On October 1, 1939, in a broadcast speech to the nation, the then-British Prime Minister Winston Churchill famously said: “I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”
He then un-famously added 12 words to his statement: “But perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.”
He then used this logic to predict, correctly, that the political-military marriage of Russia’s Josef Stalin and Germany’s Adolf Hitler could not last, and would end in conflict between the 2 temporary allies.
Why? Because, Churchill explained, there was no way a German military presence on the shores of the Russian-dominated Black Sea could be squared with Russia’s national interest.
Is it impolite to note that everything that Churchill said that has not become famous showed that the famous scare words were all hooey: Russia was not a riddle, not mysterious nor enigmatic. It was a state like any other, ruled by a tyrant, for sure, but a tyrant whose actions were likely to make a kind of predictable sense.
When American policy-makers talk about North Korea, they describe a country much like Churchill’s famous Russia, unfathomable, opaque. And when they talk about North Korea’s tyrannical leader Kim Jong Un they depict a man so ambitious, so bloodthirsty, someone maybe-well-over-the-borderline for crazy. A man willing to starve his own citizens, not to mention constantly surveil, imprison, torture and kill them. In short, a man likely to put his own madness well ahead of North Korea’s national interest.
But I remind you Josef Stalin presented even worse credentials of even larger-scaled Soviet mass starvations, mass incarcerations, mass murders than Kim Jong Un’s and yet, Churchill found him not only perfectly predictable, but an acceptable ally, once he’d turned against Hitler. That last judgment, that this bestial killer made a better ally than enemy, was also accepted by US President Franklin D. Roosevelt. For the good guys as well as the worst guy, national interest did prove to be a key.
Why? Because Churchill and Roosevelt rightly figured, a war against Stalin and Russia, no matter how morally just it might appear, came at too high a cost, for the United Kingdom and its European allies who lay right in the path between Moscow and London, and for the allies’ distant, but dominant leader, the USA.
For most analysts, including – from their public statements – many of the most powerful officials surrounding President Donald Trump – the same keys apply to dealing with Kim Jong Un — that America’s national interest and the interests of its close allies South Korea and Japan demand diplomatic approaches even to a despicable dictator, because the alternative, military conflict with North Korea, is simply unaffordable.
So, can the country that swallowed Stalin as a wartime ally for 4 years, and has stayed out of war with Russia for another 72 years and counting, can America find a way to live with Kim Jong-un?
Bruce W. Bennett is a senior international/defense researcher at the RAND Corporation who works primarily on research topics such as strategy, force planning, and counterproliferation within the RAND International Security and Defense Policy Center and the RAND Arroyo Strategy, Doctrine, and Resources Program.
Bennett’s work applies war gaming, risk management, deterrence-based strategy, competitive strategies, and military simulation and analysis. He specializes in “asymmetric threats” such as weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and how to counter those threats with new strategies, operational concepts, and technologies. He is an expert in Northeast Asian military issues, having visited the region more than 100 times and written much about Korean security issues. He has also done work on the Persian/Arab Gulf region.
His Northeast Asian research has addressed issues such as future ROK military force requirements, the Korean military balance, counters to North Korean chemical and biological weapon threats in Korea and Japan, dealing with a North Korean collapse, potential Chinese intervention in Korean contingencies, changes in the Northeast Asia security environment, and deterrence of nuclear threats (including strengthening the U.S. nuclear umbrella). He has worked with the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, U.S. Forces Korea and Japan, the U.S. Pacific Command and Central Command, the ROK and Japanese militaries, and the ROK National Assembly.