The Madman Theory II: Trump and the Perceived Success of the US Strategy in the Korean Peninsula 

In the previous article, The Madman Theory: Did Trump Scare North Korea? I was discussing whether United States President Donald Trump had re-awakened the classic Nixon-Kissinger “Madman Theory” in an attempt to bring North Korea to heel over escalating tensions between North Korea and the United States of America (US) over the former’s Nuclear Weapons programme.

The “Madman” Theory of leadership related to the foreign policy approach taken by US President Richard Nixon and his National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger. The theory was devised by Kissinger, who utilised the image of Nixon as an unpredictable and irrational President whose inclination was to exceed reasonable norms of international behaviour and who hated communism to the extent that he would use any and all forms of military threat to bring the Vietnam war to a close.   (Dumbrell, 2012 p. 108; Kimball, 1993 p. 155).

In terms of the Trump Presidency, I argued that Donald Trump had a reputation of unpredictability, apparent irrationality and an inclination to exceed reasonable and accepted norms of international behaviour (to put it one way) similar to that of Nixon. It highly likely that the administration could utilise that reputation as a foreign policy tool particularly in the age of digital media in which the image of an unpredictable and irrational President can be used to apply pressure on multiple targets at once whilst carrying the weight of the President’s personal desires.

Whether or not the US strategy was indeed the cause of the recent breakthrough in North-South Korean relations is debatable, Trump has nevertheless been extremely vocal about the apparent success of his approach towards North Korea.

The Apparent Breakthrough 

North and South Korean leaders, Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in have agreed to meet in the truce village of Panmunjom, on the North-South line in April 2018, the exact location where the Korean War armistice had been signed, for a summit. This would be the first since the 2007 summit between the South’s Roh Moo-hyun and North’s Kim Jong-il and the third since the 2000 summit between Kim and the South’s Kim Dae-jung (Kirk, March 6th 2018).

Alongside this North Korea has reaffirmed its commitment to a denuclearised Korean Peninsula, including both the removal of its own nuclear weapons as well as those present in the south, a policy shared by both Kim Jong-un and his predecessor, his father Kim Jong-il (Kirk, March 6th 2018). This has given rise to optimism regarding the possibility of breakthrough in North-South relations.

Not everyone has been convinced however. Some have seen the current breakthrough as an attempt by South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in to avoid the US launching its much talked about preventative strike against North Korea, a charm offensive by North Korea to buy time to finish its programme or extract concessions on the crippling US and United Nations sanctions it faces (Manson and Harris, 6th March 2018).

Key positive indicators however are that the North Koreans have committed themselves to halting “provocations” which are particularly important given the recent actions by North Korea in late 2017 which raised tensions including firing ballistic missiles over Japan, its ever-increasingly powerful nuclear tests, its numerous threats against the US military base on Guam and its general history of belligerence on the peninsula since the Korean War (Calamur, September 14th 2017; Manson and Harris , 6th March 2018; Manson, 9th March 2018).

In addition, North Korea has promised to re-open the emergency hotline with South Korea, which have been down since February 2016, to reduce the chance of miscalculations and misunderstanding, (McCurry, 9th January 2018; Manson and Harris, 6th March 2018).

The Perceived Success of US Strategy 

Crucially for US credibility and prestige but also personal prestige of US President Donald Trump, the current breakthrough has to resulted in a denuclearised North Korea.

Trump has taken it upon himself to deal with North Korea’s Nuclear weapons programme and has effectively staked his reputation as a deal-maker on being able to resolve an issue that for decades has stumped US Presidents. This was demonstrated recently by accepting an invite to attend a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (Manson, March 9th2018). The North Korea’s decision to call a summit between Kim and Trump has been taken by the US as a proof that the US strategy is working and that it has required “no concessions” from the US (BBC, 9th March 2018).

North Korea’s willingness to discuss its nuclear weapons programme, though a break from its historic refusal to discuss the topic at all, though a breakthrough, it very different from being prepared to abandon its nuclear programme completely (Kirk, March 6th 2018).

The question then is whether Trump’s modern “madman” approach will produce the outcome he desires or whether it will ultimately lead to the US’s humiliation.

Nixon’s “Madman” vs. Trump’s “Madman” 

According to Kimball, in utilising the “Madman” approach towards resolving the Vietnam War, Nixon and Kissinger were not aiming to prevent North Vietnam from eventually taking over South Vietnam and unifying the two countries under a single communist government, it was to secure an acceptable time between the US withdrawal and the communist takeover of South Vietnam (Kimball cited in Dumbrell, 2012, p. 17). Vietnam had been a symbol of pride to the US having not yet lost a country to communism and the concept of maintaining South Vietnam’s independence was important in domestic political terms (Gaddis, 1982, p. 242). In aiming to extract its military from South Vietnam, Nixon and Kissinger were trying ultimately to protect US credibility which would be undermined by withdrawal and thus aimed to bring North Vietnam to the negotiating table and into making concessions (Dumbrell, 2012, pp. 109-110).

This relatively simple objective, in comparison to trying to “win” the Vietnam War was ultimately achieved as the US were able to withdraw from South Vietnam following the Paris Peace Accords of 1973. It wasn’t until April 1975, almost two years after the US withdrawal that South Vietnam fell to North Vietnam (Best, 2015, pp. 312, 323).

