SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - Veteran Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward’s new book, Rage, is shining more light on the unlikely relationship between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
The book won’t be released until next week, but several U.S. media outlets on Wednesday published excerpts, including portions of personal letters that Trump and Kim exchanged over the past two years.
In the letters, the young North Korean leader showers Trump with extravagant praise, repeatedly addressing him as “Your Excellency” and hailing their “deep and special friendship,” even as the wider U.S.-North Korea nuclear talks were breaking down.
"Even now I cannot forget that moment of history when I firmly held Your Excellency's hand at the beautiful and sacred location as the whole world watched," Kim told Trump after their first meeting in Singapore in June 2018. It was one of two Kim letters published by the U.S.-based cable news network CNN.
Following their second summit in Vietnam, Kim told Trump “every minute we shared 103 days ago in Hanoi was also a moment of glory that remains a precious memory,” according to CNN, which says it obtained transcripts of the two letters.
Trump often returned the praise. After their Singapore meeting, Trump described Kim as “far beyond smart,” according to the Post. The paper said Trump boasted to Woodward that Kim “tells me everything,” including a graphic description of how he killed his uncle, Jang Song Thaek. The powerful Jang was executed in late 2013 for treason.
Those comments mirror an interview Trump gave to VOA immediately after his Singapore summit, when Trump said Kim was “smart, loves his people, [and] he loves his country.”
For the book, Woodward says he obtained access to 25 Trump-Kim letters, although it’s not clear how much of the correspondence will be included.
So far, the excerpts contained no huge surprises about the Trump-Kim relationship, parts of which Trump has already made public. However, analysts say the correspondence reveals important insights about each man’s personality and negotiating style.
“It’s interesting to see how you can see Kim’s personality refracted through these letters,” said Jung Pak, a former CIA analyst who now works at the Washington-based Brookings Institution.
“Surrounded by sycophants his entire life and as an observer and student of excessive displays of admiration that enveloped his father and grandfather, Kim Jong Un almost certainly understands how to weaponize praise and prey on one’s insecurities and desire for greatness,” said Pak, who recently wrote the book Becoming Kim Jong Un.
Trump and Kim didn’t always get along. In 2017, the two regularly exchanged insults, with Trump calling Kim “Little Rocket Man” and Kim slamming Trump as a “mentally deranged U.S. dotard.” At one point, Trump threatened to "totally destroy" North Korea.
The tensions dissipated after Trump, a former real estate developer and reality television host who often claims an unmatched deal-making ability, became the first sitting U.S. president to meet a North Korean leader. Trump later claimed the two “fell in love.”
The relationship has held firm, even after North Korea last year resumed short-range ballistic missile tests and walked away from nuclear negotiations.
If he wins reelection in November, Trump has said he will reach a deal “very quickly” with Kim. Trump’s opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, has said he will not continue Trump’s personal outreach to Kim, signaling a return to a more traditional U.S. posture.
Impact on future talks
Some now fear the publication of the private Trump-Kim letters risks offending North Korean sensitivities and upsetting future talks.
“That’s privileged diplomatic communication,” said Mark P. Barry, a veteran Korea observer and associate editor of the International Journal on World Peace.
The matter is also tricky, Barry said, because Kim’s words are typically treated with the utmost respect in authoritarian North Korea.
“The worst that could happen is that internally Kim could appear to be a supplicant to Trump,” he says.
North Korea has not responded to the release of the correspondence, but Pyongyang may not be too surprised, since Trump previously tweeted out one of Kim’s letters in July 2018.
“It won’t affect Kim Jong Un’s attitude that much," Lee Sang-sin of the Korean Institute for National Unification, said. "Kim understood the possibility of leaking," he said.
Kathryn Botto, a research analyst in the Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said she wouldn’t be surprised if Kim cited the release of the letters as a reason for refusing to hold talks.
“More evidence of disrespect from the U.S. or something like that,” she said of a possible North Korean response.
“But in reality [Kim’s] willingness to hold future talks is based on the potential of securing sanctions relief or other changes in the U.S. negotiating position, and of course this doesn't change that."
North Korea has for months boycotted the talks, which began to break down after the February 2019 summit in Hanoi ended without a deal. Trump and Kim met once more in June 2019 at the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas, briefly raising hopes the negotiations could be revived.
A month after the DMZ meeting, though, Kim wrote to Trump “with a new tone,” apparently upset that the U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises had not been fully stopped, CNN reports.
"I am clearly offended and I do not want to hide this feeling from you,” Kim told Trump. “I am really, very offended.”
In recent months, North Korean officials have repeatedly said that while the Trump-Kim relationship remains strong and has likely prevented tensions from spiraling out of control, it is not enough to ensure progress in the nuclear talks.