North Korean leader Kim Jong-un speaking during the 7th Congress of the Workers' Party of Korea (WPK), the first such congress held in 36 years since 1980, in Pyongyang, North Korea, May 6, 2016.
Photo by Korean Central News Agency/EPA

Trump's praise of North Korean dictator raises new questions

— Updated
In recent weeks, Donald Trump's policy towards North Korea has been largely incoherent. On military and diplomatic fronts, the president has contradicted himself, and his aides have contradicted themselves and the president.

Complicating matters, however, is Trump's specific praise of Kim Jong Un.

The American president last week told Reuters he was impressed with the North Korean leader's ability to lead a dictatorship. Over the weekend, Trump went further, saying, "At a very young age, [Kim Jong Un] 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."

Yesterday, the Republican went even further still.

"If it would be appropriate for me to meet with him, I would absolutely, I would be honored to do it," Trump said Monday in an Oval Office interview with Bloomberg News. "If it's under the, again, under the right circumstances. But I would do that." [...]

"Most political people would never say that," Trump said of his willingness to meet with the reclusive Kim, "but I'm telling you under the right circumstances I would meet with him. We have breaking news."

A few hours earlier, White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus said pretty much the opposite, which is emblematic of the fact the president and his team are often on very different pages, even on matters of foreign policy and national security.

In case this isn't obvious, no American president has ever met a North Korean leader, though Pyongyang would no doubt be thrilled to have a bilateral discussion: it would extend a degree of stature and legitimacy to North Korea that it's long lacked. Why Trump would be willing to offer such a gift is unclear, probably because he doesn't understand the implications of what he said.

All of which has created quite a bit of confusion in South Korea, America's longtime ally. The Associated Press reported that South Koreas "are bewildered" by Trump's behavior.

Trump's swing from hints of military action to praise for Kim highlights an odd reality: South Koreans, not easily rattled by their nuclear bomb testing neighbor to the north, find themselves increasingly baffled by the new leader of their strongest ally and military protector, the United States. [...]

It's hard to think of something that would give more truth to Trump's "smart cookie" description than if Kim Jong Un is able, after all these years, to drive a wedge between Seoul and Washington.

Trump had already gone out of his way to alienate South Korea, so these latest steps only make matters worse.

My advice would be to stop looking for coherence in Trump's antics. His praise of Kim Jung Un and the idea that he'd be "honored" to meet him aren't part of a strategy; they're part of an impulse. There's every reason to believe the Trump administration will ignore the president's latest positions, and Trump himself may decide today that he never actually said what we know he already said.

Trump doesn't have a foreign policy towards North Korea; he has random, fleeting thoughts, connected to nothing but his creepy affinity for authoritarian rulers.