Isaac Stone Fish is a journalist and senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations and is on sabbatical from Foreign Policy magazine.
One could be forgiven for confusing President Trump’s recent apocalyptic outburst on North Korea with the outrageous threats, warnings and ultimatums that populate North Korean propaganda. On Tuesday, Trump threatened Kim Jong Un’s kingdom with “fire and fury and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before.” Just days before his comments, a North Korean newspaper had warned, “the day the US dares tease our nation with a nuclear rod and sanctions, the mainland US will be catapulted into an unimaginable sea of fire.” Without any apparent sense of irony, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson justified the president’s shocking language by saying that Trump “was sending a strong message in language that Kim Jong-Un would understand.”
A New York real estate developer turned politician and the world’s only Communist dynasty wouldn’t seem to have much in common. Yet the similarities between the language of Trump and the North Korean propaganda apparatus that the Kim family has overseen for decades are striking nonetheless.
Trump has long resembled a North Korean insult generator. His putdowns display a worrying mix of bluster, aggression and ignorance tinged with misogyny and sexual anxiety. Trump is now probably the best-known man alive, and yet a sense of inadequacy visibly consumes him. He obsessively references his “historic victory” in the U.S. election and the amazing crowd sizes at his inauguration (when in reality he lost the popular vote and the audience at his swearing-in was anemic).
Like North Korea, Trump craves respect and denounces those he feels aren’t sufficiently adulatory. “President Trump’s the most gifted politician of our time,” his adviser Stephen Miller said recently on Fox. “We thank you for the opportunity and blessing to serve your agenda,” Reince Priebus, the deposed White House chief of staff, told the president during a Cabinet meeting in June that turned into a competitive display of sycophancy. “I would like to express the greatest thanks in the name of the people and the army to great leader comrade Kim Jong-Un,” a top official told a crowd of tens of thousands of North Korean citizens.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un oversees one of the world’s poorest countries; the success of South Korea only underscores the fragility of his rule. Kim must live with the dictator’s doubt. He knows that his underlings and citizens might secretly dislike him, disobey him or plot to overthrow him. The similarity in language between Trump and the North Korean regime thus reveals a deeper commonality: a profound sense of insecurity. Both sides feel compelled to celebrate their own virtues while bullying their foes.
Women — especially powerful women — often the bear the brunt. In 2011, Trump wrote that New York Times columnist Gail Collins had “the face of a dog!” In 2005, a North Korean radio program called then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice “a hen strutting around in the White House,” and a “bitch running riot on the beach.” In 2009, the North Korean Foreign Ministry issued a statement calling Hillary Clinton a “funny lady” who sometimes looks like a “primary schoolgirl” and sometimes like a “pensioner going shopping.” In the presidential debates, Trump referred to Clinton as “the devil.” In an infamous 2013 statement, a North Korean government spokesperson warned about the “venomous swish” of then-South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s skirt. In an infamous 2015 CNN interview, Trump said Fox News anchor Megan Kelly had “blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever.”
For North Korea, as well as for other totalitarian states, there is a reassuring finality to declarative language. “We Have Nothing to Envy in This World” is a popular children’s tune in North Korea. “Without you, there is no us,” schoolchildren there sometimes sing in praise of their leader and their country. (The two phrases serve as the titles of two of the best contemporary American books about North Korea). North Korean insults are sometimes “beautifully dense,” Christopher Baswell, a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University and Barnard College, told me a few years ago. (He cautioned that the phrases might sound different in Korean).
While Trump’s words lack the brutal lyricism of some North Korean propaganda, he has a comparable penchant for superlatives: Everything is “fantastic,” “tremendous,” the “biggest” and “most beautiful.” Like the Kim regime, it’s difficult for him to admit his fallibility, apologize for his mistakes or accept his many weaknesses. And like the Kim regime, Trump consciously uses hyperbole to distract from his lies. “People may not always think big themselves,” Trump wrote in his 1987 book “The Art of the Deal,” “but they can still get very excited by those who do.”
Luckily for the world, both Trump and Kim are supreme bluffers, and it’s highly unlikely that either party plans to carry through on the threats they’ve issued this week. Their rhetoric is exceptionally dangerous and irresponsible nonetheless. It’s almost as if the two sides can’t help themselves. But then, given the fragility of the North Korean regime, and the vulnerability of Trump’s own ego, perhaps they can’t.