For decades, the bombastic rhetoric of the North Korean government has stood apart on the international stage. But U.S. President Donald Trump will not be outdone on the insult front.
In his one year since taking office, he has had an erratic approach to North Korea, praising the North Korean dictator for half the year before threatening his destruction for the next six months. On Thursday, the president suddenly claimed “good relations” with Kim Jong-un before his staff walked back his comments.
To help keep track of where things stand in North Korea, we’ve kept a running list of the insults between two of the world’s most volatile leaders.
The first six months: "a pretty smart cookie"
Donald Trump has been quick to embrace foreign dictators. He has praised human rights abusers around the globe, from the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte to Egypt’s Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi. He gushed over Vladimir Putin, praising his leadership and calling him “strong.”
As a presidential candidate, Trump expressed respect and admiration for the North Korean leader, which only intensified in the months after he took power.
February 10, 2016: Candidate Donald Trump hits the morning shows and seems to praise the North Korean dictator while threatening to assassinate him. "This guy’s a bad dude — don’t underestimate him,” he said on “CBS This Morning.” I would get China to make that guy disappear in one form or another very quickly. I’ve heard of worse things.”
On May 17, the Republican nominee breaks with party orthodoxy and agrees to talk directly with Kim Jong-un. "I would speak to him — I would have no problem speaking to him," he told Reuters.
In his first comments as President about North Korea on April 30, 2017, he called Kim Jong-Un “a pretty smart cookie.” “At a very young age, he 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,” he said. The next day, Trump told Bloomberg that he would be “honored” to meet Kim.
The next six months: “My button is bigger than your button!”
Despite Trump’s praise, the North Koreans assassinate Kim Jong-nam, the dictator’s exiled half-brother, in February. In defiance of international sanctions, Kim Jong-un also conducts five missile tests during the spring of 2017.
On June 30, 2017, Donald Trump publicly breaks with the U.S. foreign policy doctrine adopted by former secretaries of state Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton designed to coax Pyongyang into negotiations. “The era of strategic patience with the North Korean regime has failed,” Trump said at a press conference in Tokyo. “That patience is over.”
On the Fourth of July, Kim Jong-un successfully tests an intercontinental ballistic missile with enough range to reach Alaska. The president immediately goes off-script on Twitter.
On August 8, at a meeting about the American opioid crisis, Trump veers off-script to ad-lib his famous threat. “They will be met with fire, fury and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before,” he said.
President Trump: If North Korea makes any more threats to the U.S., "they will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen" pic.twitter.com/8dQed79L1W— NBC News (@NBCNews) August 8, 2017
September 17: Donald Trump settles on an insult for Kim Jong-un: “Rocket Man.” Two days later, at his address to the United Nations General Assembly, he doubles down on the nickname, threatening to “totally destroy North Korea. “Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself,” he says.
In response, Kim Jong-un issues a rare statement in his own name. “Action is the best option in treating the dotard who, hard of hearing, is uttering only what he wants to say,” he says. “A frightened dog barks louder.”
The insult sets off a series of military saber-rattling on both sides.
September 25: “The whole world should clearly remember it was the U.S. who first declared war on our country,” said the North Korean foreign minister, Ri Yong-ho. “In light of the declaration of war, all options will be on the operations table.”
On September 30, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson attempts to cool down tensions by stating that he is in direct contact with the North Koreans about a negotiated solution to the escalating military threats. The next day, Trump throws his secretary of state under the bus in an extraordinary tweet.
October 11: The North Koreans threaten to bomb the U.S. “Trump, you can say, has lit the wick of a war against us,” the North Korean foreign minister said. “We need to settle the final score, only with a hail of fire, not words.”
November 8: Trump harshly criticizes the North Koreans during his state visit to South Korea, calling the Kim regime a “dark fantasy.” The next day, the North Korean media calls Trump a “lunatic old man” and urges Americans to impeach him. The President cannot help but reply on Twitter.
North Korean state media gloats in their next editorial, observing that “Trump has showed his true colors as an old lunatic, mean trickster, and human reject.” They write that “a rabid dog's barking can never frighten the Korean people."
On November 28, the North Koreans test and intercontinental ballistic missile that can reach Washington, D.C. Trump responds by blaming the Chinese.
On January 1, 2018, Kim Jong-un makes his new year’s address to the North Korean people. He celebrates the missile program’s considerable progress and expresses his desire for North Koreans to compete in the upcoming Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
"The United States should know that the button for nuclear weapons is on my table," he said, according to an Associated Press translation. "The entire area of the U.S. mainland is within our nuclear strike range. These weapons will be used only if our security is threatened."
The next day, Trump ignores the Olympic olive branch and responds on Twitter in a particularly juvenile way.
Where things stand: Tensions are cooling — but not if Trump can help it
Leading up to the Winter Olympics, the North Korean regime has embarked on a goodwill tour of sorts, establishing a military hotline to Seoul and offering to send North Korean musicians on cultural exchanges.
“North Korea’s weapons are only aimed at the United States, not our brethren, China, or Russia,” the North Korean delegation said.
On January 11, Donald Trump also softened his tone in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, saying he had a “very good relationship” with Kim Jong-un. But barely a day passed before the White House called the interview “fake news.”
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will attend a foreign ministers’ summit on Korean security tomorrow in Vancouver.
— with files from Ed Ngai