Korea, an Old Conundrum, and Mr. Churchill’s Wisdom

Korea, an Old Conundrum, and Mr. Churchill’s Wisdom

Korea was a prob­lem in 1952—as it is today. “Is the Prime Min­is­ter aware of the deep con­cern felt by the peo­ple of this coun­try at the whole ques­tion of the Kore­an con­flict?” an oppo­si­tion Mem­ber of Par­lia­ment asked the-then Mr. Churchill.

“I am ful­ly aware of the deep con­cern felt by the hon­or­able mem­ber in many mat­ters above his com­pre­hen­sion,” Churchill quipped. Which avoid­ed respond­ing to an unan­swer­able question.

Self-Preservation’s Jarring Gong

How do you answer the Kore­an ques­tion? There are no good choic­es. The Sino-Russ­ian pro­pos­al for the U.S. to aban­don joint mil­i­tary exer­cis­es in exchange for anoth­er promise by the North to stop build­ing mis­siles and test­ing nukes is a non-starter. That advances their aim, to sep­a­rate the U.S. from South Korea.

Have we learned any­thing from his­to­ry? It’s true that his­to­ry nev­er repeats. But Churchill’s expe­ri­ence is there for the ask­ing. As usu­al, there is some­thing worth tak­ing away.

The first les­son is Churchill’s lament for “end­less repetition”:

When the sit­u­a­tion was man­age­able, it was neglect­ed, and now that it is thor­ough­ly out of hand we apply too late the reme­dies which then might have effect­ed a cure. There is noth­ing new in the sto­ry. It is as old as the Sibylline books. It falls into that long, dis­mal cat­a­logue of the fruit­less­ness of expe­ri­ence and the con­firmed unteach­a­bil­i­ty of mankind. Want of fore­sight, unwill­ing­ness to act when action would be sim­ple and effec­tive, lack of clear think­ing, con­fu­sion of coun­sel until the emer­gency comes, until self-preser­va­tion strikes its jar­ring gong—these are the fea­tures which con­sti­tute the end­less rep­e­ti­tion of his­to­ry. (WSC, House of Com­mons, 2 May 1935)

There has been a sea change in the Kore­an sit­u­a­tion, most experts agree, and not for the bet­ter. Two decades of pro­cras­ti­na­tion have, it seems, ended:

Owing to past neglect, in the face of the plainest warn­ings, we have now entered upon a peri­od of dan­ger greater than has befall­en [for years]….The era of pro­cras­ti­na­tion, of half-mea­sures, of sooth­ing and baf­fling expe­di­ents, of delays, is com­ing to its close. In its place we are enter­ing a peri­od of con­se­quences. (WSC, House of Com­mons, 12 Novem­ber 1936)

North Korea and Nazi Germany

Kim Jong-un is not Hitler, of course. North Korea is not Nazi Ger­many, writes Peter Weber. (“In some ways it’s worse.”) Kim has, if it’s pos­si­ble, an even more inflat­ed opin­ion of his pow­ers than Hitler had.
How close we came to putting all this on the ash heap of his­to­ry. (Pacifism21.com)

These hap­py facts are coun­ter­bal­anced by the final­i­ty of a mod­ern nuclear exchange. We may soon reach Churchill’s “peri­od of con­se­quences”: choos­ing between going to war or accept­ing a nuclear North Korea. The lat­ter would require rein­tro­duc­tion of the Mutu­al Assured Destruc­tion (MAD) pol­i­cy, by which we nav­i­gat­ed in the old Cold War days. Japan has declared this unac­cept­able. One can understand.

Between now and then, in the opin­ion of jour­nal­ist Charles Krautham­mer, we have two moves, not with­out risk, which might get the atten­tion of Chi­na, North Korea’s patron. 1) Rein­stall, at South Korea’s invi­ta­tion, the tac­ti­cal nuclear weapons removed by Pres­i­dent G.H.W. Bush in 1991. 2) Coun­sel and aid Japan to acquire the bomb.
Both poli­cies are laden with risk, Krautham­mer adds. “But Chi­na and Japan are ancient ene­mies. They have been for hun­dreds of years.” He thinks the specter of a nuclear Japan might final­ly con­vince Chi­na that rein­ing in (how?) their unpre­dictable client is a prefer­able alternative.
There’s a third option short of war, less glar­ing than the oth­er two: enforc­ing sanc­tions as they were until cir­ca 2000. That means, any bank doing busi­ness with North Korea, includ­ing Chi­nese banks, is sub­ject to dis­con­nect by the U.S. Mon­ey talks. Sanc­tions since have not been so strict.

“In Strange Paradox”

Too bad three straight admin­is­tra­tions of both par­ties since 1994 have led us to such a fright­en­ing choice of options.

So they go on in strange para­dox, decid­ed only to be unde­cid­ed, resolved to be irres­olute, adamant for drift, sol­id for flu­id­i­ty, all pow­er­ful to be impo­tent. (WSC, 12 Novem­ber 1936)

Drift and flu­id­i­ty have brought us to stark choic­es, which may be all we have left oth­er than more drift and flu­id­i­ty. God knows we’ve seen it before:

…if you will not fight for the right when you can eas­i­ly win with­out blood­shed; if you will not fight when your vic­to­ry will be sure and not too cost­ly; you may come to the moment when you will have to fight with all the odds against you and only a pre­car­i­ous chance of sur­vival. There may even be a worse case. You may have to fight when there is no hope of vic­to­ry, because it is bet­ter to per­ish than live as slaves. (WSC, The Gath­er­ing Storm, 1948)

One thought on “Korea, an Old Conundrum, and Mr. Churchill’s Wisdom

  1. Remark­able quo­ta­tions. Churchill was wise through the study of his­to­ry and through experience.

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