Trump on North Korea, from ‘Rocket Man’ to ‘fire and fury’

FILE PHOTOS: A combination photo shows a Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) handout of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un released on May 10, 2016, and Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump posing for a photo after an interview with Reuters in his office in Trump Tower, in the Manhattan borough of New York City, U.S., May 17, 2016. REUTERS/KCNA handout via Reuters/File Photo & REUTERS/Lucas Jackson/File Photo ATTENTION EDITORS - THE KCNA IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THIS IMAGE. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. NOT FOR USE BY REUTERS THIRD PARTY DISTRIBUTORS. SOUTH KOREA OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN SOUTH KOREA. - RC13A4D9B6B0

Throughout the first year of his presidency – and even as he campaigned for the office – President Trump’s rhetoric regarding North Korea has been harsh.

He warned earlier this year that America’s nuclear capabilities were “much bigger [and] more powerful” than that of the Asian nation. And at the end of 2017, Trump designated North Korea a state sponsor of terror again – a classification that came with additional sanctions.

But on the heels of a planned, historic summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Trump’s tone has softened, saying “great progress” has been made.

From agreeing to meet with Kim to dubbing him “Little Rocket Man,” here’s a look at what Trump has said about North Korea and its leader over time.

‘Good relationship formed’

Trump has confirmed that CIA Director Mike Pompeo – his pick to lead the State Department – secretly met with Kim in April and a “good relationship was formed.” He said the meeting “went very smoothly.”

The president also disclosed that the U.S. and North Korea have held direct talks at “extremely high levels” in preparation for the summit.

Kim ‘will do what is right’

After Kim’s first reported visit to China, Trump said “there is a good chance that Kim Jong Un will do what is right for his people and for humanity.”

“For years and through many administrations, everyone said that peace and the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula was not even a small possibility,” Trump said in a March tweet, adding that he is looking forward to his upcoming meeting with the North Korean leader.

He also gave North Korea the benefit of the doubt earlier that month, saying he believes the country will abide by its pledge to suspend missile tests.

When Trump delivered a speech in Pennsylvania, the crowd booed the mention of Kim, but the president stopped them.

“No, it’s very positive … no, after the meeting you may do that, but now we have to be very nice because let’s see what happens, let’s see what happens,” Trump said.

Invitation accepted

Trump accepted an invitation from Kim to meet, the White House said. While a time and place has yet to be determined, the two leaders are expected to meet by June.

The invitation to convene was extended by Kim.

“Kim Jong Un talked about denuclearization with the South Korean Representatives, not just a freeze. Also, no missile testing by North Korea during this period of time. Great progress being made but sanctions will remain until an agreement is reached,” Trump said on social media. “Meeting being planned!”

“The deal with North Korea is very much in the making and will be, if completed, a very good one for the World. Time and place to be determined,” he later said.

‘Possible progress’

As North Korea is reportedly willing to negotiate its nuclear weapons, Trump cautiously acknowledged “possible progress.”

“For the first time in many years, a serious effort is being made by all parties concerned,” Trump said on Twitter. “The World is watching and waiting! May be false hope, but the U.S. is ready to go hard in either direction!”

At a later White House news conference, Trump said he believed North Korea, which has a long history of deception and threats to target U.S. cities with nuclear missiles, is “sincere.”

“We have come certainly a long way, at least rhetorically, with North Korea,” Trump said. Of the possibility for peacefully resolving the nations’ deep differences, he said: “It’d be a great thing for the world, would be great for North Korea, it would be a great thing for the peninsula.”

“But we’ll see what happens,” Trump said.

Spirit of the Olympics

At the conclusion of the 2018 Winter Olympics, North Korea sent the U.S. a message through South Korea, saying it has “ample intentions” of holding talks with America.

During a meeting with the nation’s governors at the White House in February, Trump said those talks will only occur “under the right conditions.”

The administration’s position has been that North Korea must get rid of its nuclear and missile programs first before any talks can take place.

Relationship status: It’s complicated

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Trump reportedly said he “probably” has a “very good relationship” with North Korea.

Trump also suggested that he is open to diplomacy with the country he’s spent years criticizing, the newspaper reported.

“I have relationships with people. I think you people are surprised,” Trump said.

The Wall Street Journal released the audio and transcript of the interview after Trump denied making the comments.

‘Success for the world’

Trump told South Korea that he would be open to talks with its northern neighbor “under the right circumstances,” the White House said.

Trump also took credit for the talks between North and South Korea ahead of next month’s Winter Olympics. At a January Cabinet meeting, Trump said it was his administration’s pressure on North Korea that caused the rogue nation to negotiate with the South.

“Without our attitude that would have never happened,” Trump said of the inter-Korean dialogue. “Who knows where it leads. Hopefully it will lead to success for the world — not just for our country but for the world, and we’ll be seeing over the next number of weeks and months what happens.”

Whose button is bigger?

