When it comes to thinking about politics, the best of the Christian intellectual tradition refuses to separate the political from the ethical. Though history’s inculpatory witness vies against the assertion, many Christian political thinkers—certainly those standing within the tradition known as Augustinian Realism—nevertheless believe that human beings are torn and conflicted creatures, characterized not just by selfishness and malice but, also, by love and kindness as well. Absolutely, one’s vision—and memory—must include the gulags, lime-pits, and crematoria. But humanity, by and large, is a marbled thing in whom goodness and evil struggle for supremacy. Beware both the cynic and the sentimentalist.
As with individuals, so too, largely, with nations. While there is something to be said for notions of evil empires or an axis of evil, it’s important to recall that when speaking of regimes we must keep within our depth of field the populace beneath—indeed sometimes beneath the thumb of—the regimes. Most often, therefore, the adjectives are important: Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, Soviet Russia, and so on.
This is among the reasons why the just war tradition, as a Christian ethical framework, is a case-driven enterprise. Within moral theology, there are few firm, fast, and overarching rules. Those that do exist are necessarily rather vague: love one another, for instance. While everything the Christian does ought to be done in love, and while both scripture and theological reflection offer a deep and profound understanding of the meaning of love, precisely what love might look like in a given—especially conflict—situation can be exceedingly tricky to discern. Get love wrong, even just a bit, and ethics might be scuttled.
We are reminded regularly that politics is about action in a realm of uncertainty. Regarding North Korea and, specifically, on the question whether it is right for the American president to sit down with a beast such as Kim Jong-un, I have no confident judgments or thundering prophecies. One can reasonably argue the case either way. It’s one example why the non-specialist—yes, even the Christian non-specialist!—ought to wary of making strong policy claims. But the Christian can help make clearer the grounds for certain courses of action.
Here, I’d like to canvass a bit—a small bit—of the terrain on which it might be right to meet with monsters. In this case I’m referring, of course, to President Trump’s meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un which, as I write, is just beginning. They’ve had the handshake. What will have happened by the time you read this remains a matter for morning coffee.
Briefly, the case against meeting Kim Jong-un hardly needs rehearsal. For over seven decades, the Kim dynasty has turned its realm into a vast prison camp. Human government is supposed to be a gift from God to prevent the worst from happening, to do no harm, and to help where it can, first for its own people but also for its neighbors. Sovereignty is a responsibility to provide for the essential goods of the political community: peace, justice, and order. No other good can long endure in a political regime in which these things are absent. Just look at this map to see the practical costs of a repressive, incompetent, self-serving regime. The human costs of the regime’s purges, land reform programs, targeted executions, prison camp deaths, and other atrocities rests somewhere between 700,000 and 3.5 million—making a mid-range guess some 1.6 million souls.
It would be a great good to bring Kim Jong-un to justice and to end once and for all his family’s cruel hold on the North Korean people. The vindication of this Kim’s own many victims—to say nothing of the countless victims of the Kim family business—is rightly to be longed for. Doing anything that might seem to validate the regime feels like a betrayal to those long-crushed beneath it. But our treatment of the regime isn’t the only thing to be considered. We know that for the Kim regime to continue, the victim tally will go on and on. We also know that to bring the Kim regime down with force will have tremendous costs, much of it paid for by the very people we long to see set free. Of course, some will say, “Justice! Justice even if the heavens fall.” But, as I believe political theorist Michael Walzer put it, such can only be said by those who’ve no idea what it means for the heavens to fall.
Yes, Kim Jong-un is a monster. But he appears to be a largely rational one. Kim, presumably, wants to go on living (really, it’s something of a relief to not have an apocalyptic adversary for a change). This meeting with Kim has likely benefitted from this fact, as it appears grounded in a storm of American rhetoric and action that gave Pyongyang every reason to believe our conflicting nations are truly moving steadily to the very brink of final options. In a terrifying calculus, we might be seeing proved shrewd the gamble that the best way to avoid a war with the North Korean regime is to shove it to the very edge of one—and then offer to sit down and talk.
This brings up the not incidental point that an opportunity to talk this whole thing out has corollary advantages. For one, it’s not a bad thing for future regime leaders vying against the United States to believe that they might—under conditions of our choosing—have some avenue for survival. The lesson drawn from the fates of, among others, Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi, and Osama bin Laden is a salutary one to have on the minds of those who think to bring us harm. But it’s a lesson we don’t want over-learned. We’ll have fewer cards to play if our opponents believe that the price they pay for folding is always an ultimate one.
In the just war tradition, the reason for fighting is the restoration of peace—in the first place, for the victims of an unjust aggressor, but ultimately, and ideally, to restore even the enemy to the fellowship of concord. Of course, when one considers the Kim regime, this is a rather repugnant idea. One doesn’t desire peace with the Kim dynasty; one desires to see it in pieces.
The price of bringing Kim to real justice will likely be extraordinary. Sometimes extraordinary costs have to be paid. There was no negotiating with Hitler’s Germany. Even before the shooting started, it was clear the Führer was determined to achieve his will over the entire continent, and soon enough (spoiler ahead!) he did in fact launch a major war. Kim has yet to go there. Meanwhile, for now, and maybe not for much longer, it just might be that peace in Korea can be won another way.
Remember that one aspect of the just war tradition is last resort. This does not mean that we are somehow supposed to literally try out all options. Rather, it’s a prudential exercise in which we judge whether certain endeavors short of war have any reasonable prospect of success. If yes, then if conditions allow we try them. This means that at some point in the march toward last resort we might well intentionally make a leap of strategic naiveté by taking a calculated risk that the unlikely might just work out.
If this is right, then, perhaps, in these last few moments before the first shots are fired, we should probably swallow hard and be willing to meet with the enemy in a near-final effort to avoid having to destroy him. This might be the straightest road possible to peace for the North Korean people. That the route might bypass justice is not palatable. While the goal of a just war is peace, to requite injustice is among the justified reasons for warring at all. Any peace that comes without justice is a weak approximation of the real thing. While there’s some comfort in knowing that no one will avoid that final, Divine, justice, it is cold comfort for those living with memories of the lost.
As I’ve said, this meandering reflection was written barely post-handshake. By now, the whole summit might have been proved a farce and fool’s errand. Or we might discover this only later on. It just might be that, even if North Korea abandons its nuclear program and opens its country, it goes the way of China—an increasingly open country that remains internally repressive. It would be shameful if we won for ourselves a reprieve from the threat of the Kim’s regime while leaving the North Korean people his continued victims. It may be that we discover that any approximation of peace that emerges from this summit is in fact not an approximation, but a parody.
Surely one lesson of all this is that if we don’t do the hard—but right and just—thing early on, then the chances of doing it later are increasingly difficult. The tensions with North Korea should have been resolved one, three, five, or even seven decades ago. Make enough poor choices, and a good choice later on might not be found. Then one might only be left a choice between dealing with the devil or destroying him—and making a hell on earth in the process of doing so.
Marc LiVecche is the executive editor of Providence.
Photo Credit: Screenshot of historic video, via CNN and shaky hands.