August 10, 2017

Our 'madman' against theirs

With Ban Ki-moon (NOT a madman)
In one of the private meetings I was privileged to join with Ban Ki-moon when he was UN Secretary-General, he shared a basic and important insight about dealing with the North Korean regime. As a native of the territory which is now the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, Ban and his family fled south as refugees. Many years later, he confessed to us that even he as a Korean cannot make sense of that regime.

The so-called "madman theory" contends that an unpredictable leader can extract better concessions if the other side is duly frightened. This may explain some of Ronald Reagan's success in the waning years of the Soviet regime. But when the DPRK's Kim Jong-un makes wild threats and U.S. President Donald Trump responds with apocalyptic rhetoric, then the madman theory is out the window, and it's simply a race to macho demonstrations, miscalculation and broken chains of command, any of which can result in catastrophic escalation.

Cooler heads can only prevail when they are among the decision-makers. Trying to out-brag a braggart is hopeless, and with nuclear and conventional weapons threatening millions in Asia and the United States, it's a recipe for Armageddon. Whether out of pride or survival instinct, a true madman (and one who surrounds himself with fawning sycophants) is less likely to back down in the face of escalating threats and more likely to move closer to the brink.

I don't think Mr. Ban or any other level-headed diplomat can make sense of Mr. Trump, and this is a looming liability. With respect to nuclear proliferation on the Korean peninsula, it is cause for alarm.