Between two madmen“A basic problem is that hard-liners seem ascendant in both Washington and Pyongyang,” Nicholas Kristof wrote after his first visit to Pyongyang in 12 years. He was told that North Korean military officers sometimes mock their own country’s diplomats for being wimpish “American cronies.” On the streets of Pyongyang, he recalled seeing propaganda posters, including one depicting a missile striking the U.S. Capitol. Kristof, who has written about North Korea for The New York Times since the 1980s, said he left North Korea with the “same sense of foreboding that I felt after leaving Saddam’s Iraq in 2002.”
U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un call each other madmen. The two, however, are not mad. They are just pretending to be mad based on the “madman theory,” first used by Dwight Eisenhower against China and North Korea to sign the Korean War truce and then by Richard Nixon against the Soviet Union to end the Vietnam War. The threat of nuclear attack was a means to an end, and Trump, a hard-to-predict man who changed his party affiliation from Republican to Reform, Democrat and then back to Republican, is now using the obsolete theory against Kim.
When the leaders of two countries on a collision course act like madmen at the same time, a dangerous crisis emerges. They both make radical public remarks, but will end up as cowards if their words and actions are different. There is the possibility of an accidental clash, in which either side will shoot itself in the foot. Now is the time to stop playing with fire.
But the situation is actually going backward. Trump fired Steve Bannon, the White House strategist who denied military options. Trump also humiliated State Secretary Rex Tillerson, who mentioned the possibility of direct talks with the North, by saying he was “wasting his time.” Under such circumstances, how can the North come to the negotiating table and face the United States?
Now Trump is talking about “the calm before the storm,” hinting that dialogue and negotiations are useless. It is a warning against the North pursuing a seventh nuclear test and firing an intercontinental ballistic missile. Russian lawmakers who have visited North Korea say the regime is preparing to test a missile capable of striking the American West Coast.
The situation is heading toward a dead end. The situation is so serious that Beatrice Fihn, executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, which won this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, issued a message to the two leaders: “Nuclear weapons are illegal. Threatening to use nuclear weapons is illegal. Having nuclear weapons, possessing nuclear weapons, developing nuclear weapons, is illegal, and they need to stop.”
Kim knows very well that a war will wipe out his regime, and with 160,000 Americans, 50,000 Japanese and 1.02 million Chinese living in South Korea, a war on the peninsula goes against common sense. But the definition of “common sense” can change as an irrational chicken game between two madmen continues.
Now is the time for restraint. All possible diplomatic channels must be used to prevent an accidental clash. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who managed to resolve the first nuclear crisis in 1994, wrote in The Washington Post last week that he fears another Korean war. The United States should offer to send a high-level delegation to Pyongyang for peace talks, he said.
We are the biggest victim of war, and we must lead efforts to seek peace. We must exert maximum pressure on the North while coming up with a realistic and comprehensive compromise to resolve the crisis. Only then — when grand compromises are reached between the North and the United States and between the United States and China — will we not be neglected and be able to protect our national security interests.
Trump could take unilateral action, making the U.S. economy and security his top priorities. He once said 28,000 American soldiers were deployed on the inter-Korean border to stop a madman, but the United States has gained nothing. He hinted at the possibility of withdrawing U.S. troops from Korea. To prevent an uncontrollable turn of events, we must be bolder with the United States.
Trump has also ordered his officials to tell their Korean counterparts that the two countries’ free trade agreement can be abolished right away because the American president is a madman. Trade Minister Kim Hyun-chong recently returned to Seoul after meeting with officials in Washington to discuss the agreement. In a phone conversation, Kim said he met with 24 congressional leaders and White House officials in addition to his official counterparts. “We will give them the cause,” he said, “while keeping practical gains.” It is a realistic approach to remember ahead of Trump’s visit to Korea next month.
Former Foreign Minister Yoon Young-kwan advised that the chemistry between Trump and Korean President Moon Jae-in should be stronger and diplomacy to reinforce all levels of contact with the United States is necessary. We are sandwiched between two madmen, but we will survive if we remain awake. Internal unity is a must. If matters of national security matter are treated as a domestic political issue to win votes, we will never perceive reality clearly. In order to prevent another war on the Korean Peninsula, all politicians must remain selfless.
JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 9, Page 7
*The author is chief editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.