Category Archives: China and Asia Pivot

Misdiagnosing Kim Jong-un


If US President Donald Trump and his advisers continue to assume that traditional deterrence does not apply to North Korea, they are likely to lose the latest geopolitical chess match. History shows that those who mistake their political or military adversaries for lunatics are usually disastrously wrong.

MILAN – Throughout history, political observers have found decision-makers who are deemed “crazy” the most difficult to assess. In fact, the problem is rarely one of psychopathology. Usually, the label merely indicates behavior that is different from what conventional analysts were expecting.

This was surely true of the twelfth-century Syrian religious leader Rashid al-Din Sinan. During the Third Crusade, the supposedly mad “Old Man of the Mountain,” as he was known, succeeded in disrupting a Crusader advance on Jerusalem by directing his followers to carry out targeted assassinations. After carrying out their orders, the assassins often stayed put and awaited capture in full view of the local populace, to ensure that their leader received proper credit for the act.

At the time, such actions were incomprehensible to the Western mind. Westerners took to calling the Old Man’s followers hashashin, or users of hashish, because they regarded intoxication as the only possible explanation for such “senseless” disregard for one’s own physical wellbeing. But the hashashin were not drug users on the whole. And, more to the point, they were successful: their eventual assassination of Conrad of Montferrat led directly to the political collapse of the Crusader coalition and the defeat of Richard the Lionheart of England. As Polonius says of Hamlet, there was method to the Old Man’s madness.

Today, the problem of analyzing supposedly lunatic leaders has reappeared with the North Korean nuclear crisis. Whether North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un is mad is not merely an academic question; it is the heart of the matter.

US President Donald Trump’s administration has stated unequivocally that it will not tolerate a North Korean capability to threaten the mainland United States with nuclear weapons. According to Trump’s national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, the administration’s position reflects its belief that Kim is crazy, and that “classical deterrence theory” thus does not apply.

During the Cold War, US President Dwight Eisenhower reasoned that even if Stalin (and later Mao) was homicidal, he was also rational, and did not wish to perish in a US counter-strike. The logic of “mutually assured destruction” that underlay nuclear deterrence worked.

If, however, the leader of a nuclear-armed state is a lunatic who is indifferent to his physical safety and that of those around him, the entire deterrence strategy falls apart. If Kim is insane, the only option is to take him out before his suicidal regime can kill millions of people.

But is Kim truly crazy, or does he simply have a worldview that discomfits Western analysts? His dramatic overture to hold a summit with Trump by May hardly seems to fit the “madman” narrative. In fact, it looks like the act of someone who knows exactly what he is doing.

Consider three strategic considerations that Kim could be weighing. First, his regime might be planning to offer concessions that it has no intention of fulfilling. After all, an earlier nuclear deal that the US brokered with his father, Kim Jong-il, was derailed by duplicity. In 2002, the US discovered that the regime was secretly enriching weapons-grade uranium in direct violation of its earlier pledge.

In fact, North Korea has demonstrated time and again that it doesn’t play by the rules. It enters into negotiations to extract concessions such as food aid, and then returns to its objectionable activities, thus starting the entire Sisyphean cycle again. There is no reason to think that this time will be different. But the regime’s deviousness should not be mistaken for irrationality or madness. Simply by expressing his openness to talks, Kim has already won some of the political legitimacy he craves.

Second, rather than being a lunatic, Kim seems mindful of recent history. Whereas Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya paid the ultimate price for giving up their nuclear programs, Kim has advanced his regime’s nuclear capabilities and is now publicly treated as a near-equal by the most powerful man on the planet. The Kim regime has always sought such vindication above everything else.

A third and final consideration is that North Korea is playing for time. Though it has agreed to halt nuclear and missile tests in the run-up to the summit, it could be using the intervening months to develop related technologies. For example, it still needs to perfect an atmospheric re-entry mechanism to make its intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of striking the US mainland reliably and accurately. Moreover, as long as the summit is in play, North Korea need not fear a US military strike. That is a perfectly rational and sensible prize for Kim to pursue.

All told, North Korea’s “opening” will most likely amount to much less than meets the eye. But one can still glean valuable strategic insights from Kim’s diplomatic gambit. North Korean thinking reflects cunning, to be sure; but it also betrays the regime’s will to survive, and its desire to master the current situation. This suggests that Kim is not “crazy” after all, and that conventional deterrence will still work, as it has since 1945.

