It’s not rare for relationships to go through a bit of a roller coaster in the summer. As the heat rises, tension can flare between even the most solid couple.
President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un are no exception. Over the past few months, Un has fired off multiple rockets, violating international law. Trump has then worked overtime to downplay how big a deal the launches are.
The two world leaders’ “surprise” meeting around that time was a whirlwind series of historic firsts. In the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, Trump and Kim spoke briefly. Trump stepped into the North’s territory, a first for a sitting US president, while Kim walked into the South’s for only the second time. With cameras flashing, the two men praised each other and promised things would be different.
Then, the missiles started flying.
Since July 25, North Korea has launched short-range missiles more than half a dozen times. The lack of a response from the US, experts say, has only encouraged further testing and given North Korea the green light to keep upgrading its arsenal. On Monday evening in the US, Tuesday in East Asia, North Korea shot yet another pair of projectiles into the sea — the country’s eighth missile test since the meeting.
While none of the missiles tested are a direct threat to the US, like the ones North Korea tested in 2017, they’re still making Pyongyang’s shorter range missiles more accurate and harder to track. This threatens US allies like Japan and South Korea.
Here’s a rundown of every launch so far since the DMZ meeting — and how Trump has responded.
The first launch came just under a month after the meeting between Trump and Kim, as talks over the North Korea’s nuclear weapons program remained stalled.
Experts determined that the two projectiles fired into the East Sea were likely short-range missiles, though one was possibly a new design based on how long it flew. They considered it a “solemn warning” against the US and South Korea holding military exercises. The launch also came shortly after US National Security Advisor John Bolton, whose beef with the North Koreans is well-established, met with his counterpart in South Korea.
When asked about it the next day, Trump was Extremely Chill about the whole situation when talking to reporters.
“Well, you said it: They’re short-range missiles,” he said. “And my relationship is very good with Chairman Kim. And we’ll see what happens. But they are short-range missiles, and many people have those missiles.”
The president also dismissed the idea that the missiles could be a threat to US allies, namely South Korea and Japan.
“Well, he didn’t say — he didn’t say a warning to the United States, I can tell you that,” he said. “He didn’t say a warning to the United States. But they have their disputes. The two of them have their disputes. They’ve had them for a long time. But he didn’t say that. But they are short-range missiles and very standard missiles.”
Pyongyang popped off two more missiles into the sea. They weren’t a threat to South Korea but still were not great. North Korea’s state-run KCNA outlet said that the launches were Kim guiding a test of “newly-developed large-caliber multiple launch guided rocket system.”
The launches came as members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) were gathering in Thailand. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo assured reporters that while talks between the US and North Korea over the latter’s nuclear weapons were stalled now, Kim had said when he met with Trump at the DMZ that they would “start in a few weeks.”
Pompeo, who was scheduled to meet with a North Korean delegation at that meeting, was left waiting when the delegation opted to skip out.
Just a few hours before the launches, Trump reminded reporters about his relationship with Kim: “My relationship with Kim Jong Un is a very good one, as I’m sure you’ve seen. […] So we’ll see. I have a good relationship with him. I like him; he likes me. We’ll see what happens.”
What’s that? More missiles? Yes, just two days later, North Korea launched another two missiles, likely another test of the new short-range missiles.
But the president seemed determined not to give it much of his attention. “Short-range missiles,” Trump said to reporters when departing the White House later that day. “We never made an agreement on that. I have no problem. We’ll see what happens. But these are short-range missiles. They’re very standard.”
The next day, Trump took to Twitter to again praise his relationship with Kim and the chairman’s “beautiful vision” for his country:
(As a reminder, the United Nations Security Council — of which the US is a permanent member — has demanded that North Korea halt all missile tests and launches. So there’s definitely a violation here. Anyway, back to the tweets…)
Another few days, another few missiles, the fourth test in 13 days at that point and just days before a scheduled military exercise between the US and South Korea. By this point, it all felt rather routine. Experts warned that the missiles likely being tested were “easier to transport and hide and take less time to prepare to launch.”
When asked about the spate of missile launches a few days later, on Aug. 9, Trump pointed to a “beautiful letter” that he’d been sent just the other day. The missive from Kim Jong Un, he said, was “hand-delivered” and “a very positive letter.”
“I think we’ll have another meeting,” Trump told reporters on the White House lawn. “He really wrote a beautiful, three-page — I mean, right from top to bottom — a really beautiful letter. And maybe I’ll release the results of the letter, but it was a very positive letter.”
“In the meantime, I say it again: There have been no nuclear tests,” he added. He was pushing his argument that as long as the handshake deal that he and Kim had made wasn’t being violated, there’s no problem.
“The missile tests have all been short-range,” Trump insisted. “No ballistic missile tests. No long-range missiles.”
And now we pause for dramatic effect.
Hours after Trump spoke North Korea did another launch, this time of two short-range ballistic missiles. Again, North Korea is banned under UN Security Council resolutions from testing ballistic missiles.
What did the president have to say afterwards? Well, the next morning in the US, he took to Twitter to lash out at the real issue: US-South Korea military exercises, which he’s long complained are too expensive.
The president also claimed that Kim had told him in the aforementioned beautiful letter that the missile tests would end when the US-South Korea exercises were over. He said he’d also apologized for the missile tests. The exercises were scheduled to be completed as of Aug. 20.
By this point, the routine was clear. North Korea launched another two short-range ballistic missiles. The US didn’t really do much about it while the tests continued to make the missiles better.
“For them, accuracy is something that they have had difficulties with in the past, but they are getting more and more accurate with each of the missile tests that we have seen,” retired Air Force Col. Cedric Leighton told CNN.
“Every test marks an advance technologically, with the potential to destabilize the region,” Jean H. Lee, director of the Korea program at the Wilson Center in Washington, told the Wall Street Journal.
This time, Trump told reporters that “North Korea has tremendous potential” when answering a question about Iran.
This time, the missile launches — which didn’t stop when the military exercises did — came right as the president was flying off to meet with other world leaders at the G7 in France.
“Kim Jong Un has been, you know, pretty straight with me, I think,” Trump said in yet another confab with reporters before boarding Marine One. “And we’re going to see what’s going on. We’re going to see what’s happening. He likes testing missiles.”
Trump also insisted that “[m]any nations test those missiles,” and noted that “[w]e tested a very big one the other day, as you probably noticed.”
Once actually at the meeting, Trump walked back his ambivalence (slightly) when sitting with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan. “I’m not — I’m not liking short range because short range is Shinzo’s — you know, it’s really his territory,” Trump said. “I mean, I’d like to ask, Shinzo, how do you feel about North Korea and the testing of short-range missiles? He’s not thrilled.”
Abe was less circumspect: “Our position is very clear: That the launch of short-range ballistic missiles by North Korea clearly violates the relevant U.N. Security Council resolutions.”
That was all forgotten though by the time the summit ended on Monday and Trump gave a lengthy press conference. “Kim Jong Un — who I’ve gotten to know extremely well; the First Lady has gotten to know Kim Jong Un, and I think she’d agree with me — he is a man with a country that has tremendous potential,” Trump said.
The White House was later forced to issue a clarification that no, the first lady had not actually met the North Korean leader.
And here we are again. Stay tuned for just what the president has to say this time.