Dr. John C. Hulsman: The North Korean Summit Hiccup Belies the Greater Problem of the White House’s Failure to ‘Game Out Lunatics’

HulsmanLegend has it that at the height of the Third Crusade (1189-1192), Count Henry of Champagne spoke at length with the mysterious, charismatic “Old Man of the Mountain,” Rashid ad-Din Sinan. The story goes that the haughty Crusader claimed that he had the most powerful army in the Middle East, one that could at any moment defeat the Hashashin, the Old Man’s threadbare cohort of followers. Count Henry went on, pointing out that his force was at least ten times larger than that of Sinan’s.

Unimpressed, the Old Man calmly replied that the Count was mistaken, and that it was his unremarkable-looking rabble which constituted the greatest army in the field. To prove his point, he beckoned one of his men over to him and casually told him to jump off the top of the Masyaf mountaintop fortress in which they were holed up. Without hesitating, the man did so.

Through the many centuries that separate us from Count Henry, the myriad twists and turns on Western politics, culture, and life that come between us, there is absolutely no doubt at all that Westerners today would share his horrified reaction to what the Old Man of the Mountain had demonstrated to him.

“This guy is totally nuts.”

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This telling historical vignette was eerily reenacted last week, in Donald Trump’s ‘break-up’ letter to Kim Jong-un, the far-out leader of seemingly indecipherable North Korea. Playing the part of Count Henry, the President not so subtlety hinted that America, as the greatest military force in the world, could wipe North Korea off the map at any moment it chose. Like Count Henry, Trump was making it clear to his rival that in essence their contest was so strategically lopsided that meek surrender—in this case with the policy end game of unilateral North Korean nuclear disarmament as the only possible outcome—really was the only possible option.

But as was true for Count Henry, that assumes your enemy is playing by the same rules that you are, and makes the same calculations. If, to our horror, we found that they do not, it is far too easy to simply say our enemies are ‘crazy,’ meaning their motives simply cannot be fathomed, letting us off the hook far too easily.

Throughout history, both decision-makers as well as geopolitical analysts have always had a very hard time getting past the wholly understandable first reaction that those with very different belief systems from ours are simply unknowable. In the Old Man in the Mountain’s case, given his effective strategy for engaging in strategic assassinations, Westerners took to calling his followers Hashashin, or “users of hashish,” as drugs became the only possible (and incorrect) rationale the Crusaders could come up with to explain their intensity, morale, and absolute personal commitment to Sinan, rather than to the Western value of the sanctity of human life. It has always been all too easy for decision-makers to write off ‘lunatics,’ lazily saying to themselves that the different and the strange simply cannot be understood.

There has been a lot of this misdiagnosis going on regarding Kim Jong-un’s totalitarian hermit kingdom; former National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster forthrightly said Kim Jong-un was ‘crazy,’ and is therefore unable to be deterred by the threat of a nuclear counter-strike, meaning that the nuclear deterrence which has kept the global peace for these past seventy-plus years does not apply to North Korea’s nuclear programme. But have Kim’s actions really proved so unknowable, just because North Korea’s politics and culture are so admittedly different from our own?

Far from it. While there is no doubt Kim Jong-un would serve as an excellent Bond villain—between very publicly poisoning his half-brother Kim Jong-nam with sarin and executing his pro-Chinese uncle and former mentor Jang Song-thaek by blowing him to pieces with artillery—there is surely method to his madness. 

While the North Korean dictator is certainly odious, he seems to have a very well-defined and rational sense of self-preservation; in fact, 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 single-minded pursuit of an advanced nuclear weapons program capable of striking the US lunacy; rather the dictator has read some recent history, as the recent spat over the Libya model—a point which led to the temporary postponement of the summit—makes eminently clear. A North Korea in possession of such weapons has 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, who relinquished their nuclear programs, only to be overthrown and brutally killed.

For National Security Adviser John Bolton and Vice President Mike Pence to bring this up, illustrates that it is they and not the ruthless North Korean dictator who are living in an illogical fantasy world. For the Libya model, given the horrendous outcome for Libyan dictator Gaddafi, would obviously seem to be the last framework of choice for Kim Jong-un to embrace, given his rational desire for survival. As ever, American hawks overrate the objective global power position of the United States, as we live in a world where America, for all that it remains the most powerful nation on earth, is simply no longer the only game in town.

By understanding neither the basic structure of the world we live in—that it is comprised of many powers—nor that Kim Jong-un might be put out by the Gaddafi comparison, senior figures in the Trump White House seem to have forgotten that any negotiation short of unconditional surrender usually involves give and take by both sides, in this case over the terms, time frame, and pace of North Korea disarmament, as well as over the security guarantees that are necessary for a surprisingly rational Kim to be given, in securing both his position and his life.

The Old Man of the Mountain must never be forgotten by modern-day decision-makers, as in the end his seemingly unfathomable against-the-odds strategy was crowned with an improbable victory in the Third Crusade. His successful career underlines the vital need to game out ‘lunatics’ such as Kim Jong-un. For not only is there almost always method to their madness. Sometimes they actually win.

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, was published by Princeton University Press in April and is available on Amazon. He lives in Milan, Italy.