“Some people say, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t like him,’ ” he continued. “I said, ‘Why shouldn’t I like him? I like him. We get along great. We’ll see what happens.’ ”
Trump sees his interactions with world leaders like Kim in personal terms — Kim vs. Trump — instead of through the lens of his position.
For Kim to conflate himself with North Korea is fair: He’s a dictator whose decisions and whims guide every detail within his country. Trump, though, is the elected leader of a democratic nation who serves as a representative of the public, not himself. His power is checked by Congress and the courts.
What Trump’s doing, really, is approaching leadership of the country as he did his leadership of the Trump Organization. There he was dictator, enacting by decree whatever his heart desired. He embodied that company as Kim embodies North Korea. But now he has a new job.
We’ve heard language like this from Trump before. Last July, as he prepared for a summit in Helsinki with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Trump expressed optimism about the discussion.
“Somebody was saying, ‘Is he an enemy?’ He’s not my enemy,” Trump said at a news conference. “Is he a friend? No, I don’t know him well enough. But the couple of times I’ve gotten to meet him, we get along very well.”
Putin is pretty obviously not America’s friend, and most Americans view his country as a critical threat to the United States. So Putin may not be Trump’s enemy, but most Americans think he’s America’s.
As unusual as this approach is for a president, it’s even more remarkable that Trump would wonder aloud why he should be expected not to like Kim. This from a president who, during his first State of the Union address in 2018, said that “no regime has oppressed its own citizens more totally or brutally than the cruel dictatorship in North Korea.”
“Past experience has taught us that complacency and concessions only invite aggression and provocation,” he continued. “I will not repeat the mistakes of past administrations that got us into this dangerous position.”
He went on to cite the example of how American student Otto Warmbier was treated while imprisoned in the country on trumped-up charges.
“After a shameful trial, the dictatorship sentenced Otto to 15 years of hard labor, before returning him to America last June — horribly injured and on the verge of death,” Trump said. “He passed away just days after his return.”
On Thursday, his tune was different. Kim “felt badly” about Warmbier’s death, Trump insisted. “He tells me that he didn’t know about it, and I will take him at his word.”
Warmbier’s parents disagree. “Kim and his evil regime are responsible for the death of our son Otto,” they said in a statement released on Friday. “Kim and his evil regime are responsible for unimaginable cruelty and inhumanity. No excuse or lavish praise can change that.”
That cruelty extends well beyond Warmbier. After describing what happened to Warmbier in his State of the Union address, Trump told this story, about a man who was in the audience:
In 1996, [Ji] Seong-ho was a starving boy in North Korea. One day, he tried to steal coal from a railroad car to barter for a few scraps of food. In the process, he passed out on the train tracks, exhausted from hunger. He woke up as a train ran over his limbs. He then endured multiple amputations without anything to dull the pain. His brother and sister gave what little food they had to help him recover and ate dirt themselves — permanently stunting their own growth. Later, he was tortured by North Korean authorities after returning from a brief visit to China.
The North Korean government had between 80,000 and 120,000 people imprisoned in labor camps according to a 2014 U.N. report. But those numbers fluctuate a lot because “[t]he inmate population has been gradually eliminated through deliberate starvation, forced labor, executions, torture, rape and the denial of reproductive rights enforced through punishment, forced abortion and infanticide,” the report stated.
“The commission estimates that hundreds of thousands of political prisoners have perished in these camps over the past five decades,” it continued.
Those not actively in prison camps are in de facto ones, constrained by the country’s borders. Kim’s regime tightly controls the information his people can receive and they are expected to demonstrate fealty to the regime. Attempts to leave are often met with death. When a soldier defected across the DMZ in 2017, he was shot five times by other guards at the border but escaped.
All of this is overseen by Kim, who rose to power upon the death of his father in 2011. To consolidate that power, he had his uncle murdered by firing squad, according to South Korean authorities. He had his own half brother killed in dramatic fashion, U.S. officials said: In the middle of an airport in Malaysia, two women wiped his face with elements of VX nerve toxin. He died shortly afterward.
These are not likable qualities in general. They are particularly unlikable as demonstrations of the sort of governance that the United States generally lambastes.
Vietnam is thriving like few places on earth. North Korea would be the same, and very quickly, if it would denuclearize. The potential is AWESOME, a great opportunity, like almost none other in history, for my friend Kim Jong Un. We will know fairly soon - Very Interesting!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 27, 2019
On the campaign trail, Trump’s frequent argument about Russia was that it was important the United States and Russia get along. That’s come back to haunt him, but it’s clear now that he meant it in the same way he does North Korea: If he and Kim can get along, who knows what can happen?
One thing that can happen, it seems, is that the president can wave away the behavior of a charming dictator even after criticizing it robustly himself.