December 12, 2017 | MANILA, PHILIPPINES

Defusing the threat of nuclear war

The current deadly “game of chicken” being undertaken by the US, under President Donald Trump, and by North Korea, under its Supreme Leader, Kim Jong-un, isn’t the first time that the world has teetered on the brink of nuclear war.

For 13 days, from October 16 to 28, 1962, President John F. Kennedy, and Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev, both came closer to pressing their respective nuclear buttons than at any other period in the Cold War.

Reacting to the deployment by the US of ballistic missiles in Italy and Turkey, which the Soviets considered a direct threat, the latter installed equivalent missiles in Fidel Castro’s Cuba.

The response of the Kennedy government was a naval blockade, to stop Soviet ships from delivering more missiles. Krushchev vowed to break the blockade. Both sides threatened swift and devastating retaliation. But in the background, they worked desperately to find a way to defuse the situation. Nobody wanted war.

Eventually, Krushchev blinked. The Soviet ships turned back and the missiles already in place in Cuba were dismantled.

In return, the US committed never to invade Cuba and also agreed to dismantle the missiles in Italy and Turkey. But the latter agreement, as a face-saver, was not made public and was accomplished at a later date.

Is a similar face-saving arrangement possible in the current confrontation?

The usual experts and kibitzers have been placing much weight on the personality profiles of the two leaders who are playing the deadly game of Let’s-Wage-World War III.

Donald Trump has been portrayed by a battery of psychiatrists and psychologists as a megalomaniac whose perception of right and wrong is influenced by a “malignant narcissism.” During the presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton portrayed Trump as too unstable to be trusted with the nuclear code.

The recent firing of 59 missiles at Syria and the use of “the mother of all bombs” on an ISIS stronghold in Afghanistan have been used by critics as indicators of Trump’s “impulsiveness” and “recklessness.”

Yet, a closer study of Trump’s actions, throughout his colorful career as a businessman, throughout the Republican primaries and the election campaign itself, and up to the recent failure of the Republicans and of Trump to repeal and replace Obamacare, may provide insights on the way the mind of Trump works.

Trump is devious and will resort to anything -- exaggerate, tell outright lies, withhold payments for a contractor, flip-flop on issues -- to get what he wants. But he also knows when his bluff is being called and he will back off. This was apparent when the Republicans called off the vote on the House bill to repeal and replace Obamacare, in spite of what Trump had said, the day before, that the time for negotiating was over.

The timing of the missile attack on Syria and the use of the super bomb on ISIS may have had to do with the state visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping. For the author of The Art of the Deal, the two military actions may have been a reminder to China that being friends with the US is a more desirable option, than being an enemy.

But before the state visit, when President Xi Jinping refused to talk to Trump unless the latter walked back on his idea of discarding the One China policy of the US, Trump backed off.

In other words, Trump is very deliberate and doesn’t mind flip-flopping on an issue or backing off on a threat -- for instance, if he were unsure of dealing a stinging defeat on North Korea. The trouble is, Trump’s generals may be convinced -- and may convince Trump -- that there is no way that North Korea can win a nuclear war.

In fact, from any perspective, North Korea would be dead meat. The US could suffer some damage, but missile interceptors could limit that. South Korea could be pulverized and Japan could be devastated. Maybe even the Philippines.

But Trump’s generals may consider that an acceptable price for getting rid of a pain in the ass.

China could also suffer severe collateral damage, not to mention the flood of humanity that will rush over from North Korea to China. Small wonder that Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi stated that there will be no winners in a war between the US and North Korea. China will also lose.

This brings us to the other side of the equation. Kim Jong-un.

Grandson of Kim Il-sung (who presided over North Korea’s invasion of South Korea to trigger the Korean War in 1950), and the son of Kim Jong-il by a consort, Kim Jong-un has been portrayed by the Western media as a mentally imbalanced individual eager to fit into the big shoes of his father and grandfather and be equal to the family’s god-like image.

Considering such a psychological profile, Korea watchers fear that Kim Jong-un is liable to plunge his country into a war even if its destruction is virtually assured.

Surprisingly, the analysis (albeit remotely) of renowned psychologists depict him differently. They do not think he is a psychopath who will mindlessly cause the destruction of his country, but a dictator no different from others who have had to prove to their constituents that they deserve to be respected and feared, and who had to command respect from other countries.

Wrote Ian Robertson, Ph. D., a renowned neuropsychologist: “North Korean Dictator Kim Jong-un is behaving rationally. The survival of his dictatorship depends on maintaining a sense of threat from the outside world, and empowering his impoverished people with images of military power...

“He is not a psychopath -- he made good friends while in school in Switzerland -- and is quite intelligent, being good at mathematics although lazy in his studying, according to his closest friend at school, Portuguese diplomat’s son Joao Micaelo. He was the ‘fierce competitive’ star of his school basketball team and ‘hated to lose’....Kim Jong-Un is a world leader with enormous, albeit malign, influence. But he is little different from many other world leaders over the centuries.”

Someone who has a positive view of Kim Jong-un is former basketball star, Dennis Rodman. According to Rodman, he first visited North Korea in early 2013 and made five more visits afterwards.

At the time of his first visit, the well-loved comedy-basketball wizards, Harlem Globetrotters, were playing in Pyongyang. Rodman and Kim Jong-un apparently hit it off very well because of the Korean’s fascination with basketball (he is a big fan of Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan).

At 5’7”, Kim Jong-un is relatively tall among Koreans (and much taller than his 5’3” father). While he may never make it to the NBA, he was considered pretty good in basketball while studying in Switzerland.

Recalls Rodman, “When I walked into that stadium... I sat down, and this little guy walks in. The Harlem Globetrotters were playing and I was sitting on the bench, and he sits right beside me. Seriously, I didn’t know who this f-ker was! People were sitting there kissing his hand and crying and giving their babies to him. I couldn’t believe these people -- men and women sitting there crying for 25 minutes -- and this kid’s like yay tall! They had this little chant and all the people were on their knees bowing down to this guy. That’s what shocked me right there. I’ve been around -- I’ve seen a lot of leaders -- but not like that. That’s how I actually met Kim.”

In other words, Kim Jong-un may not be the monster that the media have depicted him but someone who believes he must show braggadocio and belligerence to command respect from other countries, particularly those that he considers a threat.

He may, in fact, not relish the idea of seeing his country obliterated from the face of the earth -- and may just want a face-saving way to retreat from the brink.

Anyone who can recall the first state visit of President Richard Nixon to China -- considered a mortal enemy of the US at the time -- may remember that the door was opened through a ping-pong match between the Chinese and the US table tennis teams.

Would anyone like to suggest sending the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers to Pyongyang for an exhibition match, with Kim Jong-un throwing the first jump ball?

Maybe, just maybe, that could save the world.

Greg B. Macabenta is an advertising and communications man shuttling between San Francisco and Manila and providing unique insights on issues from both perspectives.