A revealing insight into why President Donald Trump’s Korea fulminations are painting him and the United States into a corner came in a report of the CIA psychological evaluation of North Korea’s equally unpredictable leader.
The CIA described Kim Jong Un as someone who “has a massive ego and reacts sharply and sometimes lethally to insults and perceived slights,” reported Brian Bennett of the Los Angeles Times.
This description explains why top presidential advisers have reportedly told Trump to cool his inflammatory rhetoric about Kim. But the CIA’s description of Kim also sounds a lot like Trump.
After all, he has shown a proclivity for repeated, self-aggrandizing self-descriptions, which speak to his “massive ego.” And much of his life reflects reactions to “perceived slights,” whether from the cold shoulder Manhattan’s social and financial elite gave to Queens native Trump, or President Barack Obama’s sarcastic dismissal of his birther crusade.
The likelihood the two have more in common than would seem usual for the leaders of two such different nations could complicate behind-the-scenes efforts for a peaceful resolution of a situation Obama correctly warned would be Trump’s most difficult challenge.
A crucial question is whether, since Kim seems deadly serious in his nuclear ambitions, Trump is equally serious in threatening military action to prevent it.
Unfortunately, by ignoring advisers’ warnings against more bluster, Trump has created a situation in which he may be damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t.
If Kim persists and Trump fails to follow his tough language with action, he’ll look weak. On the other hand, if Trump retaliates, there is no guarantee the destruction would be limited to North Korea.
It’s possible Trump has a rational purpose in such very public warnings as his vow in May that future North Korean threats “will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen” and his recent denigration of Kim as “rocket man.”
Several analysts have suggested he has adopted the so-called madman theory that President Richard Nixon purportedly used during the Vietnam conflict a generation ago. The theory was that, if the president was seen as a “madman” who would stop at nothing, North Vietnam would be persuaded to accept U.S. peace terms.
Despite waves of U.S. bombing, it didn’t work. In the end, Nixon settled for the same agreement he could have had two years earlier, ultimately enabling North Vietnam to complete its takeover of U.S. ally South Vietnam.
Trump’s bluster comes in advance of a conflict and threatens far greater destruction. It raises the specter of an attack that would level North Korea but probably also trigger retaliation against South Korea, whose capital lies within artillery range of the border between the two longtime foes.
On the surface, it doesn’t seem to be working very well this time, either. Each Trumpian insult seems only to have inspired Kim to escalate his level of defiance, setting off nuclear tests, rockets firing across Japan and, most recently, a threat to explode a nuclear bomb over the Pacific Ocean.
Trump’s warnings go back nearly two decades. As far back as a 1999 appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” he said that, if diplomacy didn’t work, “better solve the problem now than solve it later.” His implied means was obvious.
In January, on the eve of becoming president, Trump’s intent was clear. “North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the U.S.,” he said in a tweet. “It won’t happen!”
That remains Trump’s public stance. On Saturday night, he derided North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho’s U.N. speech, warning “If he echoes thoughts of Little Rocket Man, they won’t be around much longer.”
Ri replied Monday that, because the United States “declared war on our country,” North Korea might shoot down U.S. planes over international waters. “The question of who won’t be around much longer will be answered then,” he told reporters.
As other officials have stressed, the preferred U.S. route to resolve this remains international economic sanctions. But those applied so far have had little evident deterrent effect, raising the prospect that one of the two impetuous leaders will goad the other into disastrous action.
Since the dawn of the nuclear age, the world has relied on U.S. restraint to prevent a global cataclysm. It’s how President Harry Truman resisted the Soviet Union’s 1948 Berlin blockade and how President John F. Kennedy responded to the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.
The current situation requires a similar response, especially from a president who may have “a massive ego and reacts sharply and sometimes lethally to insults and perceived slights.”
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News.