“No regime has oppressed its own citizens more totally or brutally than the cruel dictatorship in North Korea,” declared President Trump, accurately, at his State of the Union address. Trump movingly recounted the grim plight of North Korea’s oppressed population, telling the story of Ji Seong-ho, a defector who was tortured for trying to escape.
In Singapore, his view of the situation has changed radically. He now sees Kim Jong-un as a bright young man full of promise and talent, whose only crime is perhaps failing to develop some of his country’s prime beachfront real estate.
“Anybody that takes over a situation like he did at 26 years of age and is able to run it and run it tough,” Trump said. “I don’t say he was nice or say anything about it. He ran it, few people at that age — you could take one out of 10,000 could not do it.”
The language Trump uses here is telling. He is calling Kim’s regime “tough,” which is language he reserves for praise. “Rough” and “tough” is Trumpspeak for the kinds of brutality he considers necessary. Trump urges police to be rougher. (“We’re getting them [criminals] out anyway, but we’d like to get them out a lot faster, and when you see these towns and when you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon, you just see them thrown in — rough, I said, please don’t be too nice.”) And he wants protesters to be treated rough. (“In the good old days this doesn’t happen because they used to treat them very, very rough. And when they protested once, they would not do it again so easily.”)
Asked at a press conference how he could praise Kim’s repression, Trump replied, “We did discuss it today, very strongly. It’s rough. It’s rough in a lot of places, by the way.” So now a country once described as the world’s most brutal dictatorship has been upgraded to the level of average, a “rough” place like many others.
Trump went so far as to claim that the the ghoulish displays of forced enthusiasm by the North Korean people represent authentic love for their dictator. Notably, Trump offered this testimonial unbidden — when asked, in an interview with George Stephanopoulos, about a completely different subject:
Q: What other kinds of security guarantees did you offer, did you put on the table?
Trump: Well, we’ve given him — I don’t wanna talk about it specifically, but we’ve given him — he’s going to be happy. His country does love him. His people, you see the fervor. They have a great fervor.
If you fail to demonstrate a sufficient level of public fervor for the Kim family, you are at risk of being imprisoned, tortured, or killed.
International relations often require making deals with evil regimes. But it doesn’t require actually endorsing the internal character of those regimes. American presidents can still speak out about human-rights abuses, or hold their tongues strategically. Republicans used to fetishize the willingness of their leaders to boldly stand tall to the world’s dictators, imagining that the correct combination of inspirational rhetoric would eventually tear down the gulags by sheer force of oratory. Indeed, they lavished praise on Trump for this very thing as recently as a few months ago. It is telling that he can reverse himself so easily and completely as to now stand as the world’s most prominent North Korean apologist.