Politics

Donald Trump Just Praised This Nuclear Dictator

President Trump told Reuters on Thursday that a "major conflict" with North Korea is "absolutely" possible, while simultaneously seeming to find empathy with the country's leader, Kim Jong Un.

"There is a chance that we could end up having a major, major conflict with North Korea," Trump said in an interview leading up to his 100th day in office. When asked whether he believed the young Kim, who inherited his position from his father Kim Jong Il in late 2011, was a rational person, Trump expressed admiration for the leader's rapid rise. 

"He’s 27 years old. His father dies, took over a regime. So say what you want but that is not easy, especially at that age,” Trump said of Kim, the grandson of North Korean founder Kim Il Sung. “I’m not giving him credit or not giving him credit. I’m just saying that’s a very hard thing to do. As to whether or not he’s rational, I have no opinion on it. I hope he’s rational."

Since Trump's election, the U.S. and North Korea have been engaged in brinksmanship over the North Korean nuclear program, and particular, the possibility of a sixth North Korean nuclear test. 

Trump has disparaged Kim in public and on Twitter, calling him a "madman" prone to fits, telling conservative journalists that he's "not so sure [Kim] is so strong like he says he is" and declaring that he will finally "properly deal" with North Korea. 

North Korea has responded with its signature flair, most recently warning of a "super-mighty preemptive strike" that would reduce the American mainland "to ashes," and Kim has engaged in demonstrations of North Korea's burgeoning military capability, most recently unleashing a massive artillery exercise thought to be the biggest in the country's history. 

 

 

Trump's comments to Reuters aren't the first time he's had complimentary things to say about the leader that he has also refused to call "mentally stable."

In a January, 2016 speech in Iowa, Trump seemingly insulted and praised Kim simultaneously, saying "if you look at North Korea – this guy, he’s like a maniac, OK? And you have to give him credit. How many young guys — he was like 26 or 25 when his father died — take over these tough generals, and all of a sudden — you know, it’s pretty amazing when you think of it."  

But what about his comments about a "major conflict"? Are the United States and North Korea headed toward war? The signs are hardly conclusive.

As the New York Times pointed out, the U.S. moving military assets to South Korea is common, as is vitriolic rhetoric from North Korean state media. And while North Korea did display new missiles theoretically capable of hitting the U.S. mainland, it's not clear if they actually work, or could carry nuclear warheads.

And few of the rumors swirling around the conflict, such as one alleging the North had evacuated its capitol of Pyongyang in anticipation of an American first strike, have come to fruition. And the conflicting reports about the USS Carl Vinson's strategic deployment and subsequent mea culpas illustrated a U.S. strategy seemingly marked by confusion above all.  

The Times' Asia Pacific analyst David Sanger gave a plausible explanation for Trump ratcheting up his rhetoric: it's straight out of the playbook of "trying to sound as tough as the other guy."

Another theory, put forth by Matthew Gault, editor of foreign policy site War is Boring, for Trump's saber rattling— however muddled it may be— is that the window for preemptive military action by the U.S. is rapidly closing due to South Korea's election on May 9. According to Gault, "the front-runners in the upcoming national election are all leftists — and favor normalizing relations with Pyongyang." 

So at this point, it's still not clear if Trump's surprising praise for Kim is genuine, or another move in the dangerous nuclear chess game the two leaders appear to be playing.