After Kim warned Trump about North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, Trump hit back on social media, arguing that his “Nuclear Button” is “bigger [and] more powerful.”

“North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un just stated that the ‘Nuclear Button is on his desk at all times,’” the president tweeted. “Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!”

Kim previously warned the U.S. “should know that the button for nuclear war is on my table.”

“The entire area of the U.S. mainland is within our nuclear strike range,” he said. “The United States can never start a war against me and our country.”

Good news or bad news?

Trump insinuated at the start of the new year that sanctions and additional “pressures” are having a “big impact on North Korea.”

“Soldiers are dangerously fleeing to South Korea,” Trump said. Kim “now wants to talk to South Korea for the first time. Perhaps that is good news, perhaps not – we will see!”

In his tweet, Trump was seemingly referring to the recent, dramatic escape of at least two North Korean soldiers across the heavily militarized border into the southern country He also alluded to Kim’s recent comments indicating he would send a delegation to the Winter Olympics to be hosted in South Korea.

Trump also took credit for the talks between North and South Korean leaders.

“With all of the failed ‘experts’ weighing in, does anybody really believe that talks and dialogue would be going on between North and South Korea right now if I wasn’t firm, strong and willing to commit our total ‘might’ against the North,” Trump said in a Jan. 4 tweet. “Fools, but talks are a good thing!”

‘Sick puppy’

While giving a speech on tax reform at a Missouri event in November, 2017, Trump digressed from the topic to call the North Korean leader a “sick puppy.”

His comments drew hoots from the crowd.

State sponsor of terror

Trump re-designated North Korea a state sponsor of terror on Nov. 20, 2017, citing its support of “international terrorism, including assassinations on foreign soil.”

During a Cabinet meeting, Trump announced the designation came along with new sanctions on the “murderous regime” as part of the administration’s “maximum pressure campaign” in dealing with North Korea. He said these sanctions will be “the highest level of sanctions” on the North.

North Korea was on the list but was taken off by the Bush administration in 2008.

Why can’t we be friends?

In a series of tweets while in Vietnam, Trump said he doesn’t know why the North Korean dictator would “insult” him.

“Why would Kim Jong-un insult me by calling me ‘old,’ when I would NEVER call him ‘short and fat?’” Trump said. “Oh well, I try so hard to be his friend – and maybe someday that will happen!”

The comment came after Kim referred to Trump’s speech in South Korea as “reckless remarks by an old lunatic.”

‘Don’t try us’

In Asia, Trump issued a stern warning to North Korea, saying it would be a “fatal miscalculation” for the country to attack the U.S. or an ally.

“This is a very different administration than the United States has had in the past. Do not underestimate us. And do not try us,” Trump said during an address at South Korea’s National Assembly.

North Korea “has interpreted America’s past restraint as weakness,” Trump said.

‘Let’s make a deal’

While on his Asia trip, Trump implored North Korea to “come to the table” for talks on its nuclear weapons program. Trump’s request for North Korea to “make a deal” was in stark contrast to his previous hardline rhetoric when it comes to the rogue nation.

“It makes sense for North Korea to come to the table and make a deal that is good for the people of North Korea and for the world,” Trump said during a news conference alongside South Korean president Moon Jae-in in November 2017.

Trump also said he’s seen “a lot of progress” in dealing with North Korea but still called the country a “worldwide threat.”

In a joint news conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo the day before, Trump repeated his assertion that the “era of strategic patience” with North Korea was finished.

“Some people say my rhetoric is very strong but look what has happened with very weak rhetoric in the last 25 years,” Trump said then.

‘Rocket Man’ is on a ‘suicide mission’

After dubbing him “Rocket Man” in a tweet, Trump eventually tried out the new nickname for Kim during his inaugural address to the U.N. General Assembly.

During his speech, Trump vowed to “totally destroy North Korea” if the country so provokes him. He also said Kim was “on a suicide mission.”

No more talking

After North Korea said it successfully launched a missile over Japan, a U.S. ally, and into the Pacific Ocean, Trump initially had a subdued response.

“Threatening and destabilizing actions only increase the North Korean regime’s isolation in the region and among all nations of the world,” Trump said in a written statement after North Korea’s missile soared almost 1,700 miles into the Pacific Ocean, triggering alert warnings in northern Japan and shudders throughout Northeast Asia. “All options are on the table.”

The missile launch was said to be a “precursor” to North Korea’s containment of the U.S. territory of Guam by Kim, according to state-run media.

But in a tweet, the president suggested the U.S. is finished “talking” to North Korea.

“The U.S. has been talking to North Korea, and paying them extortion money, for 25 years. Talking is not the answer,” Trump tweeted.

The U.S. is ‘locked and loaded’

Trump took to social media in August 2017 to proclaim that the U.S. military is “locked and loaded” in case “North Korea act[s] unwisely.”

‘Fire [and] fury’ isn’t ‘tough enough’

With the threat of nuclear violence growing, Trump warned North Korea on Aug. 8, 2017 that he would unleash “fire, fury and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before.”

