President Trump made his boldest overture to North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong Un during a ritzy white-tie media party, amid champagne and filet mignon and lots of laughter.
His gambit came during a comedy routine he performed at the Renaissance Washington Hotel last Saturday night during the Gridiron dinner, thrown by the Washington press corps mostly to aggrandize themselves.
“I won’t rule out direct talks with Kim Jong Un,” he said, but it was part of a self-deprecating joke, one of several he told that night. “I just won’t. As far as the risk of dealing with a madman is concerned, that’s his problem, not mine. It’s his problem.”
Funny stuff, especially for such a narcissist. But it was also part of a well-played strategy that Trump embarked on way back in the campaign: Going after Kim aggressively and relentlessly.
The effort has paid off. Kim on Thursday agreed to a one-on-one meeting with Trump some time in the next two months to discuss ending its nuclear weapons program. “He expressed his eagerness to meet President Trump as soon as possible,” said national security director Chung Eui-yong of South Korea, which helped broker the meeting.
Trump’s strategy has been very different from his predecessors. Barack Obama all but ignored the belligerent nation, even though North Korea conducted a nuclear test shortly after he took office in 2009. Obama sent an envoy at the end of the year, asking leader Kim Jong Il to begin denuclearization talks, but his regime ignored Obama.
Then, as he did with his ineffectual talks with Iran, Obama set conditions for talks. Again, North Korea ignored him. Finally he turned to the United Nations, urging the world body to “vigorously implement” resolutions against the nation. That had no effect, either.
Before Obama, George W. Bush made more noise about North Korea. He named the country as one part of the three-part “axis of evil” with Iraq and Iran in his State of the Union speech as president in 2002. There were “Six-Party Talks” comprising China, North Korea, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the U.S. throughout his two terms, but again, little actual improvement.
In 2007, the U.S. agreed to send $400 million worth of fuel, food and other aid in exchange for North Korea closing down its main nuclear reactor. They didn’t. Just before his second term ended, Bush sent a personal letter to Kim asking him to uphold his end of the deal.
Bill Clinton, though, was by far the least effectual. When North Korea in 1994 threatened to abandon the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Clinton sent Jimmy “Malaise” Carter there as an envoy. Then, Clinton gave the country $4 billion worth of nuclear, energy, and economic benefits in exchange for Kim ending his nuclear program.
Years later North Korea would admit that it had secretly continued with its nuclear-weapons program despite the deal with Clinton.
(And by the way, Hillary Clinton was wrong again, too. In an October 2017 trip to South Korea, she called Trump’s “cavalier threats” to North Korea “dangerous, short-sighted.” “There is no need for us to be bellicose and aggressive,” she said. “The insults on Twitter have benefited North Korea, I don’t think they’ve benefited the United States.” Wrong again, Hillary.)
With all three former presidents, diplomacy and soft talk reigned. But not so for Trump.
Trump dubbed Kim “Little Rocket Man” and met him word-for-word with belligerent rhetoric. When Kim threatened the U.S. in a New Year’s address and mentioned a “nuclear button” on his office desk, Trump fired out a tweet that said he has a button, too, “but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!”
During a trip to Asia, Trump warned Kim not to mess with the U.S. — or him. “This is a very different administration than the United States has had in the past. Do not underestimate us. And do not try us,” Trump said during an address at South Korea’s National Assembly.
As the situation got more tense, with North Korea firing missiles and conducting nuclear tests, Trump talked of the U.S. might that could be unleashed, saying he would deliver “fire, fury and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before.”
The rift got personal, too, with Trump mocking Kim as “short and fat.”
North Korea sentenced Trump to death for the insult.
But Trump was fighting fire with fire, as he always does. He didn’t follow his predecessors’ lead on seeking talks and diplomatic unity, instead, he took real action that hurt the regime. In November 2017, Trump re-designated North Korea a state sponsor of terror, citing its support of “international terrorism, including assassinations on foreign soil.” He said the designation brings “the highest level of sanctions” on the “murderous regime” as part of the administration’s “maximum pressure campaign.”
In the end, Trump broke Kim. The dictator caved under relentless pressure and has agreed to talks.
If you’re keeping score at home, it’s Trump – 1, Kim – 0.