Thomas Gallatin / May 2, 2017

Trump’s Message to Kim

He offers North Korea a conditional olive branch, while the U.S. military announces the missile shield is now operational.

In an interview on Monday with Bloomberg News, Donald Trump said something that left many shaking their heads in disbelief or rolling their eyes over yet another instance of his verbal incontinence. Shocking, we know. Trump mused, “If it would be appropriate for me to meet with [North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un], I would absolutely. I would be honored to do it.” He continued, “If it’s under … the right circumstances. But I would do that.”

When it comes to ad-lib remarks in interviews, much like his unrefined use of Twitter (which thankfully is now subject to some moderation), Trump still is prone to forget that every word he says will be trumpeted around the world. At issue specifically was Trump’s use of the word “honored” in his reference to North Korea’s ruthless dictator. Once again, many pounced on Trump’s words as further evidence of his supposed admiration of strong men. Coming on the heels of his promise to invite murderous Philippine dictator Rodrigo Duterte and Turkey’s budding tyrant Tayyip Erdogan to the White House, this is understandable. But that’s also an overly simplistic assessment that misses the purpose behind Trump’s statement. Listen for what he means not what he says.

Clearly, Trump is aiming to diffuse an increasingly tense situation. His offer of a conditional olive branch toward Kim — and make no mistake, any meeting is absolutely conditional on North Korea’s behavior — coupled with his flattering reference to Kim as a “smart cookie,” are designed to lay ground work for a potential diplomatic solution. And while Trump’s words may have little impact on Kim, it plays well with China, the most important player in helping the U.S. clamp down on the despot John McCain more accurately labeled the “crazy fat kid.”

Showing honor, especially to those in positions of authority, is of great importance to the cultures of the Far East. Trump’s statements play to the Eastern ear as a serious and respectful expression for seeking a diplomatic solution. And while Westerners justifiably hear Trump’s words as foolish, the desired aim of de-escalating the growing conflict is not so careless. It’s also important to note that Trump’s statements were made at the same time as the U.S. military announced that the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) Missile Shield in South Korea is now operational. That is no coincidence.

Finally, in the highly unlikely event that the Kim regime actually capitulates to the U.S. and the rest of the world’s demand of nuclear disarmament, a bilateral meeting between the U.S. and North Korea would be a significant change in longstanding U.S. policy. That may end up being far more consequential than Trump’s verbal blunder.

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