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Trump and Kim Madmen? Not So Fast

The seemingly accepted wisdom that President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un are paired madmen on the edge of war has little to support it other than projected fears. There will be no war because war on the Korean peninsula benefits no one and is very bad for everyone.

North Korea’s weapons, nuclear and conventional, are arguably the most defensive ever fielded. They have not been used offensively since [1] 1953. They exist as a perfect example of how mutually assured destruction works.

Mutually assured destruction (MAD) is what kept the Cold War cool: the understanding that if either the United States or Russia unleashed nuclear weapons, both sides would be destroyed. The same applies today on the Korean Peninsula, where any significant conflict, including an invasion of the South, would mean the end of the North and the Kim dynasty. The United States and its allies would win any fight. Kim and everyone else with any stake in the North knows that. The nation of North Korea exists to exist, living proof of its own juche [2] philosophy of self-reliance. It has no reason to start a war that would end in its own destruction. Its nuclear weapons are only useful if they are never used.

Talk of an American “surgical strike” ignores the reality that no amount of planning can ensure every weapon of mass destruction will be destroyed; if that was possible the United States would have done it years ago. Indeed, any attack on North Korea would result in a nuclear response—there is nothing “limited” for a cornered animal fighting for its life. While it’s unclear whether a North Korean missile could reach American territory, no one in Washington has ever been willing to bet the house that a submarine with a nuke, or special forces with a dirty bomb, couldn’t do significant damage to an American city—or to Seoul and Tokyo, both also, by the way, well within range of North Korean nuclear and conventional weapons.

So while the American mainland is not under threat of destruction by Pyongyang per se, war on the Korean Peninsula would inevitably destroy American allies South Korea and Japan, unleash radioactivity across the Pacific, and cripple the global economy. From Washington’s point of view, this is a state of mutually assured destruction. Deterrence works. Ask the Cold War.

All that’s left is the madman theory, the idea that Kim and Trump are irrational, impulsive figures who might one night say let’s push the button. The problem with this theory is that nothing really supports it.

The Kim dynasty has been in power some 70 years, three generations. They have weathered conventional conflicts, famine, crushing sanctions, internal strife, and hostile acts. They survived the fall of the Soviet Union, the transition of China to a pseudo-capitalist economy, and American governments from Truman to Trump. You don’t stay in power for seven decades acting irrationally or impulsively. You hold your own against multiple superpowers through careful action. And there is nothing in the current record to suggest the current Kim might act any more irrationally than his nuclear-armed dad did.

The Central Intelligence Agency agrees. A top official said Kim’s actions are those of a “rational actor” [3] motivated to ensure regime survival. “There’s a clarity of purpose in what Kim Jong-un has done,” according to Yong Suk Lee of the Agency’s Korea Mission Center. “Waking up one morning and deciding he wants to nuke Los Angeles is not something Kim is likely to do. He wants to rule for a long time and die peacefully in his own bed.”


That leaves Trump as the last standing madman [4].

The problem is, after some 10 months, it’s hard to point to any irrational act, a decision made that is wholly without logic or reason, a choice Trump knew would have dire consequences yet went with anyway.

Forget the tweets; whatever they are, they have come to be seen by the world outside the media as inconsequential. They might be mean, stupid, crude, and un-presidential, but they have never added up to much more than steamy fodder for pop psychologists [5]. Foreign governments have learned to leave them unanswered except for the occasional diplomatic snark. Trump’s been in office some 10 months and absolutely none of the apocalyptic predictions have come to pass. So we end up back at the tweets, a long string of impulsive remarks not followed by impulsive acts.

In comparison, President George W. Bush invaded Iraq in part because Saddam Hussein tried to assassinate his dad 12 years earlier. It was Bush’s nonsensical inclusion of North Korea in his “axis of evil [6]” that scuttled the last real attempt [7] at nuclear diplomacy with Pyongyang. Bush provocatively demanded regime [8] change, a string of actions that led directly to the North going nuclear in 2003. Bush also found time to refer to North Korea’s previous leader, Kim Jong-il, as a pygmy [9].

President Obama started new American wars in Syria, Libya, and Yemen, re-entered the Iraq war, and surged in Afghanistan. He held weekly meetings where he decided which human beings across the globe would be snuffed out by drones, claiming [10] “I’m really good at killing people.” With one failed exception [11], Obama avoided substantive negotiations with Pyongyang, while warning [8] that the United States “will not hesitate to use our military might” against the North.

And yet the current commander-in-chief is the one most likely to start a war? So far he’s the only recent president who hasn’t.

With the exception of the Trump element, all the factors that will prevent war in 2017 have been preventing war in Korea for decades. There is nothing in the record, recent or historical, that supports the idea that Trump (or Kim) will one morning wake up for cocoa, push a button, and start World War III. It’s a rough, messy, incomplete version of peace, but we’ll learn to live with it.

Peter Van Buren, a 24-year State Department veteran, is the author of We Meant Well [12]: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People and Hooper’s War [13]: A Novel of WWII Japan. Views expressed here do not represent those of the Department of State. Follow him on Twitter @WeMeantWell.

