Since becoming president, Trump has been unusually willing to speak his mind on a variety of issues; sometimes he seems able to hold multiple opinions in a short space of time. Even so, the history of Trump's comments about Kim are remarkable to read back upon. For years, Trump has spoken of the danger posed by the North Korean leader and dubbed him a “maniac” on multiple occasions.
At the same time, Trump has frequently suggested that Kim's actions — sometimes, his most ruthless ones — have impressed him.
These seemingly divergent views on North Korea stretch back to long before Kim was leader of the country. In 1999, during an appearance on “Meet the Press,” Trump told host Tim Russert that North Korea, then run by Kim Jong Il, was “sort of wacko” but that they were not “a bunch of dummies.” Trump also suggested that he would “negotiate like crazy” with Pyongyang — but implied that he wouldn't rule out a preemptive strike to take out their nuclear weapons program, either.
Kim Jong Il died in 2011, leaving his son — in his 20s — to take over leadership of one of the world's most isolated countries. Trump initially seemed skeptical of the young Kim Jong Un. “Our President must be very careful with the 28 year old wack job in North Korea,” he tweeted in 2013.
Trump's vacillating views on North Korea were soon back on display, however. When former NBA star Dennis Rodman visited the country in early 2013, Trump first offered cautious praise, telling Fox News that Dennis was “smart in many ways” and that Obama should consider making a phone call to Kim. The next year, however, Trump claimed Rodman was “either drunk or on drugs” when he had suggested that Trump wanted to go to Pyongyang, which was the “last place on Earth” he would want to go
Trump announced his presidential run in June 2015. During a GOP debate in September of that year, the then-candidate said that “nobody ever mentions North Korea, where you have this maniac, sitting there, and he actually has nuclear weapons.” A few months later at a campaign stop in South Carolina, Trump referred to Kim as this “maniac in North Korea.”
But again, Trump's views of Kim were soon running along parallel tracks. Speaking at a rally in Iowa in January, Trump said that he had to give Kim credit for what he had done. “How many young guys — he was like 26 or 25 when his father died — take over these tough generals, and all of a sudden ... he goes in, he takes over, and he’s the boss,” Trump said. “It's incredible. He wiped out the uncle, he wiped out this one, that one,” Trump continued, referring to the execution of Kim's uncle, Jang Song Thaek, two years before.
The next month, Trump seemed to endorse an assassination attempt on Kim. “I would get China to make that guy disappear in one form or another very quickly,” he told CBS News. Asked whether he meant an assassination, he responded. “Well, you know, I've heard of worse things, frankly.” However, Trump went on to suggest that he was impressed by Kim, who had taken “over from his father with all those generals and everybody else that probably wants the position.” A few months later, Trump told Reuters that he would “absolutely” be willing to meet with Kim if he was elected president.
This optimistic view of Kim followed Trump to the White House. In April 2017, just a few months after taking office, Trump told Bloomberg News that he would be “honored” to meet with Kim. The same week, he told CBS News that the North Korean leader was “a pretty smart cookie” because “at a very young age, he was able to assume power.” But North Korea missile testing and nuclear weapons tests later in the year saw Trump turn on Kim again.
In response to threatening language in North Korean state media, Trump warned of “fire and fury.” Speaking at the United Nations in September 2017, he dubbed Kim a “little rocket man” who was on a “suicide mission for himself.” Shortly afterward, Trump issued a relatively rare criticism of North Korea's human rights abuses in a tweet, dubbing Kim a “madman who doesn't mind starving or killing his people.”
To be fair, Kim's state media often gave as good as it got: Trump's harshest remarks about the North Korean leader came after he was dubbed a “dotard” by the Korean Central News Agency, just one of a number of personal insults about his age and his mental capacity. But since the start of 2018, both sides have largely called a cease-fire in their war of words. After meeting Kim in Singapore this week, Trump has repeatedly praised the North Korean leader.
In a tweet on Tuesday after the summit wrapped, Trump said he “got along great” with Kim. An interview with Fox News that was recorded aboard Air Force One saw the president say that the North Korean leader was “a very talented person,” while downplaying alleged atrocities in Kim's country. “He’s a tough guy,” Trump said, adding that he “could go through a lot of nations where a lot of bad things were done.”
It's unclear whether Trump's view has changed or whether he is saving the criticism of Kim for another day. Speaking on Friday after his seemingly envious comments about the North Korean leader's power over his staff, Trump said people shouldn't take his words so seriously.
“I'm kidding,” Trump told a reporter. “You don't understand sarcasm.”
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