I don’t think Churchill ever wrote much about North Korea, even though the Korean War was going on when he became prime minister for the second time in 1951, and Britain was our ally in that conflict. The outbreak of the Korean War mostly spurred on Churchill’s preexisting and controversial view in favor of German rearmament. But my mind has wandered back to some of Churchill enduring lessons as I observe the current minuet of the Trump Administration with regard to both Iran and North Korea.
First, is it purely a coincidence that North Korea has made peace overtures right at the moment that the Trump Administration has to make a formal judgment about whether Iran is complying with the nuclear agreement that the Obama Administration reached? Given that North Korea and Iran have cooperated with each other in developing nuclear weapons capacity, isn’t it likely that, among other considerations, North Korea is trying to advance the diplomatic position of both rogue states by casting doubt on the durability of any nuclear agreement the United States might reach? If Trump decertifies the Iran agreement next week, the North Koreans are likely to cite this as evidence that the U.S. can’t be trusted to reach an agreement.
But second, there’s a much deeper problem than mere timing and diplomatic posturing: the essential character of the regimes in Iran and North Korea. The only real remedy for the menace proposed by both nations is regime change. Churchill understood this problem with great clarity in a 1937 article he wrote for Collier’s magazine about the dilemma of Nazi rule:
To relax their grip may be at the same time to release avenging forces. Dictators and those who immediately sustain them cannot quit their offices with the easy disdain—or more often relief—with which an American President or a British Prime Minister submits himself to an adverse popular verdict. For a dictator the choice may well be between the throne or the grave. The character of these men who have raised themselves from obscurity to these positions of fierce, dazzling authority does not permit us to believe that they would bow their heads meekly to the stroke of fate. One has the feeling they would go down or conquer fighting, and play the fearful stakes which are in their hands. . .
Thus we are confronted with a situation in Europe abhorrent to its peoples, including the great mass of German and Italian peoples, in which bands of competent, determined men under ruthless leadership find themselves unable to go or to stop. It may well be that the choice before Germany is a choice between an internal and an external explosion. But it is not Germany that will really choose. It is only that band of politicians who have obtained this enormous power, whose movements are guided by two or three men, who will decide the supreme issue of peace or war. To this horrible decision they cannot come unbiased. Economic and political ruin may stare them in the face, and the only means they have to escape may be victory in the field. They have the power to make war. They have the incentive to make war; nay, it may well be almost compulsion.
This analysis applies equally to Iran and North Korea today. Trump may be superb at the “art of the deal,” but count me as pessimistic that he can reach a genuine breakthrough with either Iran or North Korea.