Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

Never Call Kim Jong Un Crazy Again

| June 14, 2018

After the Singapore summit, it isn't just wrong to say the North Korean leader is irrational — it's dangerous.

The Singapore summit was long on theater and largely devoid of substance, save for a typical Trumpian giveaway. This time Donald Trump impulsively offered to suspend military exercises with South Korea (without notifying Seoul in advance) in exchange for a North Korean pledge to do … well, nothing. If the self-proclaimed master negotiator keeps making deals like this, there will be a Kim Jong Un Hilton in Honolulu before there's a Trump Tower in Pyongyang.

The most significant development in Singapore was to complete the transformation of Kim himself from a secretive, slightly comical, definitely murderous, and possibly irrational leader of a “Hermit Kingdom” into a serious and engaged world leader of some stature. The New York Times captured this notion perfectly in an article published days before the summit, headlined “Kim Jong-un’s Image Shift: From Nuclear Madman to Skillful Leader.”

In fact, the Times’ story tells you less about Kim than it does about America’s self-defeating tendency to portray adversaries as irrational, crazy, deluded, risk-seeking, suicidal, or just plain nuts. Instead of seeing foreign-policy disputes as the product of straightforward conflicts of interest or clashing political values, even well- experienced U.S. officials and knowledgeable pundits are prone to seeing them as a reflection of personality defects, paranoia, or distorted views of reality. In truth, the Kim family has never been crazy or irrational; on the contrary, they’ve just managed to keep themselves in power in difficult circumstances for seven decades.

This tendency to see opponents as crazy has a long history. Americans saw Bolshevik leaders as irrational fanatics, and Secretary of State Edward Lansing calling Bolshevik ideology the “most hideous and monstrous thing that the human mind has ever conceived.” During the 1960s, Secretary of State Dean Rusk described Beijing’s “state of mind [as] a combination of aggressive arrogance and obsessions of its own making,” and said that “a country whose behavior is as violent, irascible, unyielding, and hostile as that of Communist China is led by leaders who view of the world and of life itself is unreal.” In the 1970s and 80s, other hard-liners suggested Soviet leaders placed so little value on human life that the ability of destroy all of the Soviet Union’s major cities and industrial centers and to kill tens of millions of Soviet citizens might not be enough to deter them from trying to “fight and win” a nuclear war.

More recently, U.S. pundits justified attacking Iraq by claiming that Saddam Hussein was an irrational, serial aggressor who could not be deterred, and advocates of war with Iran have said similar things about the clerical regime in Tehran. Former CIA director James Woolsey once described Iran’s leaders as “genocidal maniacs,” and New York Times columnist Bret Stephens (then at the Wall Street Journal) justified preventive war by describing Iran as a “martyrdom obsessed, non-Western culture.” Not to be outdone, Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute suggested its leaders were not deterrable because they might “believe Islamic interests make Iran’s weathering a retaliatory nuclear strike worthwhile.” Got that? The ayatollah won’t mind dying and having the country destroyed in a nuclear attack if it helps him spread Islam.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen M.“Never Call Kim Jong Un Crazy Again.” Foreign Policy, June 14, 2018.

The Author

Stephen Walt