From ‘Mad man’ to ‘Rocket man’: The undiplomatic diplomacy behind the North Korea summit
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The upcoming summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is an improbable return to diplomacy after a series of rather undiplomatic personal exchanges.
Last September few would have guessed that, less than a year later, Trump and Kim would meet face-to-face at a historic summit now scheduled to take place on June 12 in Singapore. At the time the two leaders were engaged in a very public war of words, with tensions between the two countries ratcheted up by Trump’s Twitter habit.
‘Dotard’ vs. a ‘sick puppy’
The US president let his first arrow fly on September 17, 2017, when he dubbed Kim “Rocket man” in a post on Twitter. The tweet’s condescending familiarity reduced Kim to nothing more than a man with a missile. Two months after North Korea’s first successful ballistic missile launch, Trump’s message was clear: Kim Jong-un was above all a danger that needed to be neutralised.
Pyongyang acknowledged receipt of this message a few days later by responding in kind. Kim questioned Trump’s mental health, using an expression that North Korea’s official state press agency struggled to translate. It settled on a rarely used term – “dotard", – a person in “a state or period of senile decay marked by decline of mental poise and alertness”, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary.
📈 Kim Jong Un calls Trump a mentally deranged U.S. dotard. Searches for 'dotard' are high as a kite. https://t.co/HztPoLSjXiMerriam-Webster (@MerriamWebster) September 21, 2017
Trump didn’t care much for the allusion to his age (he will turn 71 on June 14). So he borrowed a page from German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer’s 1831 book, “The Art of Being Right”, the final section of which advises becoming “personal, insulting and rude”.
“Why would Kim Jong-un insult me by calling me ‘old’ when I would NEVER call him ‘short and fat?’ Oh well, I try so hard to be his friend – and maybe someday that will happen!” Trump tweeted. In an earlier post, he questioned Kim’s own mental health by calling him a “madman” who “doesn’t mind starving or killing his own people”.
By the end of November the verbal insults gave way to a new round of missile provocation by North Korea. Kim ordered the launch of a new type of intercontinental ballistic missile, which it claimed put the whole of the United States within reach of Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal.
Trump had promised back in August that he would unleash “fire and fury” if North Korea continued to threaten the US. Which he did… at least on Twitter and in the media. He went on a tirade, armed with new insults: “Rocket man” became “Little rocket man” and, on at least one occasion, he referred to Kim as a “sick puppy”.
Trump and Kim continued to trade insults into 2018, which began with a one-upmanship over nuclear buttons. In a televised speech, Kim warned the United States that he kept his nuclear button within easy reach. “The US should know that the button for nuclear weapons is on my desk. This is not blackmail but reality,” he said. Trump responded by boasting that his button was “much bigger and more powerful” than his North Korean counterpart’s.
North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un just stated that the “Nuclear Button is on his desk at all times.” Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) 3 janvier 2018
It looked as though diplomatic ties between the two countries had frayed beyond repair. But then came the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea in February. The competition was the staging ground for a rapprochement between the Koreas – the two countries fielded a united women’s hockey team, while Kim’s younger sister, Kim Yo Jong, met with South Korean officials – and paved the way for an inter-Korean summit in April.
As tensions eased on the Korean peninsula, Trump sought to take credit. He asked South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in to publically acknowledge his role in facilitating the talks. Seoul, a close US ally, complied.
Trump’s tone also changed on his medium of choice, Twitter. Instead of insults, he began referring to Kim by name. When news of a North Korea-US summit first came in March, Trump hailed the “great progress” that had been made between the two countries.
Kim Jong Un talked about denuclearization with the South Korean Representatives, not just a freeze. Also, no missile testing by North Korea during this period of time. Great progress being made but sanctions will remain until an agreement is reached. Meeting being planned!Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 9, 2018
The US president didn’t hesitate to highlight how his approach to the North Korean crisis has been more successful than that of his predecessors. While opinion is still divided on this point, even some of Trump’s fiercest foreign policy critics have admitted that a combination of sustained economic sanctions and verbal threats appear to have worked.
“I think North Korea’s openness in the Olympics and summitry with South Korea, as well as potentially direct talks with the US, are the result of Trump's approach,” Ian Bremmer, head of the Eurasia Group and a Trump critic, told the Washington Post in March.
Trump’s approach has a name: “Madman theory”, which was made popular by former US president Richard Nixon during the early 1970s. The idea was to convince foreign powers of the United States’ irrationality and unpredictability in order to force them to the negotiating table. In this case, Trump’s Twitter storms could be seen as a master stroke in diplomacy.
But this would be giving him too much credit, according to Korean Peninsula expert Charles K. Armstrong in comments to the Washington Post. Armstrong said North Korea would have never taken Trump’s threats seriously because they believe his generals would prevent him from pushing the nuclear button.
Some experts have instead attributed the thaw in relations to South Korea’s president. They argue that Moon took advantage of the US hostility towards North Korea in order to play the role of “good cop” with Kim.
Others, however, say that the summit has nothing to do with demonstrations of strength or diplomacy: instead, they chalk it up to a natural catastrophe. In the fall of 2017, the mountain where North Korea’s main nuclear test site is located collapsed following an explosion during testing, according to two teams of Chinese scientists. The incident, which has not been confirmed by Pyongyang, may have forced the government to halt its nuclear programme, leaving Kim without another option besides pursuing a diplomatic solution.