But when tensions continued to rise and North Korea threatened to attack Guam, Trump said maybe that comment wasn’t “tough enough.

“Let’s see what [Kim] does with Guam. He does something in Guam, it will be an event the likes of which nobody has seen before – what will happen in North Korea,” Trump said.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Trump was “sending a strong message to North Korea in language that Kim Jong Un can understand, because he doesn’t seem to understand diplomatic language.”

Kim Jong Un is ‘not getting away with it’

Trump said Kim has “disrespected our country greatly.”

“He has said things that are horrific. And with me, he’s not getting away with it,” Trump said. “He got away with it for a long time, between him and his family. He’s not getting away with it. It’s a whole new ball game.”

‘Strategic patience … is over’

After meeting with the South Korean president in Washington, D.C., in June 2017, Trump said that the “era of strategic patience with the North Korean regime has failed.”

“Frankly, that patience is over,” he said.

As Trump made these comments, the U.S. was rocked with the death of Otto Warmbier, the 22-year-old American college student who suffered extensive brain damage while being held captive in North Korea for more than a year.

There are ‘worse things’ than assassinating Kim Jong Un

In this undated photo distributed on Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017, by the North Korean government, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, center, celebrates what was said to be the test launch of an intermediate range Hwasong-12 missile at an undisclosed location in North Korea. Independent journalists were not given access to cover the event depicted in this image distributed by the North Korean government. The content of this image is as provided and cannot be independently verified. (Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP)

In this undated photo provided by the North Korean government, leader Kim Jong Un celebrates what is said to be the first successful test launch of an intermediate rang Hwasong-12 missile.  (AP Photo/Korean Central News Agency)

In an interview with CBS News during the presidential campaign, Trump said he could “get China to make [Kim Jong Un] disappear in one form or another very quickly.”

When asked if he was talking about assassinating the North Korean dictator, Trump shrugged.

“Well, you know, I’ve heard of worse things, frankly. I mean, this guy’s a bad dude – and don’t underestimate him,” Trump said. “Any young guy that can take over from his father with all those generals and everybody else that probably wants the position, this is not somebody to be underestimated.”

‘What the hell is wrong with speaking?’

Trump told supporters at a campaign rally in Atlanta that should Kim want to come to the U.S., he would be “accept[ed].”

“I wouldn’t go there, that I can tell you. If he came here, I’d accept him, but I wouldn’t give him a state dinner like we do for China and all these other people that rip us off when we give them these big state dinners,” Trump said in June 2016.

“What the hell is wrong with speaking?” Trump said, referencing the criticism he received for being willing to talk with North Korea. “It’s called opening a dialogue.”


During a GOP presidential debate in September 2015, Trump railed on the “maniac” in North Korea while answering a question about Planned Parenthood and women’s health issues.

“Nobody ever mentions North Korea, where you have this maniac sitting there, and he actually has nuclear weapons and somebody better start thinking about North Korea and perhaps a couple of other places. But certainly North Korea,” Trump said.

“You have somebody right now in North Korea who has got nuclear weapons and who is saying almost every other week, ‘I’m ready to use them,’ and we don’t even mention it,” he continued.

China needs to solve the problem

Even before he was president, Trump urged China to step in and help alleviate problems with North Korea.

“North Korea is reliant on China. China could solve this problem easily if they wanted to but they have no respect for our leaders,” Trump tweeted in March 2013.

In April 2013, Trump continued that line of thinking, adding that “North Korea can’t survive, or even eat, without the help of China.” He then accused China of “taunting” the U.S.

As president, Trump has said he is “very disappointed” in actions China has taken regarding North Korea, particularly “allowing oil to go into” the nation. He also said a Chinese envoy to North Korea “had no impact” on Kim.

Additionally, Trump has said he’s spoken to China’s President Xi Jinping regarding the “provocative actions of North Korea” as well as the planned meeting between Trump and Kim.

“President Xi told me he appreciates that the U.S. is working to solve the problem diplomatically rather than going with the ominous alternative,” Trump said in March 2018. “China continues to be helpful!”

‘Wack job’

In April 2013, Trump urged then-President Barack Obama to “be very careful” with the “28-year-old wack job in North Korea.”

“At some point we may have to get very tough,” he tweeted.

‘Negotiate like crazy’

Trump warned that the U.S. needed to “do something to stop” North Korea in 1999 during an interview with the late Tim Russert on “Meet the Press.”

“Do you want to do it in five years when they have warheads all over the place, every one of them pointing to New York City, to Washington and every one of us, is that when you want to do it, or do you want to do something now?” Trump said. “You’d better do it now. And if they think you’re serious … they’ll negotiate and it’ll never come to that.”

He said then that if he ever became president, the first step he would take would be to “negotiate like crazy” to make sure that the country would “get the best deal possible.” Trump also predicted then that in “three or four years,” North Korea would have weapons aimed all over the world, including at the U.S.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Kaitlyn Schallhorn

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