21 Comments (Open | Close)

21 Comments To "Trump and Kim Madmen? Not So Fast"

#1 Comment By William Dalton On October 16, 2017 @ 12:36 am

I am full agreement with the author’s assessment of the danger posed by Kim and his North Korean regime. I am also in agreement with his assessment of the difficulties created for America by Presidents George W. Bush and Obama. The argument that Trump has not done anything “irrational”, and therefore cannot be said to pose the danger of a madman in office, took a severe blow on Friday, however. I don’t know whether this article, dated the 16th, was in fact written and sent to the publisher before Trump’s formal press briefing on the 13th, but the decision not to recertify that Iran is complying with last year’s nuclear deal, and invite Congress to scuttle it, is as irrational an action, and perhaps as consequential, as any taken by an American President – on a par, I would say, with George W. Bush’s insistence that Saddam Hussein harbored weapons of mass destruction, and that it mattered to U.S. national security whether he did. Bush, at least, did not have his entire staff of security officials telling him that those assessments were wrong. From all we have heard in the press and media that is precisely the message Trump has received from Generals Mattis and Kelley and Secretary Tillerson and all their subordinates. So how can Trump’s action we considered anything but the behavior of a madman – particularly in relation to North Korea, with whom if there was ever a hope of reaching an agreement respecting their nuclear weapons and the security of the Korean peninsula and its neighbors, that hope is now scuttled by the confirmation that we have a President who won’t live up to our country’s agreements even when everyone else does.

Trump, who continues to insist that he will not tolerate North Korea to have nuclear weapons is clearly not going to win that argument, no matter how much he blusters. He has painted himself into a corner in which he cannot emerge without appearing as the loser, tracking paint behind him from the soles of his feet, or start a war that will likely provoke the hostile use of nuclear weapons which the world has feared but never experienced for nearly three quarters of a century.

Yes, with Trump in the White House, this may easily qualify as “A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World”.

#2 Comment By Whine Merchant On October 16, 2017 @ 3:04 am

I agree that neither of these narcissists will do anything to directly go from a war of words to a war of bullets. Regrettably, NYC real estate bullying and Exxon envelope-under-the-table negotiating will bring significant collateral damage in the form of loss of world-stature with the traditional small client states and loss of street cred with our European allies [especially over the Iran non-certification]. Better than bombs and bullets, but the long term damage will help make this the Chinese century.

Is this really better than HRC? Or does it just make some angry people feel good for a brief while before they switch to see what’s on another channel.

#3 Comment By Zebesian On October 16, 2017 @ 4:11 am

Kim and his clique are some of the few people in NK that have reasonably good lives. I doubt they would willingly sacrifice them for death or a lifetime of hiding in a similarly poor country where they have no political power.

#4 Comment By Alex (the one that likes Ike) On October 16, 2017 @ 8:10 am

I guess now progressives gonna be trying to persuade everyone that there are some esoteric bonds between the dislike of illegal immigrants and the inclination to start nuclear wars.

#5 Comment By Tom Riddle On October 16, 2017 @ 8:23 am

“The problem is, after some 10 months, it’s hard to point to any irrational act, a decision made that is wholly without logic or reason, a choice Trump knew would have dire consequences yet went with anyway.”

Well,except for the slow destruction of the State Department, the consistent undermining of his own secretary of states attempts at diplomacy, allowing Nikki Haley to be anywhere near the UN, mishandling relations with South Korea, not bothering to nominate an ambassador to South Korea, and showing America to be a faithless actor in regards to nuclear agreements.

Plus, his insane tweets. You don’t just get to hand wave and say those don’t count.

“He’s just a slow burn chaos demon, not the explosive manifestation of John Bolton’s id that some people feared” is not a particular good argument when it comes to reassuring us on the peninsula that he’s not insane.

#6 Comment By Thomas L. Knapp On October 16, 2017 @ 9:33 am

“North Korea’s weapons, nuclear and conventional, are arguably the most defensive ever fielded. They have not been used offensively since 1953.”

So they have a time machine and went back to 1953 to launch a torpedo and had it circle for 57 years before sinking the Cheonan in 2010?

#7 Comment By b. On October 16, 2017 @ 12:10 pm

There will be no invasion of Iraq because war in the Middle East benefits no one and is very bad for everyone.

That aside, I heart the comparison of Trump’s record so far with that of Bush and Obama. For completeness, one should keep in mind HR Clinton’s role in the Libya debacle – there is no indication that other-than-Trump (including the Cruz and Rubios) would have dealt with North Korean nuclear advances any different than Trump – tweets aside.

#8 Comment By b. On October 16, 2017 @ 12:11 pm

Van Buren meant conventional, but maybe this will make the point better: “Nuclear weapons are arguably the most defensive ever fielded. They have not been used offensively since 1945.”

