesome regimes and preventing a potential nuclear war. He often claims this as something none of his predecessors, including Barack Obama, were able to achieve.
But the reality is that Trump’s bellicose rhetoric caused much of the fear of nuclear war in the first place, and the bond that has been developing since the “handshake of the century” in Singapore more than a year ago has done little to dismantle the North’s nuclear facilities and the nuclear arsenal it has already built.
One more reason Trump started his bromance with Kim is that it comes in tune with his “America First” policy with respect to South Korea. He uses his personal relationship with Kim to justify his decision to cancel or scale down joint military exercises with South Korea, which he recently called a waste of American taxpayers’ money.
Since the first nuclear crisis in 1993, North Korea has deceived and snubbed the world time and again, and elevated its nuclear and missile capabilities. By now the international community, not least the president of the United States, should be wise to this.
But given what we have witnessed since the landmark meeting between Kim and Trump in Singapore, another one in Hanoi last February and the showy get-together in the demilitarized zone in June, the prospects of Trump coming to his senses do not seem bright. The Kim-Trump bromance may well satisfy the political goals of the two men, even to the detriment of their countries and the wider world.
But if love is blind, it is also fickle. And trump has shown himself to be disloyal and untrustworthy in both his personal and professional relationships.
Perhaps instead of reason and rational argument, we need to find another way to distract Trump from his newfound love, the dangers of which are clear to everyone but him.
Chon Shi-yong is the chief editorial writer of The Korea Herald. This article is part of the latest series of the Asian Editors Circle, a weekly commentary by editors from the Asia News Network (ANN), which will be published by members of the regional media group. The ANN is an alliance of 24 news media titles across the region. -- Ed.