North Korea: Why dealing with Kim Jong-un is like managing a psychopathic boss

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It is possible to avoid war in Korea but only by doing the one thing Donald Trump will find near impossible: building trust.

According to classic deterrence theory, the only way to convince a nuclear-armed opponent that you will use your nukes is to have them believe you value the targets they can threaten.

If they can directly target your homeland then, the theory goes, you will retaliate if it is attacked. But it is significantly harder to be convincing when it comes to your allies.

Would Americans really risk San Francisco if Seoul — or Darwin — was threatened? This is exactly the strategic calculus going on in North Korea today.

The decades of peace created by the Cold War showed us the way to deter opportunistic aggression is to create a tight-knit community of your allies, such as the US did in Europe after World War II.

To accomplish this, the US should ensure complete unanimity of message and purpose.

There should be nothing unpredictable about their reactions for either their enemies or their allies. There should not even be the slightest hint the US can in any way be decoupled from them.

If the US believes this, and their allies believe this, then it is likely their enemies will not be prepared to risk attacking an ally for fear of retribution from the US.

Mixing paranoia with power

Clearly Donald Trump is marching to the beat of a different drum.


His Twitter tantrums accusing South Korea of “appeasement” combined with his demands that allies pay for their own defence are telling the North the US can be — and even wants to be — separated from its allies.

It is also telling the allies they cannot trust the US.

This is exactly what Kim Jong-un wants.

His end game, for now, is to force the US to trade South Korea for a threat against US soil.

At some point, he will force the South to surrender to him to avert nuclear disaster and the South will capitulate because they think the US will not risk its own cities to save theirs.

In short, Mr Kim is behaving exactly the way psychopathic dictators always do.

Psychopaths do not fear punishment. They cannot be threatened into submission. They can only be destroyed, held at bay or directed down a path of greater reward for them. They are motivated only by paranoia and reward.


Kim Jong-un is paranoid the US will do to him what it did to Saddam Hussein and Moamar Gaddafi.

The nukes are insurance against that and a threat that can get him the jewel he desperately seeks — a unified Korean peninsula under his control.

As with all psychopaths, bellicose threats are water off a duck’s back.

His strategy is to fan the flames of distrust between allies that should be standing shoulder to shoulder against him. And so far, Mr Trump has done nothing but help.

Like dealing with a psychopathic boss

There is absolutely no difference between this approach and the one employed by your psychopathic boss. And the solution is exactly the same: solidarity.

One of the proven strategies for immunising a workplace (or any group of humans) against a psychopathic boss is to ensure all members of the team trust each other.

When all communication is honest and open and the team cooperates to attain a shared goal, there are no levers and wedges for the workplace psychopath to use. Trust and cooperation will always defeat psychopathic manipulation.

Exactly the same is true at the national scale. Kim Jong-un must believe South Korea, Japan, Australia and the US will act as one if any of them is threatened. More importantly, we must believe it too.

Mr Trump must immediately stop destroying the trust allies have in the US. Every trust-draining tweet does nothing more than further embolden Mr Kim.

He must immediately commence a process of unification of purpose in that alliance. It will be hard for him. He attained power using exactly the strategy being deployed by Mr Kim — divide and conquer.

Trust, cooperation and unity are alien concepts to Mr Trump and the opposite of what has worked personally for him so far. His gut reaction to any threat is to blame others and his impulsivity means this is often communicated in the heat of the moment.

But if the world is to have any chance of avoiding nuclear war, he must build trust. And if he can’t, America must find a way to do it without him.

Not doing this guarantees war on the Korean peninsula. Doing it will guarantee peace. It won’t be a rainbows-and-lollipops kind of peace — it will be a teeth-grinding, edge-of-the-seat peace that is constantly tested.

But at least nobody dies.

Also published at ABC News.

Excerpt from Taming Toxic People

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Imagine for a minute that you are carving your way, machete in hand, through impenetrable jungle in some terribly exotic place. You happen upon a clearing when suddenly you notice you are not alone. On the other edge of the glen, a stone’s throw from you, stands a tiger. He is staring intently at you. Assessing you. He doesn’t care whether you love your mother, what your favourite colour is or even that tomorrow is your birthday. To him, you are one of just three things: a meal, entertainment or too nasty to bother with.

The tiger will test you. He will growl, bare his teeth, or make an imperceptible, but swift, movement in your direction. These are all tests. He is probing you. Monitoring you for signs of strength or weakness. He will use every faculty millions of years of adaptation have given him, to determine whether you are trouble, or lunch.

You cannot reason with him, you cannot threaten him, you cannot plead for mercy. Your only chance of survival is to convince him that you are more trouble than you are worth. If you manage that, he will turn and walk away without a backward glance. If you can’t, your goose is cooked. Well, eaten.

The tiger’s cold assessment of your meal-worthiness is the same as the one your psychopathic boss, workmate, relative or lover performed on you within the first few seconds of meeting you. This is a book about convincing the tiger you are more trouble than you’re worth. And if you are really brave, it is a book that can tell you how to catch and tame the tiger. After all, who wouldn’t want a pet tiger?

I’ve had the misfortune to encounter a large number of psychopaths. No, I don’t work in a psychiatric unit or a prison. I’ve run across these people in all manner of benign social and work settings. None of these people would satisfy a test for overt criminality. But many skate very close to the edge. Their skill is obtaining a benefit – using criminal or at least, immoral, means – without ever exposing themselves to the force of the law.

I’ve been thinking about writing an easy to understand guide to dealing with psychopaths for a long time. Over the years, I’ve spoken to hundreds of people about the ideas in this book. Every single one (and I mean Every. Single. One.) of those people, often complete strangers, knew exactly what I was talking about. Every single one of them had worked for, been related to, been taught by, been married to or been in a relationship with someone who they felt to be a psychopath. Every one of those people had been profoundly damaged by the experience and most wanted to share their stories as a warning to others and never speak of it again. I didn’t seek out people affected by psychopaths. These were just people I chatted to after giving book talks or interviews, or people I ran into at the coffee shop. The truly amazing thing is that once I described how I believed a psychopath behaved, not a single person could say they had never experienced it. Many did not know that they were describing a psychopath, but believe me, if you have been, or are, a psychopath’s victim, you are not alone.

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