On Wednesday—just after Donald Trump gushed about falling “in love” with North Korea’s dictator and ahead of another trip by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Pyongyang to prepare for a second summit between Trump and Kim Jong Un—Lindsey Graham delivered a stark message to the U.S. president: End the lovefest.
“I’m telling President Trump, ‘Enough with I love you,’” said the Republican senator, a close ally of Trump’s who had spoken to the president right before joining Jeffrey Goldberg on stage at The Atlantic Festival. “This love crap needs to stop. There’s nothing to love about Kim Jong Un.”
Trump is “trying to pull [Kim into] his orbit” out of the belief that “charm works,” Graham noted, but “I’m worried that North Korea is dividing us from South Korea. I’m worried that we’re being played here.” Noting that previous negotiations in recent decades failed to stop North Korea from developing a nuclear-weapons arsenal, he added that “I don’t know how this ends, but we’re into another round of engagement. And here’s what I worry about: You get sucked into the love thing—and nothing changes.”
Graham advised Trump to take a host of extremely aggressive measures against North Korea before the current round of talks, and he told me less than a year ago that there was a 70 percent chance of Trump unleashing all-out war against Kim if the North tested another nuclear bomb. On Wednesday he argued that there is only one scenario in which the North Korean leader will actually relinquish his nuclear program. It doesn’t involve expressions of love. It doesn’t involve easing economic sanctions against North Korea, which the United States has lifted in the past to no avail. It doesn’t involve gestures of peace like a declaration to formally end the Korean War, which North and South Korea are now pressuring the United States to adopt and which Graham said should come only “after [the North Koreans] give up their nukes.”
Instead, it involves convincing Kim Jong Un that the nuclear weapons he sees as the ultimate shield for ensuring his survival are in fact the sword by which he will ultimately perish. Echoing the themes of a surreal movie trailer that Trump made for Kim during their summit last summer in Singapore, Graham framed the choice that must be presented to North Korea as one between clinging to its nuclear weapons at great peril or trading in those weapons in exchange for assistance with pursuing a Western—even Trumpian—model of economic development. “You can have Trump Hotels everywhere, you can have nice condos, or we’re gonna take you down if you keep developing nuclear weapons to threaten our country,” said Graham.
While Kim isn’t akin to the “crazy religious Nazis” in Iran, Graham continued, he is nevertheless “crazy,” in possession of long-range missiles that could potentially carry nuclear warheads to the U.S. mainland, and “liable to sell” elements of his nuclear program to other actors, including America’s enemies. “The only way [Kim will] change is if he believes you’ll use military force to stop his program,” Graham argued, and using military force should be a “last resort” for the United States because “if people are going to be at risk, it’s not going to be our homeland. It’s going to be over there” on the Korean peninsula.
Graham’s blistering rhetoric was jarring—a vivid reminder that while Trump may at the moment be dismissing the idea of initiating a catastrophic war in Korea, crowing about his “beautiful letters” from Kim, and professing limitless patience to strike a deal, the North Korea hawks are waiting in the wings. Graham and National-Security Adviser John Bolton (who Graham approvingly labeled a fellow North Korea “skeptic”) are running low on patience and are still as assured as ever that love is a poor substitute for economic and military pressure on North Korea. We are mere months removed from the “fire and fury” era of the North Korean nuclear crisis, even if it might seem like ages ago. Graham, a prominent voice from that era, admitted on Wednesday that he didn’t know now how to estimate the chances of Trump achieving a denuclearization deal with Kim Jong Un.
“If he can convince Rocket Man it’s death or condos, he’s okay,” the senator said, dusting off Trump’s derisive and for-the-time-being-discarded nickname for Kim. “If Rocket Man believes he’s got Trump lovin’ him and backing off, then we’re all in trouble.”