Donald Trump likes to be regarded as unpredictable. It’s a matter of pride with him. Now we know that he is unpredictable because he really doesn’t know what he is doing so there is no way even he can predict what he will do when he gets into a new situation which requires a decision and his advisors have to weigh in. He doesn’t even know which advisors will have his ear on a given day. That’s why so many of his campaign promises have bit the dust; during the campaign he didn’t have a clue what he was talking about.
However Donald, always the showman, constantly advertises his faults as virtues. Unfortunately a sizable percentage of the voting population was gullible enough to fall for that con and that’s how he got elected. His supporters claim that Trump ascribes to the “mad man theory”. The “mad man theory” was a feature of Richard Nixon’s foreign policy. When dealing with hostile foreign governments like that of North Vietnam, Nixon’s diplomats would portray him as irrational and uncontrollable, someone whose itchy trigger was much too close the nuclear button. In that case their purpose was to frighten the North Vietnamese leaders into negotiating peace.
Two key elements need to be present for the mad man theory to work. First, the leaders of the opposing country have to believe that the President is irrational and unpredictable. Donald Trump has that one covered. Second, the leader or leaders of the opposing country have to be stable and make decisions rationally. In other words, if there is a true mad man on the other side, the entire gambit could backfire with devastating results.
When dealing with the North Korean situation, Trump and the key members in his administration are employing the mad man theory. Sending a clear message to North Korean and Chinese leaders, Trump said in an interview with the Financial Times, “If China is not going to solve North Korea, we will. That is all I am telling you,” When he was asked if he could do it without China’s help, Trump replied, “Totally.” During his trip to South Korea, Rex Tillerson has repeatedly said “Let me be very clear: the policy of strategic patience has ended.” “All options are on the table.” Since this country has absolutely no leverage over North Korea, such talk can only be interpreted in one way – if China can’t or won’t use its leverage over North Korea to curtail its nuclear and ICBM ambitions, a military attack by US forces is a real possibility. Trump surrogates point to the cruise missile attack on Syria to insinuate that there is again a mad man in the White House who could order a military attack on North Korea.
The problem is that by all reports North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-un, is not totally stable or rational himself. Jong-un seems to have inherited a heavy streak of paranoia from his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, the founder of the Kim family dictatorship, and his father Kim Jong-il. In addition, since Kim Jun-un inherited his father’s leadership position at a relatively young age, he is much younger than his senior advisors, apparently he doesn’t feel very secure in his position. To ward off any chance of a coupe he has reportedly dismissed or executed hundreds of high-ranking officials. This group includes his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, who he had shot with a large anti-aircraft gun. He also had his agents assassinate his exiled older half-brother, Jong-Nam, in Malaysia to remove any threat of a potential family rival to his position.
Many North Korean analysts believe that much of Kim Jong-un’s recent saber rattling is meant to convince senior North Korean military leaders, who potentially have the means to remove him from power, that he is a strong leader puts who is putting emphasis on military strength above all else. This would explain his recent aggressive military stances and his emphasis on developing a nuclear tipped intercontinental ballistic missile system capable of reaching the US. Among North Korea leaders, this passes for medication for a case of nation wide paranoia.
So who are Trump and his minions trying to frighten with their own saber rattling? Why the are we seeing the aforementioned veiled threats, Trump’s statement that he was sending a powerful naval carrier group in the direction of North Korea (that wasn’t true), and Trump surrogates implying that his decision to attack in Syria is evidence of what he might do in North Korea? These threats of military action can only be aimed at two parties – leaders of China and Kim Jong-un.
Now the leaders of China are sophisticated enough to understand that these are empty threats. They understand the devastation which would result from a preemptive US attack on North Korea, say to take out their nuclear capabilities.
The Chinese leaders understand that we have 28,500 of our military personal in South Korea, most of them stationed close to the demilitarized zone. They also know that Seoul, South Korea, one of the most densely populated cities in the world with a metropolitan population of 25+ million, is only 30 miles from the DMZ, well within the range of North Korean artillery and the short range rockets in its arsenal. They are totally aware that any US military attack on North Korea, short of a nuclear strike aimed at decapitating its leadership and destroying its military’s retaliation capabilities could easily lead to the deaths of millions of South Koreans and many American military personnel.
On the other hand, the leader of the Hermit Kingdom is not nearly as sophisticated. Kim Jong-un is a paranoid, insecure young man still trying to prove that his is tough enough to stay in his position of absolute power. He actually believes that if he shows weakness, it could easily mean his death. This makes him totally unpredictable if he is ever placed under great stress and pushed too far.
Kim is the true “mad man” in this scenario. In response to US threats he may ultimately believe that he has no choice but to take aggressive action, action to which South Korea and/or the United States may feel obligated to respond. Ultimately we may be drawn unwittingly into a war in which millions could die. And as any sane person will surely tell you, you are well advised to never play chicken with a mad man.