Donald Trump’s opinion of North Korea’s Kim Jong-un has evolved over time. A year ago this week, for example, the American president offered unexpected praise for the dictator, saying, “At a very young age, he was able to assume power…. So obviously, he’s a pretty smart cookie.”
In his State of the Union address earlier this year, the president changed course. “No regime has oppressed its own citizens more totally or brutally than the cruel dictatorship in North Korea,” Trump said. He went to condemn “the depraved character of the North Korean regime.”
The American president has also described Kim Jong-un as “Little Rocket Man,” a “maniac,” and a “madman.” Today, however, Trump shifted his posture once again.
“Kim Jong-un was, he really has been very open and I think very honorable from everything we’re seeing. Now a lot of promises have been made by North Korea over the years, but they have never been in this position.”
Of course, they’ve “never been in this position” because previous American presidents have been less cavalier about giving North Korean dictators what they wanted: a presidential meeting that raises the rogue nation’s stature and legitimacy.
But putting that aside, since when does the president of the United States praise a North Korean dictator as being “very honorable” – in exchange for effectively nothing?
Trump’s track record when it comes to public praise for authoritarian rulers was already discouraging, with a list that includes Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte. Looking back a little further, the Republican has also said he was impressed by Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and offered praise for China’s handling of the 1989 crisis in Tiananmen Square.
But this doesn’t make Trump’s more effusive praise for Kim Jong-un this morning any less jarring.
My fear is this is part of a strange deal-making tactic, in which Trump tries to flatter the nuclear-armed dictator ahead of their upcoming talks. But given the fact that the American president has already weakened his negotiating posture, will these compliments really help?