North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, staving off the impact of COVID-19 and sanctions on his hungry people, may count on his man in the White House for unremitting support in time of need.
“Kim Jong Un is in good health,” Donald Trump tweeted Thursday like a star-struck groupie, all while battling the fallout from his COVID cover-up exposed by Bob Woodward’s latest book. “Never underestimate him!”
Nor, to judge from passages in Woodward’s Rage, should one underestimate Trump’s infatuation with a bloodthirsty dictator. The book recounts how Kim played on Trump’s vanity: his messages addressed Trump as “excellency”—describing one “historic meeting” as “reminiscent of a scene from a fantasy film.” This “deep and special friendship between us,” he said, “will work as a magical force” between his country and the U.S., “clearing all the hurdles we face in the process of bringing about the developments we seek to achieve.”
In Woodward’s account, Kim also regaled Trump with tales—some likely, some not—about his dictatorship over his people, none more revealing than his execution of his uncle nearly seven years ago.
Whether Kim went beyond what North Korea had already put out at the time about the trial and execution of Jang Song Thaek, married to the younger sister of Kim’s father, the long-ruling Kim Jong Il, is not clear. But there’s no doubt Trump was awe-struck by the man he once said had told him of holding Jang’s head on a platter.
The bottom line, as far as North Korea experts are concerned, is that Trump was easily taken in by Kim in their three meetings—at their first summit in Singapore in June 2018, then again in Hanoi in February last year, and on the North-South Korea line in Panmunjom in June last year.
“The revelations in the book confirm all of the fears we had that Trump was 'played' by Kim, who knew exactly what he wanted and what he needed to say to Trump to get it,” said Evans Revere, one-time senior U.S. diplomat in Seoul. “Kim’s tale of the execution of his uncle makes sense.”
Trump apparently lapped it all up, just as he’s so easily impressed by other dictators about whom he’s often spoken in adoring terms.
“Kim knew about Trump's fascination with unbridled, even brutal, power and Trump's affinity for authoritarians and authoritarianism,” said Revere. “He knew that Trump had lavished praise on Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin for their toughness, and by sharing the story of his uncle's execution, he sought to endear himself to the U.S. president. It obviously worked.”
North Korea has yet to corroborate anything Trump told Woodward, but more than a year ago Trump did say that Kim had told a blood-curdling tale of Jang’ s demise, climaxed by displaying his head.
That story probably has about as much truth as an earlier yarn about Kim Jong Un ordering Jang’s execution by a pack of mad dogs, but Lee Sung-yoon, professor at the Fletcher School of Tufts University, assumes Trump “was exaggerating to underscore the point that he formed a rapport with Kim.”
Kim, “murderous psychopath that he is, would not have told Trump in person that he had his uncle's head ‘displayed’ or gone into graphic detail about his uncle's gruesome public execution,” said Lee, but his messages may well have spoken of the “swift justice” or “stern punishment” meted out to Jang as a “traitor” convicted of numerous crimes, notably corruption.
Bradley Martin, author of the definitive Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty, agrees. “What Kim was telling Trump about,” said Martin, was “how he humiliated the traitor uncle.”
Or maybe Trump cooked up the whole story.
“Trump probably thought he could impress Woodward with a dramatic tale that also showed how good his relationship with Kim is and how much Kim trusts Trump,” said David Straub, who spent years in Seoul as a political officer at the U.S. embassy. “Just the kind of thing that Trump would wildly exaggerate if not entirely make up.”
Straub figures that Kim snuffing his uncle remains “an extraordinary sensitive thing even today in North Korea”—and thus “unlikely to be the kind of thing that Kim would want to talk about, especially with an American president.” For that reason alone, he said, “North Korea may not say anything in response.”
But Choi Jin-wook, president of the Center for Strategic and Cultural Studies in Seoul, believes Kim may have had his own subtle reasons for spinning the tale for Trump's exclusive benefit.
“This is a very active gesture to build trust with Trump,” said Choi. “North Korea rarely admits its bad behavior, but there are exceptions if they need a dramatic turnaround.” Could it be that Kim was “looking for an emergency outlet” in hopes of “a big deal or business with Trump," Choi wondered. “What a deliberately calculated action."
The story of Jang’s execution, by whatever means, obviously appealed to Trump about as much as Kim’s heavy-handed flattery. Kim “may well have told President Trump about it to illustrate how powerful he is,” said Bruce Bennett at the RAND Corporation. That Kim “was able to totally humiliate and execute someone even as powerful as his uncle would illustrate how powerful he thinks he is.”
While “we may never know whether the story that Kim Jong-un reportedly told President Trump about Uncle Jang is truthful or not,” said Bennett, “it likely served Kim’s purposes.”
That much was evident from Trump’s Twitter toast to Kim’s good health. Kim this year has made far fewer public appearances than in previous years possibly because of fears of the coronavirus. He’s closed the border with China, North Korea’s sole benefactor and almost exclusive trading partner, while calling special meetings of top party leaders to talk about curbing the spread of the disease.
Still, Kim has repeatedly bounced back after reports of being at death’s door. Just this week the North's state media quoted Kim at a meeting of the ruling party’s military commission lamenting “the unexpected damage” of a typhoon.
All of which, said General Robert Abrams, commander of U.S. Forces Korea, at a seminar in Washington, means “their military is focused principally on getting their country recovered and to help mitigate the risk of COVID-19," which Trump is confident Kim has avoided.
Not that Trump ever evinced any qualms about Kim’s health, capabilities, or genius in the first place. How else could it be for the man who Trump told Woodward was “beyond smart” and “tells me everything”?
Indeed, Trump professed in 2018 that he and the North Korean leader “fell in love.”
“Trump sends him pictures... sends him letters,” John Bolton, Trump’s erstwhile national security adviser, once observed. “I don’t know how President Trump can be more forthcoming in his efforts to have a good relationship with Kim Jong Un.”