Donald Trump finally said something reasonable about North Korea, and everybody’s giving him a hard time about it. In an interview over the weekend, CBS’s John Dickerson asked Trump what he made of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Trump said that while some people have wondered if Kim is sane, he shouldn’t be underestimated:
I can tell you this, and a lot of people don’t like when I say it, but he was a young man of 26 or 27 when he took over from his father, when his father died. He’s dealing with obviously very tough people, in particular the generals and others. And at a very young age, he was able to assume power. A lot of people, I’m sure, tried to take that power away, whether it was his uncle or anybody else. And he was able to do it. So obviously, he’s a pretty smart cookie.
Spokesman Sean Spicer defended the “smart cookie” line in Monday’s press briefing:
He assumed power at a young age when his father passed away. There was a lot of potential threats that could have come his way. He’s managed to lead a country forward, despite the concerns that we and so many people have, he is a young person to be leading a country with nuclear weapons. So that set aside, the president recognizes the threat he poses and is doing everything he can to isolate that threat and make sure we bring stability to the region.
All this praise for what a bright young man Kim is, along with Trump’s statement on Monday that he’d be “honored” to meet with the North Korean leader “under the right circumstances,” is being taken as yet one more example of Trump saying flattering things about dictators and brushing aside their abuses. (See: Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, etc.)
But what Trump said is not unreasonable. Kim has exceeded the expectations many foreign experts had for him when he took power. The Kim family hasn’t stayed in power against long odds for nearly 70 years, outlasting most of their ideological allies and standing up to far more powerful adversaries, by being stupid.
I would much rather Trump view Kim as an intelligent foe than subscribe to the other prevailing view of him in the U.S.—that he’s just, as John McCain put it, “a crazy fat kid” who inherited his daddy’s nukes. The latter view suggests that the U.S. ought to take military action to wipe out a madman and his nuclear weapons as soon as possible, no matter the risks. The former suggests that, bombastic and eccentric as the North Korean regime may appear, Kim is acting in what he sees as his best interests and will respond to positive and negative incentives.
I wouldn’t give Trump too much credit. He’s still taking actions that raise the risk of miscalculation and deadly military conflict. But given the stakes, signs he’s moving in the right direction should be encouraged.