Kim Jong-un and the “Madman Theory” of Diplomacy

Is North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, a madman?

It’s an obvious question, given Kim’s recent threats to attack the United States and South Korea with nuclear weapons — and precisely the question Kim may want us to be asking.

Kim appears to be employing a dark strain in international diplomacy known as the madman theory, which is most closely associated with President Richard Nixon. This is the notion that a leader can out maneuver his opponents by convincing them he might just be unstable enough to do something crazy — like making a suicidal nuclear strike on the United States.

It has been said that North Korea does not have nuclear weapons small enough to fit atop a long-range missile, and that it does not have missiles capable of reaching the United States, and that therefore Kim’s threat against the U.S. is an obvious bluff. While it’s true that the threat of a North Korean nuclear missile attack against the U.S. is not credible — unless our intelligence has missed the mark by a mile — missiles are hardly the only way to deliver a nuclear bomb. A slow freighter sailing into the Port of Long Beach would get the job done.

The madman theory has deep roots on the Korean peninsula.

Nixon learned this first hand when he visited South Korea in 1953 as vice president. An impressionable 40-year-old Nixon met in Seoul with South Korean President Syngman Rhee, who at the time was threatening to break the armistice President Dwight Eisenhower had only recently concluded, and send his troops into the North to resume the fight.

Nixon was in Seoul to convince Rhee it would be futile for South Korea to restart its war with the North. But Rhee told Nixon his threats to break the armistice were just a bluff. His army couldn’t resume the fight without U.S. military help, which he knew he wouldn’t get. Instead, he was engaged in a deliberate ploy to keep the North off balance.

“The fear that I may start some action is a constant check on the Communists,” Rhee told Nixon.

Nixon thought so highly of what he would call “Rhee’s insight about the importance of being unpredictable” that he decided to use it himself when he became president. Nixon called it his madman theory, and the name stuck.

As president, Nixon tried to convince the North Vietnamese that he was just crazy enough to use nuclear weapons, hoping this would persuade them to give up their fight. Nixon aide Leonard Garment gave a similar message to Soviet officials in Moscow, telling them Nixon could be “a coldhearted butcher.”

This wasn’t the first time an American president has used the nuclear card to scare his opponents.

President Eisenhower reportedly had threatened the Chinese with a nuclear attack if they didn’t end the Korean War. The conflict ended shortly after Eisenhower is said to have made his threat. But it isn’t clear if Eisenhower’s nuclear diplomacy was an application of the madman theory; he may well have been simply stating his real intentions.

If Kim is, indeed, playing the madman to scare the United States into easing up on its sanctions, we needn’t worry, right? The madman theory is a bluff, after all, isn’t it?

Nixon prided himself on being an expert poker player and no doubt understood that you can only bluff so often before your opponents get wise to your tricks. North Korea is aware of this danger as well and has occasionally initiated limited military actions against South Korea to stay in the game. That’s a necessary part of keeping his opponents off balance; the threat must remain credible.

The danger is that Kim might feel he has to further escalate his military attacks.

Or he might just be a madman after all.

Harvey Simon is a writer in Washington, DC, and is the author of “The Madman Theory,” a novel of the Cuban Missile Crisis. He was formerly a national security analyst at Harvard University.