War Stories

Flattery Got Trump Nowhere With Kim Jong-un

Where’s the love?

Trump and Kim looking at each other.
U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un talk before a meeting in the Demilitarized Zone on June 30, 2019. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/Getty Images

In another huge blow to President Trump’s reputation as a skilled negotiator, the North Korean military rolled out an enormous long-range missile in a parade over the weekend to celebrate the 75th anniversary of its ruling Workers Party.

The ICBM, estimated to be capable of hitting every corner of the United States with twice the nuclear payload of the country’s current model, is a clear sign that Trump’s strategy of dealing with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un—to befriend and woo him away from his nuclear ambitions—has been a failure.

It almost certainly was a delusion from the start. According to John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, the missile probably took two to five years to develop and build, meaning it would have been an itemized program in North Korea’s Five Year Plan beginning in 2016, before Trump took office.

Trump has long held that Kim pledged to dismantle his nuclear programs at their Singapore summit in 2018. In fact, as many noted at the time, he did no such thing—their vague, one-page joint declaration stated only that both sides should “work toward” the “de-nuclearization of the Korean peninsula” (meaning the elimination of all nukes that could hit the peninsula, including U.S. weapons). It has long been clear that, Kim’s bonhomie notwithstanding, he never stopped enriching uranium and building missiles, including long-range missiles. Now it is crystal clear.

Trump has not reacted to the move. A “senior Trump administration official” told the Japan Times that the missile on parade was “disappointing.” This echoed Trump’s own response, back in March 2019, after reports that North Korea was developing a new ICBM. The president said he was “a little disappointed.”

Both tepid responses stand in contrast to Trump’s warning, in January 2017, a few weeks before his Inauguration. “North Korea,” he tweeted, “just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the U.S. It won’t happen!”

It is worth stressing that this missile has not yet been tested—and, in fact, it may never be. Ankit Panda, author of Kim Jong Un and the Bomb, tweeted after the parade that no North Korean ICBMs first seen in a parade have ever been flight tested.

In other words, it could have been strictly for show—the world’s largest mobile missile, 75 feet long, 8 feet in diameter, hoisted on an 11-axle transporter-launcher. It’s a silly—in fact, a self-defeating—boast. The whole point of a mobile missile is that it’s easy to hide and move—and thus hard for the enemy to find and hit. A large mobile missile is hard to hide or move—for one thing, it has to stay on well-paved roads—and thus easier to find and hit. This missile is also propelled by liquid fuel, meaning it would have to trailed by fueling trucks; and once the caravan came to a halt, the missile would have to be loaded with fuel before it could be launched, a time-consuming process—making it easier still to find and hit.

Then again, the first U.S. and Soviet ICBMs were monstrous hulks as well. The effect, and perhaps the intent, is more psychological than strategic.

There might be strategy in the design as well. The nosecone is large enough to hold more than one warhead. The idea may be that if the first warhead were shot down by a U.S. missile-defense system, the second or possibly third warhead would saturate the defenses and destroy the target. (The Pentagon has never successfully tested an anti-missile missile against two mock warheads fired at the same time.)

This never was the slightest chance that Kim would give up all his nuclear weapons. His grandfather, Kim il-sung, the nation’s founder and first leader, once likened North Korea to a “shrimp among whales”—and an impoverished shrimp at that. The Kim clan’s key to survival has always been to play the whales off one another and to maintain an atmosphere of drama. A pocketful of nukes intensifies the drama and puts North Korea center stage. Nukes are the only leverage that Kim holds, the only counter-threat he can pose to stave off what he sees as a string of constant threats of attack and invasion from the whales—threats that he invokes to justify the cruel repression of his regime.

But what will happen now that Trump sees he’s been bamboozled by “Little Rocket Man,” as he once called Kim before falling for the tyrant’s “beautiful letters” and indulging in absurd fantasies of a Nobel Peace Prize? Trump once said about the prospect of North Korea developing a missile that can hit the United States, “It won’t happen!” Now it has happened. What next?

Right now, Trump is so riveted on the upcoming election, and possibly hopped up on dexamethasone to boot, he probably isn’t even thinking about his North Korean friend’s betrayal. He might not even have noticed the big missile rolling through the parade. But it isn’t going away. Trump’s ill-conceived notions of how to deal with North Korea have filled Kim with rosy-eyed notions of what he can get away with, and that can spawn dangerous miscalculations on both sides. Things might get better if a new administration came up with a policy. For the past few years, we haven’t had even that.