Donald Trump Is Giving North Korea Exactly What It Wants

A few years ago Mr. Kim poured millions of dollars into a museum in the farming town of Sinchon that serves as a mecca of anti-Americanism, a house of horrors with room after room cataloging — in full, bloody, life-size detail — the (largely unsubstantiated) war crimes pinned on the Americans. All spring and summer, students are taken by bus to the museum for field trips intended to scare them into hating and fearing the United States.

There is method to the madness. Mr. Kim is using the threat of attack from the United States to enforce a sense of unity among North Koreans. He knows that few things work better to inspire nationalism and patriotism than the threat of invasion. (Mr. Trump’s xenophobic presidential campaign suggests that he recognizes that, too.)

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This propaganda is especially effective with Koreans, whose cultural identity has been shaped by thousands of years of aggression from outside forces: the Chinese, the Mongols, the Japanese, the Americans. That’s why Korea became known as the Hermit Kingdom. For centuries, long before the Korean Peninsula was divided, guarding against foreign infiltration was a national creed.

Now in his mid-30s, Mr. Kim inherited in 2011 the leadership of a people who didn’t know anything about him until three years before he took power, and perhaps were disgruntled by another hereditary succession. To maintain power and promote stability, Mr. Kim and his strategists have worked to obtain the modern equivalent of a hedgehog’s quills — nuclear weapons — and the simple narrative that with this “treasured sword,” and the clever wits of his atomic scientists, Mr. Kim will protect his country from imminent destruction by the “marauding” United States.

The regime has used this narrative to justify pouring more than a fifth of its meager national budget into defense at a time when millions of North Koreans go hungry every day, according to the World Food Program. The leadership also uses this David vs. Goliath narrative to explain to North Koreans why they must suffer ever-tightening sanctions that, if enforced, will make their already difficult lives even more onerous.

Mr. Trump’s fiery rhetoric mainly serves to advance Kim Jong-un’s agenda by giving him more reason and justification to build nuclear weapons under the guise of protecting his people.

This is not to say the North Koreans weren’t thrown off by Mr. Trump’s comments. No previous American president since Harry Truman has returned rhetorical fire with fire quite so enthusiastically, not even George W. Bush when he grouped North Korea in with the “axis of evil” in his 2002 State of the Union speech. And the North Koreans know they would quickly be overwhelmed in a conflict with the United States, which has stationed powerful weaponry in the Pacific and conducted sporadic flyovers of B-52s and B-1 bombers to remind and warn them.


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But with nuclear weapons, they feel somewhat invincible. North Korea responded to Mr. Trump’s recent threats with a warning that it was devising a plan to fire missiles into waters near Guam, a United States territory with two military bases and 160,000 residents. Whether or not it follows through on that threat, the North will keep test-firing missiles, improving the technology with every launching.

The savvy move by Washington would be to find a face-saving way to back down from the escalating rhetoric and to stop giving Kim Jong-un what he wants: propaganda victories and a justification to keep building bombs and missiles.

But perhaps Mr. Trump is taking a page out of Mr. Kim’s playbook: He’s drumming up fear and provoking America’s enemies in order to distract from his own problems and establish his reputation as a leader who can defend his people, even if it comes at a cost to global peace and security.

Jean H. Lee, a former correspondent for The Associated Press, is a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

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A version of this op-ed appears in print on August 13, 2017, on Page SR1 of the New York edition with the headline: What Kim Jong-un Wants. Today's Paper|Subscribe

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