Kim and Trump: A tale of two leaders

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (left) and US President Donald Trump.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (left) and US President Donald Trump. PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL • In many ways, the two leaders on either side of the North Korea-United States missile stand- off could not be more different. In others, they are startlingly similar.

Mr Kim Jong Un has just overseen his second test of an intercon- tinental ballistic missile, bringing much of the US mainland within reach and presenting President Donald Trump with a crisis.

But while Pyongyang has long issued bellicose threats of nuclear war, this time, it is the leader of the United States who is declaring that his weapons are "locked and loaded", and promising "fire and fury like the world has never seen".

"Donald Trump is probably the unlikeliest president of the United States you could possibly imagine, whereas Kim Jong Un was the chosen heir," said Dr John Delury, an associate professor at Yonsei University in Seoul.

Mr Kim's father and predecessor Kim Jong Il had groomed his son to take his place at the top of Pyongyang's political pyramid for years before his death in 2011.

Mr Trump reached the White House via a career in property and reality television, followed by an unprecedentedly populist election campaign that upended the US political establishment.

While Mr Kim was a youthful ingenue when he came to power - and remains among the world's youngest leaders - he has held office for several years, but Mr Trump, who is in his 70s, is in his first political post.

"It is a weird situation where he is much more experienced than Donald Trump, who is twice as old as him," said Dr Delury.

And with a universally loyal media in North Korea, and no social media, Mr Kim has no need to concern himself about tomorrow's headlines - or respond to them on Twitter.

Both men "prize loyalty", said Dr Delury, and are willing to employ "a high level of flux in personnel to ensure that it is their people who are running the system. That is a commonality between Kim and Trump."

Dynastic descent from the North's founder Kim Il Sung is the basis of Mr Kim's personal legitimacy, and several members of the Kim family hold influential posts.

In Washington, Mr Trump's daughter Ivanka is an assistant to the President, her husband Jared Kushner is a close adviser, and Mr Trump's son Donald Jr has been embroiled in a probe into alleged Russian influence in the election.

Now, the two sides are locked in a cycle of threat and counter-threat.

"While North Korea is a horrifically stupid choice as a place to fight a real war, it is a great place to fight a fake war. They will do this for four years, happily, keeping it at rhetorical Defcon 10," said Dr Delury.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 14, 2017, with the headline 'Kim and Trump: A tale of two leaders'. Print Edition | Subscribe