Trump looks to have backed down China and Kim Jong Un with his madman strategy toward North Korea

US President Donald Trump. Win McNamee/Getty Images
  • North Korean leader Kim Jong Un making serious concessions to get his foot in the door for talks with Donald Trump seems to show the US president’s strategy of nuclear brinkmanship worked.
  • Experts worried that Trump was bringing the US to the edge of nuclear war, but China and North Korea appear to have been swayed by Trump’s bellicose threats, and they’re now heeding US demands.
  • Trump’s strategy appears to have worked because he credibly portrayed himself as a madman who fears the consequences of war in Korea less than Kim.

While much of the world responded with horror to President Donald Trump’s talk of “fire and fury” against North Korea, the bellicose threats appear to have backed down Kim Jong Un and moved the US toward the most meaningful diplomacy it’s had with Pyongyang in decades.

“Like it or not, Donald Trump’s policy has been remarkably successful – so far, at least,” the director of Korea Risk Group, Andrei Lankov, wrote in the North Korea analysis website NK News, responding to the recently announced Trump-Kim summit.

Some of Trump’s success with North Korea has been handed to him. During Trump’s presidency, North Korea exponentially increased its nuclear and missile testing as the program that had been long in the works came to fruition.

Visible displays of aggression, like launching missiles over Japan and performing the only nuclear tests of the new millennium, galvanised global support for international pressure on North Korea.

But also Trump appears to have earned what seem like major concessions from Kim, and it all comes down to the US president’s credibility as a madman.

Madman doctrine

North Korea experts argued consistently that Trump’s tough talk toward Pyongyang destabilized an already fraught situation. Some thought his talk of strikes on North Korea would scare Kim into firing first. Some thought it dragged the US into a moral equivalency with one of the most brutal regimes on earth.

But in the end, talks, not war, emerged, and fans of diplomacy should welcome this.

Trump’s administration has given every signal that it’s readying for war with North Korea. Under Trump, the US has built up its military presence in the region, deployed high-end stealth jets, sent in aircraft carriers, and given South Korea the green light to go ahead with a missile program of its own.

Trump has dismissed a prospective State Department appointee who was perceived to be soft on North Korea, and he has hardly filled out the Asia department of the office, leading many to think he wasn’t seriously considering diplomacy.

North Korea, South Korea, and China are scared

Before the United Nations, Trump threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea if it were to attack the US or an ally. In December, his White House leaked stories to reporters contemplating a strike against North Korea.

Since the news of the “bloody nose” strike, wherein the US would respond to a North Korea provocation like a missile test with a small military strike designed to humiliate Pyongyang, North Korea hasn’t tested a single missile.

Reports out of both North Korea and South Korea found the two sides seriously worried about war, and thinking up ways to de-escalate. China, North Korea’s main backer, has taken unprecedented military steps to warn the US about war while capitulating overall to US-led sanctions pushes.

Today, China is implementing sanctions on North Korea more faithfully than ever before.

While the world fretted enormously over Trump mocking Kim as “Little Rocket Man,” South Korean reports from a meeting with the leader indicate that Kim thought it was funny and laughed about it during a meeting where he appeared to make massive concessions to the US by agreeing to discuss giving up his nuclear program.

Why it worked for Trump

Trump’s madman tactics worked because he has succeeded in casting himself as an unconventional president. Nobody in South Korea, North Korea, China, or Japan knows whether Trump would really attack Pyongyang. Frankly, other than perhaps his innermost circle, nobody in the US knows either.

In the world of nuclear strategy and regime survival, smart actors can act only on worst-case assumptions.

North Korea has assumed for decades that the US would not risk damaging its ally South Korea to strike at Pyongyang, but Trump, and only Trump acting on his instincts, appears to have reversed that assumption.

Trump is now set to meet with Kim, who made serious and shocking concessions to even get a seat at the table.

While North Korea will get a considerable propaganda boost from the meeting and entertaining diplomacy and disarmament, the talks are a beginning point, not an end, to a new place in US-North Korea relations ushered in by the legitimate fear of the US’s military might and Trump’s trigger finger.