Two houses alike in dignity. Two passionate rivals at the height of their powers. One high-stakes conflict. From ancient grudge to new mutiny, the tale of how Trump finally met Kim is the story of the century.
When Trump met Kim (2016)
Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump met online, and their relationship started off hot.
In January 2016, North Korea tested a hydrogen bomb, deeply irritating Trump. With a hint of jealousy, the US president blamed the bad influence of a third party: China.
“China has total control, believe me, they say they don’t, they have total control over North Korea,” he said in an interview with Fox and Friends.
But Trump couldn’t stay away, apparently intrigued what he described as the North Korean leader’s “bad dude” image. He told CBS:
This guy is a bad dude, and don’t underestimate him. […] Any young guy who can take over from his father with all those generals and everybody else that probably want the position—this is not somebody to be underestimated.
Shortly afterward, in May 2016, Trump confessed, “I would speak to him, I would have no problem speaking to him.”
Hell hath no fire and fury (2017)
But the invitation to speak honestly never came. Instead, ever the attention seeker, Kim started testing more missiles—with bigger and bigger tests through the late summer of 2017. The geopolitical equivalent of a Facebook “poke,” each proved ultimately harmless—and impossible to ignore.
The increasing scale of Kim’s tests also suggested that in a matter of years he could reach out and poke Trump in his own country. His missiles might even hit Guam, even though America vacations there.
Trump took it badly, responding that Kim had taken the wrong tack entirely. The president warned that he, too, could poke back.
North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen. He has been very threatening … and as I said they will be met with fire, fury and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before.
Kim wasn’t going to take this tone from Trump. He was angry, and didn’t hold it back. In a long statement, he hit back, likening Trump to “a frightened dog.”
“I’d 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,” Kim said. He concluded: “I will surely and definitely tame the mentally deranged US dotard with fire.”
That October, then-secretary of state Rex Tillerson offered to play the crucial role of a go-between, and suggested he might talk to Kim and assess his true feelings. Ever prideful, the president demurred.
It was a hurtful, petty time for both sides.
The curious case of the president’s button (Jan. 2018)
With their relationship at an impasse, Trump and Kim began seeing other people. Kim reached out to South Korea, his on again, off again enemy. Trump noticed immediately.
Then Kim upped the ante, casually mentioning that “a nuclear button is always on the desk of my office.” This touched a nerve, upsetting the president so much that he said some things about buttons he would soon regret.
It was unnecessary of course; Kim already knew that his button wasn’t as big as Trump’s.
Meet me in Singapore (Spring 2018)
By the spring of 2018, Kim and Trump had still never met in person, and Kim’s relationship with neighboring head of state Moon Jae-in was moving fast. Kim and Moon had their own special phone line, and were planning to take things offline soon. The two had a lot in common, after all, although theirs was a markedly less passionate affair than Kim’s exchanges with Trump.
It was Moon who eventually addressed the issue of old flames: He sent advisor Chung Eui-Yong to the US to let Trump know that Kim, with the support of his new partner Moon, was finally ready to meet him.
Not so fast, Trump thought. Who could deny that there were trust issues? Trump asked confidante and future secretary of state Mike Pompeo to secretly meet with Kim and check him out.
But Pompeo really liked Kim! With that endorsement, Trump agreed to go ahead and face Kim.
Many in Trump’s circle warned him not to trust the North Korean dictator. He was known to have a long history of flirting with and then ghosting on American presidents.
Nevertheless, once they decided on a date (June 12), Trump got so excited he commissioned a commemorative coin with his and Kim’s face on it. Kim was excited too. He met Pompeo again, and this time sent three American hostages back as a present.
Let’s call the whole thing off (May 2018)
Were the cynics ultimately right to suggest a “bad dude” could not be changed? Or did Trump simply fail to follow out the rules of attraction by piling too many affectionate gestures and compliments on the North Korean leader?
Either way, Kim caught wind that the Americans were comparing North Korea to a past partner, and one who met a bad end: Libya. He was furious, and let Trump know it. Claiming that it was the US who’d wanted to reconcile from the very beginning, Kim’s vice foreign minister made his doubts public:
In view of the remarks of the US high-ranking politicians who have not yet woken up to this stark reality and compare the DPRK to Libya that met a tragic fate, I come to think that they know too little about us.
He continued with newfound suspicion:
It is the US who has asked for dialogue, but now it is misleading the public opinion as if we have invited them to sit with us.
I only wonder what is the ulterior motive behind its move and what is it the US has calculated to gain from that.
Trump was disappointed. Trying at least save his pride, Trump rushed to dump Kim before Kim dumped him—in a letter both sad and angry of his own.
I was very much looking forward to being there with you. 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. Therefore, please let this letter serve to represent that the Singapore summit, for the good of both parties, but to the detriment of the world, will not take place.
Trump did leave the door open, reminding Kim how “wonderful” their interaction had been, and concluding, “Please do not hesitate to call me or write.”
I felt a wonderful dialogue was building up between you and me, and ultimately, it is only the dialogue that matters. Some day, I look very much forward to meeting you. In the meantime, I want to thank you for the release of the hostages who are now home with their families. That was a beautiful gesture and was very much appreciated.
If you change your mind having to do with this most important summit, please do not hesitate to call me or write.
And like that, their much-anticipated rendezvous in Singapore was called off.
It’s not over till it’s over (May 2018)
But what story would be complete without a twist? Even though they were estranged, Trump made sure to keep his friends from mocking Kim. When the Senate commission insinuated Kim may be a bad leader, Trump proxy Pompeo pushed back—and warned everyone to mind their own business.
I don’t think he’s a weak leader. He has demonstrated enormous capacity to lead his country and his team. And I don’t know that I want to speculate as to why it is they took the actions, because I don’t think we know.
Pompeo said he had not lost hope—and apparently, deep down, the president hadn’t either. In recent weeks, Pompeo has quietly been meeting with Kim’s representatives to give Singapore just one last shot. It is, they agree, a “once in a lifetime” chance. So far, he appears to be making progress.
A hand-delivered letter is currently on its way from Kim to Trump—via a friend. It will reach him today, when we will learn whether this long romance is destined to be a comedy, or a tragedy.
For now, Trump hopes on.
Update: … and they are back on! The White House announced this afternoon (Jun. 1) that the previously cancelled meeting with Kim Jong Un will in fact happen on July 12, in Singapore. If nothing else changes, that is.