That is good news for everyone, but particularly for the Trump administration, given that it will almost certainly fail to secure any meaningful concessions from North Korea in the upcoming talks.

Gaming out lunatics–Charles Manson and Kim Jong-un: The problems of assessing ‘madness’

“Though this be madness, yet there is method in ‘t.”

 –Polonius in Hamlet, Act II Scene II

 In the late 1960s, Vincent Bugliosi, one of modern America’s foremost legal minds, found himself in a very difficult position. He had been assigned to prosecute the Tate-La Bianca murder cases, occurring in August 1969, when a series of ritualistic slayings in Los Angeles had terrified the whole of the United States, due to both the frenzy of the murders as well as the seeming randomness of the crimes.

Through good, old-fashioned detective work, Bugliosi had rightly fastened upon Charles Manson and his so-called ‘Family’ as the perpetrators, a hippie death-cult that believed that their leader was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ. But there was a major practical problem with prosecuting Manson; he had personally killed no one. Instead, he had ordered others to do his diabolical bidding.

Why had he done so and why had the Family followed him? Bugliosi knew that if he didn’t address the crucial issue of motive, there was simply no real case against Manson, who was the ringleader of the whole horrendous plot. The good news was that over time Bugliosi hit upon Manson’s reasoning; the bad news was that it seemed—on its surface—so mind-bogglingly crazy that colleagues of the prosecutor urged him to discard it, as no normal person was likely to believe him.


Political risk analysts have always had a very hard time getting past this wholly understandable first analytical reaction toward craziness, as can be seen in the present North Korean crisis. It is far from an academic point as to whether North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un is mad; rather it is the heart of the matter. The Trump administration has been rhetorically unequivocal in that it says it is not going to tolerate North Korea being able to threaten the US with nuclear weapons. The basic reason for this—as National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster has made clear—is the White House believes Kim is ‘crazy,’ and is therefore unable to be deterred by the threat of a nuclear counter-strike, as were the murderous Mao and Stalin during the Cold War.

They were both surely monsters of the first order, but were rational in the sense that they personally did not want to die in a nuclear exchange with the US. This basic fact explains why nuclear deterrence worked in the Cold War. On the other hand, dealing with a lunatic who does not care what happens to himself personally means the entire deterrence strategy falls apart. If Kim Jong-un is such a madman he must then be taken out, as his regime could kill millions without worrying about the consequences.

But is Kim Jong-un insane, or as Shakespeare put it so well, is there method to his madness? Political risk analysts down the ages have had a terrible time in assessing what they might term ‘lunatics,’ those whose behaviour at first glance seems to be wholly irrational. However, more often than not, irrational behaviour merely amounts to an ideology that—while it may be radically different than that of the political risk analyst—still contains an internal logic, complete with discernible overarching goals, tactical gambits, and a strategic battle plan.

We cannot let ourselves off the hook so easily by lazily saying that our foes are crazy and therefore don’t need to be studied, because their belief systems are different (and admittedly often wildly alien) to our own. Such a limp intellectual reaction merely deprives political risk analysts of the incentive to do what they ought to, to dig deeper in understanding what at first glance seems deceptively random.


Indeed, when the Los Angeles police were initially made aware of Manson’s philosophy of Helter Skelter, they replied as all poor political risk analysts would, “Ah, Charlie’s a madman; we’re not interested in all that.” But they should have been. For Manson’s philosophy of Helter Skelter provides the crucial link explaining why the murders came about, making sense of what the ancient Greeks would describe as praxis, the unity of thought and action.

Because of their shared philosophy—no matter how far out—otherwise normal people had been motivated to savagely kill at Manson’s bidding. Successfully gaming out lunatics involves analysts suspending their own disbelief, intellectually following others’ philosophies wherever they lead. For only by doing this can praxis be gotten at, and sound analytical judgements arrived at.

Helter Skelter was to be the last war on the face of the earth, an end time’s racial conflict between African-Americans and Whites, wherein the African-American minority would rise up and eviscerate formerly dominant White society in America. But Manson, an avowed racist, believed such a wildly improbable outcome would redound to his own personal benefit.

