Watching the national and international news, where the war of words unfolding between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is like watching two bullies vie for dominance over the playground, I’m torn between laughing and crying. Laughing because these two child-men, with their over-sized egos and disregard for common courtesy, would under other circumstances be jokes, fodder for late-night comedy shows, and crying, because their playground in this case is nothing less than the world.
Since assuming leadership after the death of his father, Kim has been one of the more provocative leaders of North Korea, a country that has made a specialty of bad behavior and bellicosity since the end of the Korean War. Trump, on the other hand, a reality TV personality, with his own out-sized ego and lack of introspection, has, since his surprise win in the 2016 election, added bellicosity to the American political and diplomatic playbook.
The problem is that neither man understands the other. Kim lives in a hermetically-sealed environment where everything is filtered through the lens of the Western threat to the feudal country, and a cultural need to save face at all costs. Trump, on the other hand, lives in self-imposed ignorance, eschewing reading or reflection, and defaulting to his bullying style to get his way, a hallmark of the way he has traditionally conducted his business affairs. While I can’t say it with any assurance about Kim, my guess is, like Trump, he pays little attention to advice from underlings unless it fits his preconceived opinion, and like a child whose tantrums have elicited a response from beleaguered parents, believes that his way of doing things works.
Kim doesn’t understand how the U.S. system works, and like many foreigners, takes what our politicians say publicly at face value. Trump doesn’t have a clue about Korean culture or psychology—or anyone else’s for that matter. Kim threatens because threats have worked in the past. It has gotten food aid from the South and the international community, and he has been allowed to continue developing North Korea’s nuclear capability—a capability that I’m convinced he thinks the country needs in order to survive. Trump bullies because he is, not to sugar coat it, a bully. He bullied in business, he bullied in the campaign, and it has worked for him, so he continues to bully from the White House. He bullies everyone; his friends as well as his adversaries; so, he believes that the way to handle Kim is to just be a bigger bully. What else explains his statement that his ‘fire and fury’ statement was probably ‘not strong enough.’
The U.S. president doesn’t seem to have a clue about how international relations work, and he seems incapable of filtering his speech. Thus, instead of letting his ‘fire and fury’ statement stand for itself, and moving on to other things, he doubles down. His attitude seems to be, if Kim threatens, I’ll threaten ten times worse, unaware that he’s dealing with a man from a culture that believes in the saying, ‘better to burn down the house than to let one bed bug escape.’
Let’s be clear here; something that Mr. Trump seems incapable of; this is not just about North Korea and its nuclear blackmail. It’s about the existence of the Korean Peninsula. With thousands of long-range artillery pieces aimed south, Kim would be able to kill hundreds of thousands and do untold damage even if the U.S. launched a pre-emptive strike against his nuclear sites—provided we even know where they all are. And, of course, the Chinese have said that if the U.S. strikes first, they will support their North Korean ally. If North Korea strikes first, they will remain neutral. I don’t really believe that, but it’s nonetheless chilling that they would go so far as to say they would side with North Korea if we attack first. Kind of changes the dynamics a bit.
But, I don’t think Trump paid much attention to that. He’s like a lot of politicians who have no military experience or knowledge, but who are fascinated by all things military. He seems to believe that having the strongest military on the planet is all a country needs to impose its will on others. After a stalemate in the Korean War and a loss in Vietnam, many, even in the military, know better. That strong military needs to be backed up with strong diplomacy, which Trump seems to disdain, and strong alliances, which he seems determined to undermine.
Knowing the two personalities involved, I don’t see the war of words deescalating any time soon. One can only hope that wiser heads on both sides of the Pacific will eventually prevail, and both men will find something else to occupy their narrow minds and short attention spans.
In the meantime, those of us on the sidelines can only watch and wait.