President Donald Trump blasted North Korea’s government in a speech at the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday, threatening to “totally destroy” the recalcitrant nation and calling its leader, Kim Jong Un, “rocket man.”
While many observers say Trump’s speech was unprecedented at the UN, it’s not surprising for Trump — it’s a page straight out of the “madman” playbook.
And it’s an approach that has a historical precedent in the international arena, as retired general David Petraeus said earlier this month, though it’s not without its risks.
In his speech, Trump accused North Korea of torturing Otto Warmbier, an American college student who was imprisoned in the country for a little over a year and died after returning to the US, and said the regime was responsible for the “starvation and deaths” of millions of North Koreans.
“If this is not twisted enough, now North Korea’s reckless pursuit of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles threatens the entire world with unthinkable loss of human life,” Trump said. “No nation on earth has an interest in seeing this band of criminals arm itself with nuclear weapons and missiles.”
“Rocket man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime,” he added. “The United States is ready, willing, and able, but hopefully this will not be necessary. That’s what the United Nations is all about.”
Though the North Korean delegation left the UN hall prior to Trump’s speech, the president’s rhetoric on North Korea’s recent missile tests was clear: He would order the US military to wipe the country off the map if provoked.
The “madman” strategy, according to Petraeus, is a way of keeping the opposing side “off-balance” in a negotiation through a lack of consistency and threatening language.
For example, President Richard Nixon’s Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, would tell his Soviet counterparts during the height of the Cold War, “You know, Nixon’s under a lot of pressure right now and, you know, he drinks at night sometimes, so you guys ought to be real careful,” according to Petraeus.
“Don’t push — don’t push this into a crisis,” Petraeus said, paraphrasing Kissinger’s negotiation tactic.
Petraeus, who knows a thing or two about diplomacy, having commanded US and NATO troops in Afghanistan and served as the director of the Central Intelligence Agency under former President Barack Obama, warned that the “madman” strategy only works up to a certain point, until the other side — North Korea — views the US as irrational and decides to launch a nuclear weapon first. It only works if one side is actually acting rationally.
And Trump’s “madman” rhetoric hasn’t cowed North Korea, whose leader appears to be employing his own version of the “madman” strategy, to keep the US, its allies, and the larger international community guessing as to what his next move may be.
North Korea’s state news agency threatened to use nuclear weapons to “sink” Japan and reduce the US to “ashes and darkness” a day prior to firing an intermediate-range ballistic missile over Japan earlier this month.
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