The only White Americans to survive would be his Family, who by then would have moved to the inhospitable confines of Death Valley to escape the fighting. As Manson believed African-Americans were incapable of running anything, after a period of chaos, he prophesied that they instead would turn to him to manage things, with the Family ultimately coming to rule the world. You can see why Bugliosi was hesitant to put this fantastical thinking forward as the primary motive for the crimes.

Bugliosi was convinced that it was only within this barely-believable philosophical context that the murders could be assessed. The slayings were a crucial part of Manson’s plan to trigger Helter Skelter. By committing a series of brutal, seemingly senseless crimes against members of White society, the cult leader became convinced that eventually radical African-American movements, such as the Black Panthers, would be blamed for the outrage, which would lead to fighting in the streets.

Bugliosi contended that Manson ordered the murders, and that his Helter Skelter philosophy directly led to the killings, as it was designed to ignite the apocalyptic race war itself. Manson’s sick philosophy, plus his total control over the Family, made them willing participants in his homicidal rampage. Manson’s adherents were yearning to do anything he asked, however crazy it might seem to normal eyes.

Because he was unafraid to follow Manson’s twisted philosophy analytically wherever it took him, because he got beyond the obvious fact that Helter Skelter was patently ‘crazy’, Vincent Bugliosi discovered the motive that tied mass murderer Charles Manson to his crimes. Despite heavy odds, Bugliosi succeeded in convicting all the defendants, crucially including Manson. The first-rate analytical skills of Vincent Bugliosi underline a key point for political risk analysts. Just because a philosophy seems to be demented in your eyes, emphatically does not mean such a warped ideology doesn’t explain the key link between another’s thought and their actions.


Beyond this, that Shakespearean phrase, ‘There’s method to their madness’, is the key lesson for political risk analysts to keep in mind in successfully gaming out lunatics, those whose apparently irrational behaviour makes them seem at first glance patently unable to be studied and assessed. For there is almost always an internal logic to any serious foreign policy actor, however diabolical or seemingly random.

Risk analysts must first get beyond the simple immediate–and very human–impulse of writing off such players on the international scene as being incapable of assessment, study their ideology (no matter how twisted) and then treat them as they would any other player on the chessboard: what are their interests, what do they want, how are they prepared to get it, what is their likely strategy?

But if the seemingly irrational are often the hardest actors for political risk analysts to read, there is one more intellectual step we have to take if we are to fully go through the looking glass in dealing with them. On the international scene, the irrational are almost always politically underrated, in their strangeness being subconsciously viewed as inherently incapable of actually succeeding on the foreign policy stage.

While there is no doubt Kim Jong-un would serve as an excellent Bond villain—between poisoning his half-brother Kim Jong-nam with sarin nerve gas and executing his uncle and mentor Jang Song-thaek by blowing him to pieces with artillery—are his bloodthirsty actions so irrational they cannot be analysed?

Far from it. While the North Korean dictator is certainly odious, he seems to have a very well-defined sense of self-preservation; he killed his uncle and his brother precisely because he feared they might emerge as threats to his continued rule and also to his life. In not allowing any alternate sources of leadership to emerge within the famously closed-off North Korean regime, Kim is clearly enhancing his chances of survival in the political shark tank he calls home.

Nor is Kim’s pursuit of an advanced nuclear weapons program capable of striking the US lunacy; rather the dictator has read some recent history. A North Korea in possession of such weapons would have a ‘get out of jail free’ card, being able to ward off the oft-stated US desire for regime change in Pyongyang. Kim would be able to definitively avoid the recent fate of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, both of whom relinquished their nuclear programs, only to be overthrown and killed.

Kim Jong-un then seems to be merely what several local Asian scholars have already said of him: a rational actor operating within the context of a totalitarian system. Ruthless, yes, perhaps even wicked, but far from crazy. If this is true, then Kim is ‘rational’ in the manner Stalin and Mao were, despite their undoubted evil. And in this rational desire for self-preservation, it would seem nuclear deterrence should not be so quickly discarded as an American strategy for dealing with the North Korean regime.

The high-odds, successful prosecution of Charles Manson by Vincent Bugliosi underlines the vital need to game out lunatics, as there is almost always method to their madness. We would do well to remember this in dealing with the ‘madness’ of Kim Jong-un.

