A number of Republican presidential candidates, including Ron DeSantis, have criticized Donald Trump after the former president again praised the dictatorial leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un.
The intervention from Trump’s rivals, who have largely avoided attacking the influential frontrunner, comes as a rare moment of dissension during the campaign.
Trump posted a message of support for Kim to his Truth Social site on Saturday, after North Korea was appointed to the board of the World Health Organization.
“Congratulations to Kim Jung [sic] Un!” Trump wrote. He posted a link to an article about the appointment to the WHO, which is an agency of the UN.
Trump’s praise of Kim has prompted controversy before.
In 2018, at a rally in Virginia, the former president spoke about how he and Kim “fell in love” as they got to know each other as world leaders – and how Kim had written him “beautiful” and “great letters”. Those letters later turned up among classified documents Trump retained after he lost the presidency to Joe Biden in 2020, becoming a focus of an investigation by the special counsel appointed by the US attorney general, Merrick Garland.
The latest round of positivity which Trump directed at Kim again kicked up a political firestorm.
Over the weekend DeSantis, who announced his campaign for president in May, and Nikki Haley condemned the move.
“Kim Jong-un is a thug and a tyrant, and he has tested ballistic missiles against our allies,” Haley told NBC News.
“He’s threatened us. There’s nothing to congratulate him about. I mean, he’s been terrible to his people. He’s been terrible to America, and we need to stop being nice to countries that hate America.”
Haley, a former governor of South Carolina who served as an ambassador to the UN during the Trump administration, is running a long-shot bid for the presidency.
DeSantis, who is expected to be Trump’s closest rival for the GOP nomination, said he was “surprised” Trump had praised a “murderous dictator”, USA Today reported.
Mike Pence, Trump’s former vice-president who is expected to launch a presidential campaign this week, was similarly critical.
“Whether it’s my former running mate or anyone else, nobody should be praising the dictator in North Korea or praising the leader in Russia, who has launched an unprovoked war of aggression in Ukraine,” Pence said in an interview with Fox News.
“This is a time when we ought to make it clear to the world that we stand for freedom and we stand with those who stand for freedom.”
Asa Hutchinson, a former Arkansas governor whose presidential campaign is yet to make much of a dint on the national stage, tweeted on Saturday:
“Kim Jong-un, the tyrant dictator in North Korea should not be praised by Donald Trump for a leadership role in the World Health Organization. We sanction leaders who oppress their people. We do not elevate them on the world stage.”
North Korea was added to the WHO executive board on 25 May in a move that human rights advocates condemned.
“North Korea, a regime that starves its own people, was just elected to the @WHO Executive Board,” Hillel Neuer, the executive director of the Geneva-based human rights organization UN Watch, wrote on Twitter.
“What this means is that one of the world’s most horrific regimes is now a part of a group that sets and enforces the standards and norms for the global governance of health care. It is an absurd episode for a key UN agency that is in much need of self-reflection and reform.”
Trump’s praise for Kim and North Korea’s ascension to the WHO was surprising given his contempt for the organization while in office. The then-president suspended US funding to the WHO in 2020, accusing it, without evidence, of withholding information, and of being too close to China.
Trump later withdrew the US from the WHO; Joe Biden rejoined the organization in one of his first acts in office.