In engaging in a modern “madman” approach to resolve the North Korean nuclear problem, the Trump administration has attempt to force one or two objectives: to bring North Korea to the negotiating table or to force North Korea to abandon its Nuclear Weapons programme. As things stand, it appears as if the Trump administration is attempting to achieve the latter.

Compelling North Korea to abandon its Nuclear weapons programme has been a top priority for the Trump administration with the US using repeated threats of military action against the North Korean regime as well as applying economic pressure through sanctions (Manson and Harris, 6th March 2018).  The current breakthrough appears to have succeeded in fulfilling the first objective; bring North Korea to the negotiating table over its Nuclear weapons programme, however it remains to be seen whether the US approach will produce the denuclearisation of North Korea.

North Korea has stated its willingness to abandon its Nuclear weapons programme but at price, one that neither the US nor South Korea are likely to accept. These have often been framed by the North Korea regime as the US dropping its “hostile” policies towards North Korea which has included amongst other things, the freezing of US-South Korean military exercises, the removal of Nuclear weapons from the peninsula and the wider region as well as the US abandoning its alliance with South Korea (Manson and Harris, 6th March 2018).

It remains to be seen whether the Trump administration’s strategy will produce the denuclearisation of North Korea that the US so desires. It is one thing to compel the North Korean regime to the negotiating tables by employing the image of a “madman” US President who is irrational and unpredictable and prepared to exceed reasonable norms of international behaviour, to force Kim Jong-un to back down rather than risk calling the US’s bluff. It is a very different thing for a such an image to compel North Korea to abandon unilaterally its nuclear weapons programme which is sees a crucial to its survival in the face of the perceived US military threat on the Korean Peninsula (Kirk, March 6th, 2018).

In my personal opinion, the Trump administration’s use of a modern “Madman” approach to the North Korean issue has run its course; it has played a role in bringing the North Koreans to the negotiating table (it is up for debate whether it was the US strategy alone that achieved this apparent breakthrough). However, it is unlikely to bring about anything but minimal concessions from the North Korean side without some form of concessions from the US related to altering its relationship with the South, which neither the Trump administration nor the South are likely to accept.

In bringing the North Vietnamese to the negotiating table and compelling it to make concessions, Nixon and Kissinger were focused on realistic objectives; the extraction of US forces without the humiliation of withdrawal and the collapse of South Vietnam during that process. As it stands the Trump administration approach to North Korea appears to be based on unrealistic objectives; the denuclearisation of North Korea without any alteration in US relations with the South and North.

Indeed as some have feared, the US could be drawn into a “North Korean trap” in making concessions for example of economic sanctions in exchange for halting missile and nuclear tests only for the North Koreans to provide no tangible concessions or restarting missile or nuclear tests, as it has done before, when it has lost patience in the talks or when it has received the concessions it demands (BBC, 9th March 2018).

In this context the “madman” approach, if continued, will cease to be effective and will leave the US open to having its reputation, and particularly the reputation of Donald Trump, damaged by a defiant North Korea who having agreed to talks, maintains its Nuclear Programme and effectively calling the US’s bluff.

What happens next may well answer the question posed in the previous article, The Madman Theory: did Trump Scare North Korea, is Trump a President pretending to be a “madman” or a “madman” pretending to be a President.


Best, Anthony (2015) “The Vietnam Wars, 1945-1979” in ed.  International History of the Twentieth Century and Beyond, 3rd Edition (Routledge, London), pp. 311-332.

Calamur, Krishnadev, the Atlantic, (September 14th 2017), “North Korea Keeps Up its Provocation” available at: [Accessed on 12th March 2018]

Dumbrell, John (2012), Rethinking the Vietnam War (Palgrave Macmillan: Basingstoke)

Gaddis, John Lewis, (1982) Strategies of Containment: A critical appraisal of Postwar American National Security Policy, (Oxford University Press, Oxford)

Kimball, Jeffery P., “Peace with Honor”, Richard Nixon and the Diplomacy of Threat and Symbolism”, in Anderson, David. (1993) ed. Shadow on the White House: Presidents and the Vietnam War, 1945-75 (University Press of Kansas: Lawerence) pp. 152-183.

Kirk Donald, The Independent (March 6th 2018), “North Korea talks: Summit between Kim Jong-Un and South’s Moon could be dramatic breakthrough” available at: [Accessed on 12th March 2018)

Manson, Katrina and Harris, Bryan. Financial Times (March 6th, 2018) “Korean talks: breakthrough or false hope” available at: [Accessed on 12th March 2018]

Manson, Katrina, the Financial Times (March 9th 2018), “Trump gamble on North Korean deal” available at: [Accessed on 12th March 2018]

McCurry, Justin, The Guardian (9th January 2018), “North Korea agrees to send athletes to Winter Olympics after talks with South” available at: [Accessed 12th March 2018]

The BBC (March 9th 2018), “Trump-Kim talks shows US strategy is working – VP Pence” available at: [Accessed 12th March 2018]

Article by David Wilcox


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