When it comes to rhetoric about North Korea, U.S. President Donald Trump has been the master of both the bellicose taunt and soothing benevolence, often in close proximity to each other.
Trump’s duality on the reclusive communist pariah nation was on display again Thursday as he canceled the planned June 12 summit in Singapore with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
On the one hand, Trump told Kim that he was “very much looking forward to being there with you.” But then he said he was canceling because, “Sadly, based on the tremendous anger and open hostility displayed in your most recent statement, I feel it is inappropriate, at this time, to have this long-planned meeting.”
Trump warned, “You talk about your nuclear capabilities, but ours are so massive and powerful that I pray to God they will never have to be used.”
Still, wait a minute, Trump seemed to say. “I felt a wonderful dialogue was building up between you and me,” he said, adding his thanks for releasing three Americans who had been held in North Korea. He held out hope to get together in the future, saying, “If you change your mind having to do with this most important summit, please do not hesitate to call me or write.”
Mostly, through his 16-month presidency and in the years before he transformed himself from a New York real estate mogul into a Republican presidential contender, Trump warned of the dangers of a nuclear North Korea. His barbed comments about Kim and North Korea’s broken promises in years past to denuclearize echoed the sentiment of many U.S. politicians, but often included an extra helping of ridicule.
In 2013, two years before he announced his presidential candidacy, Trump warned former President Barack Obama to be cautious with Kim, calling the North Korea leader a “whack job.”
During a debate in the run-up to the November 2016 presidential election, Trump assailed Kim as a “maniac” who “actually has nuclear weapons.”
He said that if Kim came to the United States, “I’d accept him, but I wouldn’t give him a state dinner like we do for China and all these other people that rip us off.”
At another point in the campaign, Trump seemed accepting about the possibility of assassinating Kim, saying in an interview he could “get China to make [Kim] disappear in one form or another.”
As president, through much of his first year in office in 2017, Trump regularly excoriated Kim, including at the U.N. General Assembly. On various occasions, Trump called him a “sick puppy” and “Little Rocket Man,” and questioned why Kim would call him a dotard, or a weak-minded old person.
“Why would Kim Jong Un insult me by calling me ‘old,’ when I would NEVER call him ‘short and fat’?” Trump retorted.
Fire and fury
As North Korea carried out numerous missile and nuclear tests last year, Trump became more bellicose, saying, “Military solutions are now fully in place, locked and loaded, should North Korea act unwisely. Hopefully Kim Jong Un will find another path!”
Trump warned that if North Korea attacked the U.S. or its allies, he would launch “fire, fury and, frankly, power, the likes of which this world has never seen before.”
The U.S. leader rebuked former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson for suggesting that negotiations with North Korea could be fruitful and lead to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, saying he was “wasting his time.”
“The U.S. has been talking to North Korea, and paying them extortion money, for 25 years. Talking is not the answer!” Trump declared.
Talks on, then off
But late last year and into 2018, Trump watched as South Korea welcomed North Korean athletes at the Winter Olympics and said it was his administration’s imposition of economic sanctions against North Korea that forced it to open talks with South Korea.
Trump said he, too, would be open to negotiations with North Korea.
In March, when South Korean envoys conveyed a message from Pyongyang that it was willing to meet with Trump, he accepted immediately. In recent weeks, there were direct, high-level talks between Kim and Mike Pompeo, first in his role as director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and then as secretary of state, all aimed at arranging the summit in Singapore.
Pompeo returned from Pyongyang with three Americans who had been detained by North Korea on spurious charges. Details were being worked out for the U.S.-North Korea summit. One U.S. group even minted a medallion commemorating the would-be meeting.
But then North Korea attacked U.S. calls for unilateral denuclearization, criticizing the views of Trump national security adviser John Bolton and describing U.S. Vice President Mike Pence as a “political dummy.”
For Trump, that was enough. With his signature on a single-page letter, he called off the summit.