Last week, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un released an unprecedented direct statement through KCNA in response to U.S. President Donald Trump’s bombastic UN General Assembly speech. It deserves careful analysis as it represents a rare window onto Kim’s thinking about the United States.
First, Kim reveals his expectation that Trump’s UN speech would consist of “stereotyped, prepared remarks” not different from prior statements since the U.S. President would be speaking “on the world’s largest official diplomatic stage.” In other words, Kim’s default assumption is that the U.S., at the center of the existing international order, is fundamentally constrained in its ability to respond to North Korea’s nuclear advancement. On the other hand, North Korea, as a guerrilla state existing outside the system, has exploited its independence from normative behavior that restrains other nations.
Nevertheless, Kim confesses surprise at the tone of Trump’s remarks, observing that “a frightened dog barks louder.” This expression seems to suggest Kim feels his expanded threats are working and that Trump is on the defensive.
Then, Kim provides advice that may mirror the advice of Trump’s advisors: “I would like to advise Trump to exercise prudence in selecting words and to be considerate of whom he speaks to when making a speech in front of the world.” This description of his own reaction to “the mentally deranged behavior of the U.S. president” seems to normalize Kim’s views, since they don’t deviate too far from what one might expect to find in a David Brooks column.
Following a rather conventional analysis of global impact of the Trump presidency, Kim states that Trump is “surely a rogue and a gangster fond of playing with fire, rather than a politician.” Unfortunately, Kim concludes based on this analysis that he has made the right decision to double-down on acquisition of a nuclear deterrent against the U.S. military threat.
Even more sobering is Kim’s conclusion that Trump’s rhetorical threats and insults leave Kim with no choice but to “consider with seriousness taking a corresponding, highest level of hard-line countermeasure in history,” and that he will make Trump “pay dearly for his rude nonsense calling for totally destroying the DPRK.” North Korea’s foreign minister hinted at one such measure: an above-ground thermonuclear explosion over the Pacific.
Finally, Kim reveals some perplexity at Trump’s comments before vowing an unyielding response: “I am now thinking hard about what response he could have expected from us when he allowed such eccentric words to trip off his tongue. Whatever Trump might have expected, he will face results beyond his expectation.” Thus, Kim and Trump are locked into a war of words, with no apparent exit ramp available.
Worse, the U.S.-DPRK conflict has become personalized, and both men feel that their honor and their country’s dignity is at stake. As Sejong Institute North Korea specialist Paik Hak-soon has said, “There is no backing down in the North Korean rule book. It’s the very core of their leadership identity and motive.”
North Korea is on the verge of being able to hold the U.S. vulnerable to nuclear weapons, after having nursed grievances over their own vulnerability to U.S. nuclear power and threats for almost 70 years. But Trump’s warnings should give Kim pause, precisely because Trump’s deliberate, over-the-top insults to Kim’s personal and national dignity might bait the North Korean leader into an escalatory spiral that he cannot control for the sake of preserving his and his country’s honor at all costs. That indeed would be suicidal, as Trump asserted.
This post originally appeared in Forbes.