“Rocket Man.” “Madman.” “Maniac.”
Those are just a few of the nasty names that US President Trump has called the North Korean despot Kim Jong-un. And judging by what the public has seen of the presidential temperament, there will be more to come. Kim isn’t one to retreat in defeat, as far as rhetoric is concerned. His retaliatory “mentally deranged US dotard” sent people scrambling for the dictionary to look up the meaning of dotard.
This vitriolic verbal exchange does not bode well for possible friendly ties between both countries. But before criticizing Trump for his unpresidential behavior, it’s worth taking a look back at the actions of his predecessors.
In October 1994, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea led by Kim Jong Il and the United States under then President Bill Clinton (1993-2001) signed the Agreed Framework. The main conditions were for North Korea to halt its plutonium production and freeze operations of its Yongbyon nuclear reactors. In return, the US would supply 500,000 tons of fuel oil to Pyongyang for use as alternative energy, give the communist country two light water reactors and assure them that the US would not use nuclear weapons against DPRK. It also promised a phase out of economic sanctions against DPRK that had been in place since the Korean War.
Contrary to general belief, it was the United States, through its Republican-controlled Congress, that first reneged on the agreement. It delayed the delivery of the pledged oil, funding for the light water reactors were subject to new certain conditions that Congress imposed, and the reduction of economic sanctions fell through. In light of these developments, North Korea revived its nuclear power facility and the Agreed Framework broke down in 2003.
On the other hand, the US claims that Pyongyang had been deceitful in entering into the agreement by secretly proceeding with its nuclear weapons development. According to American diplomat James Kelly, North Korean officials admitted as much during his visit to their country in 2002. Critics think Kelly’s revelation is questionable and Washington is simply justifying its move by putting the blame on North Korea.
But it cannot be denied that Clinton was successful in brokering an agreement and possibly furthering civil ties with DPRK’s leader, albeit temporarily. This belies Trump’s claim that the US “…has been unsuccessfully dealing with North Korea for 25 years…”
When George W. Bush succeeded Clinton to the presidency in 2001, he used a different form of diplomacy in dealing with the communist regime. He tagged North Korea as one of the “Axis of Evil,” along with Iran and Iraq. What Clinton was able to achieve, Bush effectively destroyed. The DPRK accused the Bush administration of planning a pre-emptive attack on it for developing weapons of mass destruction. Washington would have advocated for a regime change, but South Korea and Japan were against it as only a war could bring it about.
But during the end of his term, after calling Kim Jong-Il a tyrant, President Bush capitulated and wrote the despot a personal letter, offering him a chance at normal relations with the US in exchange for the full disclosure of its nuclear plans and the dismantling of its nuclear reactor. Pyongyang gave a positive verbal response, coming from a senior official of Kim, and by November 2007, disablement of the Yongbyon nuclear plant began.
When President Obama came into the White House in 2009, he had already inherited the North Korea problem, but Trump still alleged that Obama didn’t do enough to take care of it. Barely two weeks into Obama’s inauguration, Kim Jong-Il was preparing to launch the Taepo Dong 2 missile and Stephen Bosworth, the new US envoy to North Korea, had to fly to China to enlist its cooperation in convincing the communist tyrant to new talks.
Ultimately though, Obama discarded conciliatory steps and into his last two years on his second term, warned the new leader Kim Jong-un of military actions and economic sanctions. During his tenure as president, North Korea conducted several underground nuclear tests. When Trump took over in 2017, Obama indicated that Pyongyang would “likely be the most urgent problem…” for Trump.
President Trump did not go the route of diplomacy-first, attack-later. Although in April, he did admit to Kim being a “pretty smart cookie,” he has progressed to threats of “fire and fury,” “military solutions are…locked and loaded,” and other tweets. Since Trump assumed office in the White House, North Korea has launched around 15 ballistic missiles from February to September, and tested a hydrogen bomb. Whether Kim intends it as a mocking response to the “dotard’s” statements meant to intimidate, or to show that North Korea cannot be dictated upon, the threat is real and the international community is worried.
In fairness to Trump, he has met with Chinese President Xi Jinping to talk about denuclearizing North Korea but the Asian giant favors talks and peaceful means to solve the nuclear issue. Russia’s Putin is of the same mind – tone down the rhetoric and promote talks instead of sanctions. Trump’s Secretary of State Rex Tillerson wants a peaceful resolution and has advised letting things calm down first. And he may be on his way out for not supporting his boss’ aggressive tactics.
Trump, like all the other world leaders, has one goal – to stop Kim from launching more missiles and further developing nuclear weapons. Deviating from traditional diplomacy, he is meeting Kim’s bravado head on, but has refrained from actual military attacks. It’s not the usual route to friendship but Trump, representing the United States, is doing what his predecessors never resorted to – name-calling. And, as these two kindergarten kids continue their fight, the world can only look on and hope that no war comes out of it.