A pair of madmenOn Aug. 9, 1974, Richard Nixon, who resigned from office ahead of the pivotal vote on his impeachment over the Watergate scandal, walked across the South Lawn for the last time before getting on a helicopter that would bring him to Air Force One, which would take him to his home in California. He spread his arms, made victory symbols with both hands and beamed at hundreds of White House staff and cabinet members who paid salute to a boss whose presidency would legally finish in two hours.
Among the nervy crowd was Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger, who silently let out a sigh of relief to see his unstable president go. The White House staff were at their wit’s ends during the final weeks of the presidency of Nixon, who had become more and more unpredictable. Nixon secluded himself in a private room, scotch at hand, repeatedly listening to the tapes that had cost him his presidency.
The defense secretary discreetly gave orders to the military chain of commanders to not take orders from such an unstable president. They were told to confirm with him or Secretary of State Henry Kissinger should the physically and mentally unstable commander-in-chief give bizarre orders such as firing off a nuclear missile.
The exhausted and intoxicated Nixon startled his usually rock-solid White House Chief of Staff Alexandar Haig, who was also a four-star Army general, by joking about dropping a nuclear bomb on Capitol Hill the previous March, when the Congress was deliberating to impeach him. “I was told to get the football,” Haig reportedly told Kissinger. When Kissinger asked him what he had meant by the football — he knew well how Nixon favored the use of tactical weapons — Haig said, “His black nuclear bag. He’s going to drop it on the Hill.”
Defense Secretary James Mattis may be as nervy as Schlesinger was 43 years ago under erratic Commander-in-chief Donald Trump. Many thought Trump was strategically and intentionally talking tough in his menacing “fire and fury” threats and mockery of “Little Rocket Man,” his nickname for North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. But some think Mattis could be worried after watching the U.S. president publicly denounce the Pyongyang regime as a “band of criminals” and vow to “totally destroy North Korea” if it threatens the United States or its allies in his first address to the UN General Assembly.
Nixon may have been intoxicated, but Trump speaks hysterically in a sober state. Moreover, there was just one crazy man behind the nuclear missile button 43 years ago. Today, there are two. The way the two have been going on over the last few weeks, Kim Jong-un and Trump appear to be waging a contest over who can be more outrageous.
There are two scenarios being worked out, according to an official from the International Monetary Fund. In one scenario, Beijing could miraculously cut a deal on the brink of a military conflict between the United States and North Korea after Washington enforces a full-fledged secondary boycott and North Korea retaliates by shooting off a hydrogen bomb into the Pacific. Under Beijing’s arbitration, Washington and Pyongyang would draw up a road map for a peace deal. The IMF would get involved to investigate the financial state of North Korea.
In a grimmer scenario, Trump would order 200,000 Americans on the Korean Peninsula to leave for safety reasons after Washington and Pyongyang fail to reach a compromise. Foreign capital would flee South Korea even if Trump’s evacuation order was a bargaining tool actually aimed at negotiations. Even if it was, Trump might have to keep the travel and residential ban on Americans for one to two years. The IMF believes that would spell catastrophe for South Korea.
There is no magic in diplomacy. The rabbit does not simply jump out of the hat. Someone must have put the rabbit in. It was Nixon who put the rabbit in the hat to end 24 years of hostility between Washington and Beijing in 1972. Nixon and Kissinger stayed in Beijing for eight days in February 1972 and refused to go home until they came to an agreement with Chinese leaders.
Will another mad U.S. leader put a rabbit in the hat this time? Who would play the supporting roles? What part will Seoul play? From the amateurish ways it has displayed so far, Seoul can hardly make it to an audition for an extra’s role. Even as nuclear bombs are tested and missiles fly over Japan, Seoul announced it will give $8 million in humanitarian aid to North Korea. When its decision irked Washington and Tokyo, it said the timing for delivery would be decided later. Seoul gained little from that generosity: It did not show the guts to go through with it despite the displeasure from Washington, or demonstrate diplomatic subtlety by putting off the announcement until tensions eased.
Seoul’s step only risked weakening the tripartite alliance with Washington and Tokyo. The Moon Jae-in administration is naïve to claim there is nothing wrong in the tripartite relationship with Washington and Tokyo even when the Japanese media highlighted differences among the three leaders during a recent three-way summit in New York. The Moon administration even boasted about Moon’s “fan club” in the White House. How could it expect to land a leading or even a supporting role in the complicated North Korean drama with such childish ways?
JoongAng Ilbo, Sept. 26, Page 30
*The author is the Washington bureau chief of the JoongAng Ilbo.