For the past quarter century American presidents have tried confrontation, bargaining and bartering with North Korea, and all have failed. One thing that hasn’t been tried is flattery. If President Donald Trump succeeds in his bold attempt to flatter Kim Jong Un into submission, it may well be because he understands—on what one might say is a very personal level—the demands of vanity better than most leaders. And no one has proved more vain about themselves and their position in the world over the years than North Korea’s strutting procession of “great leaders”: Kim; his father, Kim Jong Il; and his grandfather Kim Il Sung. Perhaps it takes one to know one.
Much of the Washington punditocracy is now mocking Trump’s performance in Singapore—his glad-handing of the North Korean dictator, the way he greeted Kim as a peer (complete with an array of American and North Korean flags in the and told him what an honor it was to meet him, then declared Kim a “very talented man.” Most of all, the pundits are laughing about the White House-produced video that Trump presented to Kim before the summit, which comes across like an MGM movie trailer from the ’50s, with a stentorian narrator portraying the two leaders as men of destiny and showing North Koreans the wondrous possibilities of becoming rich. The New Yorker ran an article headlined “The Sensational Idiocy of Donald Trump’s Propaganda Video for Kim Jong Un.” The author, the entertainment critic Troy Patterson, likened parts of the video to The Muppet Movie.
But there’s another movie that provides a more apt comparison. Remember that scene in Network when the TV honcho played by Ned Beatty realizes the only way he can win over the crazed prophet/anchor played by Peter Finch (“I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore”) is to speak to him in the style of a mystical prophet himself? Something like that is what Trump appears to be doing with Kim.
In the video, Trump is talking to Kim in language the two men understand. All the more so because—as the Twittersphere has sniggeringly noted—the video does resemble North Korean propaganda. It doesn’t hurt that both Kim and his father, Kim Jong Il, were said to love Hollywood movies (which perhaps is why the video included a shot of Sly Stallone in the White House). The hackneyed scenes in the Trump video in which the celluloid starts to burn and melt while the narrator is talking about the dangers of “going back” are cinematically brilliant, at least in terms of North Korean sensibilities. They provide a just-unsubtle-enough reminder to Kim that if Pyongyang doesn’t denuclearize, Trump still has “fire and fury” in his back pocket.
All of which brings us to the key point: What exactly do we have to lose by being nice, by stroking Kim’s ego and promising him “prosperity like he has never seen” (to quote the video) and long-sought-for acceptance? Our pride? Just about everything else has been tried—sanctions upon sanctions—and still the Kim regime has marched to the precipice of invulnerability to U.S. retaliation. It is within months of testing a nuclear-tipped missile that could reach U.S. shores, according to some reports.
After Trump reacted with unprecedented threats last fall, promising to “totally destroy” North Korea if necessary, Kim quickly started talking, first to South Korea, then to Washington. The immediate concern for U.S. interests is less the nukes than those intercontinental ballistic missiles that can target us. It’s noteworthy that Kim promised Trump at the summit—according to Trump, anyway—that he would destroy a major missile engine testing site. If he doesn’t do that and doesn’t open up his nuclear program to inspectors quickly, well, that only brings us back to square one: the nowhere place that every previous administration was stuck in.
A preemptive strike is still an option, and Trump would be in a stronger position to launch one now that he’s gone an unprecedented distance on diplomacy. Suspending war games with South Korea for the moment, while awaiting concrete action from Kim, seems a very minor concession. All we know is that the menacing nature of the dialogue of the past has only made the North Koreans retreat further into their nuclear hole.
Trump boasted before the summit that he didn’t need to prepare “much,” and there’s little evidence that his knowledge of North Korea is any deeper than it is on other foreign issues (about puddle-deep, in other words). But the president who bragged yet again this week about his “feel” for the deal does appear to have an intuition about one of the few leaders on earth who may be more vain than Trump. Based on my two- decadeslong experience reporting on the issue, it’s a fair assumption that North Korea’s behavior has been driven largely by two factors: fear of a U.S. attack, with nearly 30,000 American troops looming just over the border and our missiles at the ready; and injured pride—a sense of not being taken seriously enough, which exacerbates the fear of being attacked.
Again and again, in a sort of exponentially Trumpian way, we’ve seen North Korea’s leaders react hotly to any perceived American slight, anything that even barely punctures the Macy’s-balloon-sized personality cults they built around themselves. With their nuke and missile program, the North Koreans have been screaming to the world for years not just for foreign aid but for recognition and acceptance. If there’s one common theme to their often wacky ripostes to U.S. threats it’s this: We’re important! We’re a nuclear power now! You can’t get rid of us!
A lot of this seems to be about the personal vanity of the Kims. In the 2000s, after Newsweek reported that George W. Bush called Kim Jong Il a “pygmy” who behaved like “a spoiled child at a dinner table,” North Korean officials regularly brought up those remarks with the late Korea scholar Selig Harrison, who used to visit Pyongyang regularly. “How can we deal with you when your leader doesn’t show us even a minimum of respect?” one of them, Kim Gye Gwan, asked Harrison in 2004. It was hardly an accident that, after the 2014 movie The Interview used the assassination of Kim Jong Un as a comedy premise, the North Koreans went on a vengeful rampage, hacking into Sony Pictures and embarrassing a bunch of movie people.
I observed this sensitivity up close on a trip to Pyongyang with then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in 2000. North Korean officials exploded in outrage during a tour of the city after some reporters appeared to be imitating the pose of a giant statue of Kim Il Sung. My North Korean minder, Li Wong Su, explained to me furiously: “You people in the West don’t understand how we feel about this man!”
Smiling and cherubic, young Kim Jong Un looks amenable. Even as he has brutally consolidated power—having his uncle and half-brother murdered and cracking down on what little dissent exists in his Stalinist state—he has launched genuine economic reforms, changes reminiscent of what Deng Xiaoping did in China in the 1980s, transforming that nation into a booming market autocracy. The South Koreans seem to think Kim is sincere. No one knows exactly what his game is with Trump, but as the president remarked after their meeting, he seems to be no dummy. Only in his mid-30s, Kim could be trying to arrange a nuclear pause—long enough perhaps to induce the withdrawal of U.S. troops—so he can focus on economic progress for a period, and then ultimately resume Pyongyang’s old aggression and military buildup, albeit in a much stronger position.
Whether Trump can play the long game is another matter. Perhaps the biggest danger to Trump’s approach is his own vanity. He seems to think the deal is all but done, and that a Nobel Prize is just around the corner. “Just landed—a long trip, but everybody can now feel much safer than the day I took office,” Trump tweeted. “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.”
Uh no, not exactly. There’s the not-inconsequential question of details, timetable and compliance. And it didn’t help when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo—who has taken the lead in the talks and perhaps sees himself sharing in that Nobel Prize—took umbrage this week at a perfectly reasonable question from a reporter about details on verification, calling it “insulting and ridiculous and, frankly, ludicrous.” Pompeo said only that the United States wants North Korea to take “major” nuclear disarmament steps within the next two years, before the end of Trump’s first term, but that could mean anything.
By all means, make Kim feel welcome and wanted in the world. Stroke his vanity till it hurts, Mr. President. You certainly know what that’s about. It may well be that all Kim and his coterie desire is not to feel threatened by Washington. So perhaps you’ll win him over. But do get something very, very concrete—and verifiable—in return. And very soon.