SEOUL – U.S. President Donald Trump’s notoriously threatening rhetoric toward nuclear-armed North Korea — which has drawn comparisons with Richard Nixon’s “madman theory” of diplomacy — may deserve some credit for bringing Pyongyang to talks, analysts have said.
The two Koreas held their first official dialogue in more than two years this week, agreeing the North would send its athletes to next month’s Winter Olympics in the South and paving the way for further discussions.
The meeting represented a significant improvement after months of confrontation, during which Pyongyang carried out multiple missile tests and by far its biggest nuclear detonation to date.
At the same time Trump was blamed for heightening tensions with his threats to rain “fire and fury” on the North — now the title of an incendiary book on his presidency — and assertions that its leader Kim Jong Un was on a “suicide mission.”
Since Kim inherited power in 2011, North Korea has made rapid progress toward its goal of developing a missile that can deliver an atomic warhead to the United States, which significantly strengthens its negotiating position.
In his new year speech, Kim said Pyongyang had accomplished “the great, historic cause of perfecting the national nuclear forces.”
But some analysts now say that despite the hermit state’s achievements and the defiance of its propaganda, Trump’s chest-thumping provoked real fears within the North’s elites, pushing them to seek ways to dial down tension.
Alexander Vorontsov, head of the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, was in Pyongyang for meetings toward the end of last year.
While there, he spoke to officials who “feared that the U.S. was already trying to shape the battlefield for a military operation against the North,” he wrote Wednesday on the website 38North.
They seemed “truly baffled” that the South was unaware Trump was inching closer to war, Vorontsov said, while “Pyongyang, they maintained, is under no such illusions.”
Trump administration officials have repeatedly said that military action is an option on the table. Washington has held several joint exercises with allies South Korea and Japan this year, and deployed three aircraft carriers to the area at the same time.
There was “growing concern” in Pyongyang, Vorontsov said, that “different elements of a combined arms operation against North Korea are being methodically rehearsed and that ‘zero hour’, as they put it, is not too far away.”
The unpredictable U.S. president is believed by some to be employing the playbook of his predecessor Richard Nixon, whose “madman theory” aimed to scare opponents into concessions by cultivating an image of recklessness.
It was Nixon himself who coined the term, according to his chief of staff H.R. Haldeman, whose autobiography quotes the disgraced president describing his intended message as: “We can’t restrain him when he is angry — and he has his hand on the nuclear button.”
At times, Trump has appeared to echo the approach wholeheartedly.
As his top diplomat sought an opening with Pyongyang in October, the president tweeted: “I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man” — his nickname for Kim.
“Save your energy Rex, we’ll do what needs to be done!” he added.
At the U.N. General Assembly he raised the prospect the U.S. would “totally destroy” North Korea, prompting Kim to respond with a personal pledge to “surely and definitely tame the mentally deranged U.S. dotard with fire.”
“Never before have two leaders in command of nuclear arsenals more closely evoked a professional wrestling match,” wrote a New Yorker columnist at the time.
Go Myong-hyun, an analyst at the Asan Institute of Policy Studies, said U.S. actions had “instilled considerable fear in Pyongyang unlike in South Korea.”
“So they came to talks to secure strategic space,” he said.
North Korea’s refusal to expand the agenda of Tuesday’s talks was intended to draw out the process “to avoid possible U.S. military action,” Go added.
Despite a handful of agreements reached Tuesday, the North Korean delegation did not respond to Seoul’s proposal for talks on family reunions, and said its nuclear and missile programs — which it says it needs to defend itself — were not up for discussion with the South.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Wednesday thanked Trump for his efforts, saying he had played a “very big” role in realizing the talks.
But former U.S. secretary of state John Kerry has described Trump’s tweets as creating “chaos politics” and many analysts say that in the long term, the U.S. leader’s approach will be counterproductive.
The president had been “talking to the world’s most dangerous state like a petulant man-child,” Robert Kelly of Pusan National University wrote at the weekend.
“Honestly, Trump just made everything worse, and his rhetoric almost certainly convinced the Kimist elite that going for nukes was wise.”
The 45th president of the United States, though, has no doubts where credit lies for getting the two Koreas together.
“We were the ones,” he told a cabinet meeting Wednesday. “Without our attitude, that would have never happened.”