U.S. President Donald Trump’s apparent “madman theory” approach to dealing with the North Korea nuclear threat is being lauded by supporters as a high risk but effective negotiation strategy, while critics say it reflects a foreign policy team in disarray.
The so-called madman theory was ascribed to former U.S. President Richard Nixon's foreign policy. To negotiate an end to the Vietnam War on favorable terms, Nixon tried to portray himself as a crazy and volatile leader. He even raised the Strategic Air Command’s readiness level in 1969 to make it seem like he was possibly preparing for a nuclear strike, in an attempt to pressure the Soviet Union to intervene to end the war.
The effectiveness of Nixon’s strategy remains a point of debate, as a cease-fire agreement was not reached until 1973, and the Communist forces ultimately took over all of Vietnam in 1975.
President Trump, some analysts say, is employing the "madman" approach to prevent North Korea from developing a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile capable of targeting the U.S. mainland.
Trump’s recent tweets, saying dialogue with North Korea is a “waste of time,” and apparently rebuking his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson for saying talks with Pyongyang were happening, may be part of a calculated effort to put America’s adversaries on the defensive.
“Having Mr. Trump sending out tweets like he sends, saying the things he says, I think those put some unpredictability into the American approach, and presumably into the minds of the North Koreans, and maybe as importantly with the People’s Republic of China and even the Russians as well,” said security analyst Grant Newsham, with the Forum for Strategic Studies in Tokyo.
Trump’s confrontational rhetoric on North Korea, warning of an overwhelming “fire and fury” military response to a possible attack, and calling North Korean leader Kim Jong Un “little rocket man,” is a sharp departure from past presidents who tried to reduce tensions through traditional diplomacy.
Critics say the president’s aggressive tweets, which often contradict senior members of his own security team who have downplayed the possibility of military conflict, reflect growing disagreements over North Korea policy within the Trump administration.
“There’s a lot of reckless talk and it seems to me with the incoherence coming out of Washington, the U.S. is embroiled in a leadership crisis,” said Northeast Asia security analyst Daniel Pinkston with Troy University in Seoul.
The Trump administration has indicated a preference for economic sanctions and diplomacy to force the Kim regime to choose between denuclearization and survival. Yet the U.S. has offered no significant compromises or concessions it's willing to make in exchange for a deal, and has already rejected Beijing's proposal that North Korea freeze its nuclear and missile programs in exchange for a halt to U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises.
Washington needs international cooperation to impose harsh sanctions on Pyongyang, especially from China, which is responsible for 90 percent of all trade with the isolated nation.
But David Straub, a North Korea analyst with the Sejong Institute, said the president’s repeated emphasis on possible military action could backfire if China and Russia conclude the “United States is lying when it says that its policy is to seek a negotiated settlement.” Beijing and Moscow, he said, could respond by easing sanctions and increasing support for their ally in Pyongyang.
North Korea also has a history of breaking past nuclear freeze deals by operating a secret nuclear weapons program in violation of a 1994 agreement, refusing to comply with a 2007 agreement to allow international inspectors access to suspected nuclear sites, and by conducting a nuclear test in 2009 after the U.S. removed North Korea from its list of states that sponsor terrorism.
Straub says, it is unlikely Pyongyang will give up its nuclear deterrent under the threat of force or due to economic pressure alone.
“I am very skeptical that there is a potential for negotiations because of what I believe to be North Korea’s true objectives in all of this, which are eventually to use leverage over the United States, to kick the United States off the Korean Peninsula,” said Staub, who also participated in North Korea denuclearization talks as a U.S. diplomat during the administration of George W. Bush.
If North Korea will not yield to pressure, the so-called madman approach may draw the U.S. into using military force to stop Pyongyang from developing nuclear ICBM capability, or due to some miscalculation or unforeseen event.
“We are headed that way anyway. And that risk is coming unless you can somehow… you can interrupt that trend line North Korea is on,” said Newsham.
South Korea has stated it would oppose any U.S. preemptive military action in the region, as millions of its citizens live in range of North Korean artillery positioned along the border.
The peaceful alternatives, often advocated by officials and analysts, are to continue pressuring Pyongyang to change through enhanced military deterrence, containment and sanctions, or to transform Korean society from within though unfettered aid, economic engagement and the influx of information from the outside world.