#9 Comment By Dan Green On October 16, 2017 @ 2:08 pm

All our wars have been marketed as protecting our interest, as in various and sundry reasons who the benefit. Can’t see much benefit or some hyped moral purpose for us to hit NK. The loss of life wouldn’t be all that great if the benefits out weighed the cost.

#10 Comment By JCM On October 16, 2017 @ 3:34 pm

To paraphrase Reagan, North Korea is not evil because it arms; it arms because it is evil. Referring to its death camps, the UN issued a report saying that there has been nothing like it since the Third Reich, although I would add the Cultural Revolution and Pol Pot’s genocide. Let’s for a moment stop seeing NK as a weapons problem, and view it as personifying the “mystery of evil.” There are not very memoirs of escapees from these camps because it is virtually impossible. But I would recommend the few that are available.

Do we live in such a hardened world that NK’s atrocities are hardly ever mentioned?

#11 Comment By Wilfred On October 16, 2017 @ 3:44 pm

What if Kim has the nuclear launch button on his night-stand, right next to the alarm clock?

#12 Comment By Alex (the one that likes Ike) On October 16, 2017 @ 5:08 pm

Whine Merchant,

Is this really better than HRC?

Yes. Because with HRC there could already be a war with Assad, Persians, Russians and hell knows who else in Syria.


Tom Riddle,

Well,except for the slow destruction of the State Department

I don’t know how it is possible to destroy something that has already been destroyed by Hillary Clinton.

allowing Nikki Haley to be anywhere near the UN

And what harm has Nikki Haley done so far aside from being just another loudmouth? Her job is saying entirely inconsequential words and infuriating the NYPD by ignoring parking tickets. Same as most people in that building.

Plus, his insane tweets. You don’t just get to hand wave and say those don’t count.

They would count if there were any real harm due to Trump having said something on Twitter. If you’ve got an example of such harm, I’m all ears.

A hint: a Facebook page with teenagers (which means people up to 35 or even older today) melting down aggressively, massively because of Trump’s words on Twitter is not a valid example; a military conflict on at least a regional level that started because of Trump’s words on Twitter is a valid example.

#13 Comment By William Gall On October 16, 2017 @ 5:55 pm

Great news!

#14 Comment By cka2nd On October 16, 2017 @ 6:50 pm

I second William Dalton about Trump, and to a lesser degree Tom Riddle, but I would add that firing missiles at Syria, while perhaps not irrational, was evil. And there are others in the administration who are fully irrational enough to urge military action against North Korea.

#15 Comment By Ollie On October 16, 2017 @ 7:11 pm

Trump called Kim a smart cookie. Kim called Trump a deranged dotard. Methinks they may both be right.

#16 Comment By Mel Profit On October 16, 2017 @ 8:09 pm

Mr. Van Buren has it exactly right.

#17 Comment By Clyde Schechter On October 16, 2017 @ 8:37 pm

I agree that neither Kim nor Trump would choose to launch a first strike. But what about accidents?

Remember that during the cold war there was an incident where radars in the USSR detected what appeared to be an incoming attack from the USA. We are fortunate that the officer in charge of that chose to disobey protocol that required launching a nuclear response. That officer instead reasoned that such an attack was unlikely to have occurred and took a wait and see stance. He was ultimately vindicated as the radar response was found to be a false alarm (or was a true “signal” but a response to something other than a US attack–I don’t remember all the details).

In the disciplined climate of the USA and the USSR back then, everyone took the situation seriously. In a world of free-for-all bravado, it’s not clear that a lower level US or NK officer would reason that an attack is unlikely and that a false alarm is the more probable explanation and keep the genie bottled up pending careful investigation.

#18 Comment By Alex (the one that likes Ike) On October 17, 2017 @ 12:52 pm

Clyde Schechter,

The difference is that when we talk about the USA and the USSR / Russia, we talk about thousands of warheads on both sides enough to destroy the entire planet several times. When we talk about North Korea, we talk about less than a half a dozen of them. They’re unable even to slightly test American, Russian or even Chinese air defence.

#19 Comment By morganB On October 17, 2017 @ 4:02 pm

Remember Osama Bin Laden and how we took him out? We should use a similar approach with Kim Jong Un. We should take Kim out with a small clandestine strike force of South Koreans, Japanese and Americans.

#20 Comment By Alex (the one that likes Ike) On October 17, 2017 @ 6:10 pm


Are you aware of the fact that bin Laden was taken out in a country that is, at least, considered America’s ally? He didn’t have the most paranoid state security apparatus in the world covering his ass. America will absolutely defeat North Korea on the battlefield – this time they will get no support from Russia and no serious support from China – but no clandestine operation is possible. This is not Cold War Latin America where the US and the USSR were taking out each other’s secular caudillos with different degrees of success and a hell lot of fun. We’re not even talking about a “conventional” totalitarian state. We’re talking about a totalitarian cult protecting its leader. Imagine Charles Manson who became a president with the entire system working for him – and you’ll get the hang of what’s happening in North Korea.

#21 Comment By Sid Finster On October 18, 2017 @ 10:57 am

@William Dalton – I would not call Trump a “madman” so much as a “loudmouth”.