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What Makes Kim Jong Un Tick?

The Buzz

Duelfer and I had the academic luxury of malleable deadlines in studying Saddam. Langer spent many months on his Hitler study. Scholarship on Kim Jong Un may be too slow for the current crisis.

Major American decision-makers may instead need to rely on their intuition.

Empathize with your enemy

Former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara spoke about intuition in a 2003 documentary about his role in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. McNamara revealed crucial new details about the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev had smuggled nuclear missiles into Cuba, threatening 90 million Americans. President John F. Kennedy’s first reaction was that he must destroy them with a massive air strike. This would have courted war with the USSR.

Seeking the widest possible range of advice, Kennedy asked Llewellyn “Tommy” Thompson, former U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union, to supplement his foreign policy team during the crisis. Thompson had come to know Khrushchev well and had stayed at his house in Moscow.

“Mr. President, you’re wrong,” McNamara recalls Thompson saying of the air strike plans. “I think Khrushchev’s gotten himself in one hell of a fix.” The former ambassador knew that Khrushchev could be impulsive and later regretful. He imagined a terrified Khrushchev, in awe of the events he had set in motion. Thompson suggested that Kennedy help the Soviet leader find his way out of the crisis. Kennedy decided on a naval blockade rather than an air strike, and Khrushchev backed down.

The lesson McNamara drew? Empathize with your enemy, and intuit how the world looks to them. “We must try to put ourselves in their skin, and look at ourselves through their eyes,” he said.

Turning to today’s crisis, Trump will have to reckon with several uncomfortable facts. The Kim dynasty has invested decades of effort in their pursuit of nuclear weapons; it is unlikely that they will negotiate them away. Further, Trump must recognize that by meeting with Kim, he is giving the North Koreans something they have long sought: to be dealt with as diplomatic equals.

With the president’s dearest hope off the table, and with the meeting itself already representing a win for the North Koreans, what is it that Trump can realistically expect to gain from talks? He and his staff will have to think about how they might cajole and persuade Kim to agree to things the U.S. values, such as a permanent freeze on further missile and nuclear tests.

History tells us that to influence Kim, we must empathize (note: not sympathize) with him. If the meeting is to be a success, Trump and his advisers must first understand how we look to the North Korean leader, peering at us from his very particular vantage point.

This article originally appeared on the Conversation.

Image: Reuters