“We’re dealing with somebody that we’ll figure out. He may be smart, he may be strategic — and he may be totally crazy.” That was President Trump speaking of Kim Jong-un at his political rally in Alabama last week. But it could easily have been Kim speaking of Trump — and for all we know, Kim has said something like that in meetings with his top advisers. From the standpoint of U.S.-North Korea relations, words like those, far from being analytical, reflect the kind of off-the-cuff remarks that can lead to trouble.
At first glance it may seem silly to compare Trump and Kim. But increasingly, it looks like these two leaders share negative behaviors of the sort that are more conducive to war than to peace. First and foremost, they may be smart and strategic, but there’s a good chance they’re also both “crazy,” in the nonclinical sense that both are given to bravado and threats when calmness and self-control are most needed. Neither seems capable of restraint; they’re both trying to win a pissing match. These two are more like street fighters than national leaders with a sense of responsibility toward their populations and the world.
Second, and most troubling of all, Kim and Trump have let the war of words become personal. We all know how much more dangerous an argument becomes when the disputants abandon the issues in favor of personal attacks and taunting. Kim and Trump are equally adept at disparaging one another, never backing down or apologizing, and always taking everything personally. Name calling at the international level never works, yet these two seem oblivious to that. Like children, they prefer escalating hurtful words to working things out.
A third similarity is that this pissing match is taking place without any kind of intervention. Kim is, of course, a dictator, surrounded — so far as we know — by military yes-men who don’t dare challenge him. Trump may head a democratic system, but within the White House there’s no democracy. Like Kim, he’s surrounded by military men who seem helpless to shut him up even though they know full well what use of force on the Korean peninsula will mean. From all reports, the military and other advisers roll their eyes at Trump’s language but dare not criticize him or take away his smart phone.
As other analysts have noted, the danger is that these exchanges of personal attacks and threats greatly limit options for a pause, let alone for diplomacy. Instead, they box leaders in, making them feel compelled not just to out-threaten the other side, but finally to back up their tough words with action. The latest US step, for instance — sending advanced fighter-bombers over international waters but within sight of North Korea — could lead to a firefight with North Korean jets. Likewise, the DPRK’s foreign minister has said that Trump’s harsh rhetoric amounts to a “declaration of war.”
Provocative words and actions risk a disastrous miscalculation. There is nothing strategic or rational about them, and we — Americans, Koreans, Japanese, Chinese — are all the likely victims. We wait in vain for influential voices that will push for negotiations and a reduction of tensions.
Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University.