Did Trump’s ‘madman theory’ strategy bring North Korea to the table?

There are many possible reasons why the Kim Jong Un regime has decided to meet with the president.

President Donald Trump
Bloomberg | Getty Images


President Trump has agreed to meet North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un for direct talks by May, in a location to be determined. So why now? What changed? There are many possible reasons why the Kim Jong Un regime has decided to meet with the president.

The regime is flat broke

Did U.S. sanctions force Kim to come to the table? Over the past year, the Trump administration has steadily applied a maximum pressure campaign through sanctions and diplomatic aggression, seeking to completely isolate North Korea from the rest of the world. However, North Korea maintains a powerful lifeline through China, which in the past has been caught violating international trade sanctions against North Korea. In January, U.S. spy satellites found that China was clandestinely trading with North Korea using cargo ships in violation of U.N. sanctions.

Manipulating South Korea and the United States

The North Korean regime has a history of leveraging talks as an instrument of power.

In a piece for the New York Post this week, Dr. Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute explained: “While Americans (and South Koreans) often view engagement as a tool of conflict resolution, North Korea’s regime and its Chinese sponsors see diplomacy as an asymmetric warfare strategy with which to tie opponents’ hands while they seize strategic advantage.”

Additionally, South Korea has an extremely appeasement-minded government in place. In 2010, a North Korean sub torpedoed a South Korean naval vessel, the ROKS Cheonan, killing 46 people on board and wounding 56 more. South Korea never even responded to the catastrophic attack.

Change of heart?

North Korea has partners in China, Russia, Cuba, and a handful of Latin American and African nations. Besides that, North Korea is extremely isolated. Is it possible that Kim Jong Un has given up on the Stalinist anti-American dictator routine and has decided that it is in his nation’s best long-term interests to try to normalize relations with the global community?

It’s more than doubtful. The Kim regime’s existence is based on antipathy to American and western ideals. Officials in the North Korean regime view the United States as the foremost force for evil in this world and see it as their duty to combat the “American bastards.”

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Buying time

The North Korean regime continues to improve its nuclear arsenal. Each day that goes by, Kim gets another opportunity to accelerate his nuclear and ballistic weapons programs.

Proving its continually advancing ballistic sophistication, North Korea conducted over a dozen ballistic missile tests in 2017.

Madman theory worked?

Perhaps North Korea is worried by the prospect of an American strike on Pyongyang. President Trump has consistently implied, through aggressive rhetoric, that all options are on the table when it comes to combating the North Korea threat.

For “madman theory” to work, people need to actually believe that the president is willing to push the nuclear button (yes, I know there isn’t an actual button). The madman doctrine was popularized by former President Richard Nixon and his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger (who sometimes acts as an informal adviser to President Trump). Nixon figured that if he could convince communist leaders that he was truly off-kilter, the rogue regimes would be more hesitant to square off against what they perceived to be a trigger-happy nuclear power.

Judging by the media and the Left’s responses to the president’s tough talk, it appears that at least many in the West believe the president was dead serious about action against Pyongyang.

It’s possible that North Korea also took the threat very seriously and now seeks to change how it conducts relations with the United States.

Now what?

Over the next few weeks, we will learn much more about the parameters and specifics of the U.S.-North Korea talks. President Trump and his team would be wise not to repeat the mistakes of previous administrations, which time and again bailed out the North Korean regime through aid packages in exchange for promises that were later broken.

We must also never set aside the fact that Kim Jong Un is a ruthless dictator who operates a modern slave state through a network of concentration camps. Therefore, the U.S. must be careful about granting Kim global legitimacy. The regime has indoctrinated North Koreans inside the country through a cult of personality that supports Kim’s rule. It’s important that Kim’s pseudo-legitimacy does not extend beyond North Korea’s borders.

Editor’s note: This article first appeared Friday in CRTV’s The Dossier newsletter.

Author: Jordan Schachtel

Jordan Schachtel is the national security correspondent for Conservative Review and editor of The Dossier for CRTV. Follow him on Twitter @JordanSchachtel.