Kim Jong-un is entitled to feel pretty good about his skill in playing Washington and the West. There’s a history of North Korea getting what it wants and not paying anything for it. A succession of American presidents, Republican and Democrat, have been eager to play the mark.
Donald Trump seems to be cut from different cloth, but it’s early and too soon to determine the strength of his kidney. But the world can hope. Presidents before him earned their presidential chops dealing with diplomats, senators and assorted supplicants with good manners and proper deference, and the Donald absorbed the true grit of the street, matching wits with cutthroat business rivals, demanding unions, and connoisseurs of the hard bargain, sharply driven.
When Mr. Kim boasted Monday in a New Year’s Day speech that his new nuclear prowess enables him to strike targets anywhere in America and puts effective retaliation beyond the reach of an American president, Mr. Trump replied with uncharacteristic lack of bluster, and more effective for it: “We’ll see.”
A listener to Rocket Man’s speech could almost hear the squeaks of pain from the sanctions tightening around his chubby throat like a hangman’s noose. His speech was couched in soft words heretofore missing in the North Korean speech.
Mr. Kim had a convenient invitation from Moon Jae-in, the new president of South Korea, to send a delegation to the Winter Olympics in South Korea next month as guests of Seoul. Mr. Moon is enamored with the idea that hospitality would turn away wrath.
“I am willing to send a delegation and take necessary measures,” Mr. Kim said, “and I believe that the authorities of the North and South can urgently meet to discuss the matter. We sincerely hope that the South will successfully host the Olympics. Above all, we must ease the acute military tensions between North and South. The North and South should no longer do anything that would aggravate the situation, and must exert efforts to ease military tensions and create a peaceful environment.”
With the sweet stuff out of the way, he sent a sour note to his nemesis in Washington: “It’s not a mere threat but a reality that I have a nuclear button on my desk in my office. All of the mainland United States is within the range of our nuclear strike.”
This is similar to his boast that he had developed an engine powerful enough to send a warhead all the way to Washington or New York, that it would survive the tremendous heat of re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, a claim that American engineers greeted with skepticism.
Nevertheless, Mr. Kim’s own engineers, chemists and physicists have done more than expected, and sooner than expected, and if Rocket Man seems to be getting a little ahead of himself by thinking he has made it impossible now for President Trump to start a war against him, he could no doubt inflict considerable damage with the nuclear toys already at his disposal. He is further emboldened by the fact that he knows nobody wants to “start a war” against him.
Mr. Kim, feeling considerable pain (though personally only metaphorical pain) by the tightening sanctions, is eager for the United States to loosen them, at least a little. Fuel for North Korea, with a winter that might be more brutal than usual now settling in, has been dramatically reduced and the price of gasoline has more than doubled over last year. The pain is almost certainly going to get worse in the new year. This is a time to tighten sanctions, not loosen them.
Rocket Man is no doubt counting on forcing a split between Washington and Seoul over how to deal with what the credulous will regard as a good-faith overture from North Korea. President Moon has been pushing his Olympics initiative as a route to peace and understanding, even suggesting that he might cancel joint military exercises with the United States. He would happily buy Mr. Kim a burger and the world a Coke.
If President Trump agrees to recognize North Korea as “a nuclear weapons state,” Mr. Kim might get not only the easing of sanctions, but reduction of the American military presence in Northeast Asia. Pyongyang would promise to give up its ICBMs and freeze its nuclear-weapons program.
The beauty part for Rocket Man is that if the past is a guide, as it usually is, he wouldn’t have to deliver anything. So far Washington, with its allies in Seoul and Tokyo, insists that the terms of a deal remain as always, that the North must dismantle everything nuclear, or no deal. As the Donald might say, “We’ll see.”
• Wesley Pruden is editor in chief emeritus of The Times.
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