Published in the Los Angeles Review of Books, February 17, 2018

Dr. John C. Hulsman is President and Managing Partner of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a prominent global political-risk consulting firm. His new book, To Dare More Boldly: The Audacious Story of Political Risk, will be published by Princeton University Press in April. He lives in Milan, Italy.





The North Korean crisis is going to explode–just not yet

“The essential ingredient of politics is timing.”

–Pierre Trudeau

It is true in dancing, love, and politics; timing is everything.

A lack of appreciation of this basic fact explains the failure of much of the fruit-fly analysis seen in today’s newspapers, as well as the pathetic prognostications of many of my political risk competitors. European populism is staved off this week; crisis solved! Trump’s lack of knowledge has not been as big a hindrance yesterday as we had feared; not a problem! China’s artificial spending binge has not laid them low this morning; not to worry!

But of course beneath this veneer of the immediate—where the commentariat loves to dwell—there do sometimes lurk genuine sea monsters. This continual failure to reckon with the seminal factor of time would be downright amusing, if it did not have the most dangerous of consequences.

The present crisis with the Crazy Fat Kid (as Senator McCain has so immortally nicknamed him) Kim Jong-Un of North Korea is the starkest case in point. The almost constant American media misrepresentation of the standoff between Pyongyang and the US over the former’s expanding nuclear programme is as a ‘new Cuban Missile Crisis,’ never mind the fact that in 1962 the whole episode played out in 13 days (the exact title of Bobby Kennedy’s 1969 book about the event).

It was perilous, quick, and a decisive outcome almost immediately reached under conditions of unbearable pressure. None of this describes what is likely to happen over North Korea. This analytical mistake is far from trivial. For if the timing–the rhythm of an event—is not understood, the very policy options put forward as solutions are likely to be woefully lacking, and not fit for purpose given that the true nature of the present crisis has a very different time frame to it.

Over Cuba, the missiles that would destabilise the strategic balance between the US and USSR were set to be operational in days, if not in hours. In the case of North Korea, experts estimate the country is several years away (say around 2020) from succeeding in miniaturising its nuclear devices and placing them on an Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM). Such a technological breakthrough would enable Pyongyang to strike the west coast of the United States with nuclear weapons whenever it wants to (as it already uncomfortably can over Japan and South Korea).

This is the true red line, the moment when the geostrategic calculations of the United States would be decisively upended. President Trump is right; it is totally unacceptable. However, the key codicil that understanding time gives us is that it is—unlike in Cuba—not going to happen tomorrow. Such a basic grasp of the rhythm of the crisis must condition America’s policy responses if they are going to prove successful.

As such, as a political risk analyst I care far less about when the US aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson sails toward the eastern shore of North Korea, as this is an utter sideshow for cable news junkies. What matters between now and 2020 is that Washington convinces the Crazy Fat Kid’s patron China (which provides a mammoth 90% of foreign trade with the economic basket case, such as the essentials of food and energy) that the North’s nuclear build-up will not be shamefully allowed to drift for another two decades, as it has done under the utterly failed US doctrine of ‘strategic patience’, which became code words for talking with North Korea and doing absolutely nothing.

Only if Beijing believes Washington is serious about not allowing the development of a North Korea ICBM—that the Trump administration is prepared in the medium-term to deal with the matter militarily if necessary–will it bring North Korea (kicking and screaming presumably) to the table, to conclude a real, enforceable deal that stops them short of developing this destabilising capacity.

This is the hinge point of the whole crisis. While the clock is certainly running, there are still years ahead for the Trump strategy to work. As such, Washington is right to lean on Beijing now to get things moving, while as loudly as possibly rattling its sabre. But the important fact for analysts to keep in mind is nothing decisive is going to happen tomorrow, or in the next 13 days. There is still plenty of time for diplomacy to work, spearheaded by a China that fears America might just be determined enough to deal with this on its own soon.

So with the failure of the latest North Korean missile test (quite possibly due to American cyber interference), look for the issue to recede from the headlines, for the sea monster to submerge. But don’t for a second take your eye off the ball as the fruit-fly commentariat is bound to do. For he is still there, lurking beneath global waters. Timing is everything, and the North Korean nuclear crisis has just begun.

Published in City AM London, April 24, 2017.