Pyongyang’s Madmen

Contrary to common belief, it is not Matthew Weiner, executive producer of the superb television show Madmen, who invented the notion of the madman but rather former US president Richard Nixon.

Following his narrow victory in the 1968 Presidential elections, Nixon decided to adopt the Madman foreign policy under which leaders of foreign countries were supposed to believe that the President was in fact a mad man whose behavior was both unpredictable and irrational. Nixon hoped that this policy would evoke fear amongst hostile Soviet bloc states who would in turn avoid confrontations with the US. When explaining this unique and somewhat bizarre policy to a senior White House official Nixon said:

I call it the Madman theory, Bob. I want the North Vietnamese to believe I’ve reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war. We’ll just slip the word to them that, “for God’s sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about Communism. We can’t restrain him when he’s angry- and he has his hand on the nuclear button” and Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace.

Unfortunately for Nixon, the Madman theory did not prove an influential deterrent and the war in Vietnam would ultimately outlast Nixon’s presidency by one year and end in defeat.

Now it appears that another world leader has adopted Nixon’s Madman foreign policy, North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un. Following in his father’s unpredictable footsteps, Un has allowed the rhetoric between North Korea and the United States to reach fever pitch over the past week going as far as declaring war with South Korea and threatening to launch a nuclear strike against the US.

While little is known about the North Korean leader, some are beginning to fear that he is both young and restless. Not yet at the age of thirty, Un now commands the world’s fourth largest army, an arsenal of ballistic missiles and, the jewel of his empire, nuclear weapons. Yet as the world turns it eyes to Korea, and wonders if like the hot-tempered Sonny Corleone Kim Jong Un is really thinking of going to the mattresses, Israel is as always fixed on its own issues.

Thursday night’s channel 10 news broadcast began with a short segment dealing with riots that broke out in the West Bank following the death of a Palestinian prisoner from cancer in an Israeli jail. Then came a dramatic announcement by Channel 10’s anchorwoman Tamar Ish Shalom that US Secretary of State John Kerry plans to return to the region and perhaps even lay the foundations for a new US peace proposal.

It was only after an in depth analysis of why this initiative lacks any real chance of success that Mrs. Shalom asked in an almost blasé manner- is the world is headed for a nuclear war?

Unlike Mrs. Shalom, North Korea’s official anchorwoman was much more adamant when reporting on the mounting tensions between Pyongyang and Washington. “We shall deal with the American nuclear threat with a ruthless nuclear attack. The United States and its supporters should know that everything is different in the age of the distinguished Kim Jong Un”.

While the fact that regional news trump international news is not surprising, the lax manner in which the North Korean subject has been dealt with by the local press is strange given Israel’s fondness of all things nuclear. Moreover, similarly to US strategists who are baffled by the enigmatic young leader of North Korea, Israel is also dealing with its own sort of madmen, the leaders of Iran. As the Islamic Republic inches closer and closer to nuclear capability, Israeli strategists are questioning the rationality of Iran’s religious leaders hoping that their zeal will not over cloud their judgment.

The manner in which the US and the international community deal with the North Korea crisis is of paramount importance to Israel and should be treated as such. After all, similarly to the promises made by President Obama in his recent visit to Israel with regard to Iran, the United States stated on several occasions that it would not allow Pyongyang to develop nuclear weapons. Despite these statements, North Korea now boasts an arsenal of such weapons.

In addition, much like Iran, North Korea has made it a habit of threatening the West with all out war despite crippling international sanctions. As another round of talks between the West and Iran begin today in Kazakhstan, it remains to be seen whether Western diplomats actually have the ability to deter states from perusing nuclear capabilities, be it by the stick or by the carrot.

Lastly, it has been the policy of the United States to reassure South Korea that it need not develop its own weapons of mass destruction as the country enjoys a protective US umbrella. This is the same umbrella under which Israel is now supposed to stand. We should be very interested in assessing the quality of this umbrella given the torrential downfall of rockets to which this country has become accustomed to and might face in the future.

About the Author
Ilan Manor is finishing his mass media studies at Tel Aviv University. He has previously contributed to the Jerusalem Post, +972 Magazine, the Jewish Daily Forward and On Second Thought magazine. His Hebrew-language blog has been featured several times in the Israeli press.