December 23, 2004
Change: A Necessity of Inter-Imperialist Rivalry?
By Stephen Gowans
Not too long ago, James Kelly, U.S.
assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs,
noire, north Korea
and made an accusation. “You’re cheating,” he said.
Under the terms of a 1994 agreement reached with the Clinton
the north Koreans were supposed to freeze operations at their Yongbyon
facilities. In return, Washington
would provide fuel-oil shipments, normalize relations, and arrange
of two-light water reactors. The reactors would be incapable of
weapons-grade material, giving Pyongyang
a source of much needed electricity, but not fissile material for
All went well, at first. The north Koreans sealed
nuclear facilities, opened the door to U.N. inspectors, and signed on
Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. For their part, the Americans got the
rolling on fuel-oil shipments and the construction of the light-water
little to thaw its frigid relations with Pyongyang
The Korean War, which had officially raged from 1950-1953, had never
ended, and the two countries were still technically belligerents. It
a military goliath next to the pipsqueak north Koreans, preferred it
agreement or not.
Not that this was
unexpected. The U.S.
had never had much patience with Third World countries that sought to
outside the orbit of U.S.
capitalism. If they prospered, other countries might try to follow
closing off parts of the world to U.S. economic domination.
would cause too many problems, not only in terms of foregone profits
investors and shareholders who are the real power in Washington, but
for the American economy
itself. Could jobs and a growing national income be provided if an
of the world was closed off to US exports and investments on terms
to American investors?
Long before the 1994 accord, Washington
was adamantine that north
would not become a “threat of
example,” an inspiration to other developing countries. So it was
rejecting Pyongyang’s repeated pleas for a peace treaty, dismissing
out of hand, going so far, at one point, to say “We don’t do
pacts or treaties, things of that nature”. No
one asked why not?
Here was the answer: With an American sword of Damocles
hanging over its head, Pyongyang
would be forced to channel a large share of its scarce and dwindling
into national self-defense, further impoverishing a civilian economy
weakened by the overthrow of its socialist trading partners, trade
and a series of natural disasters. Who in their right mind would think
country that appeared on satellite photos as a blacked-out nothingness
a model of anything but of what happens to small countries that run
As for the light water
reactors the Clinton
administration promised, they never
got built. True, construction work had begun, but by the time the
completion date rolled around in 2003, the promised reactors were
than two holes in the ground.
Then came Kelly’s accusation. “We have
secretly running a nuclear weapons program.”
Confronted with the accusation, Kelly said the north Koreans
Soon after, fuel-oil shipments were cancelled, leaving the country
short of energy, and – Washington
hoped – on its last legs.
But that’s not the way the north Koreans tell the story.
Kang Sok Ju, north
First Deputy Foreign Minister – the official who Kelly said made the
cried foul. No confession was made, he countered, because there was no
Indeed, Kelly’s story seems fishy. That a north Korean
official would openly admit his government reneged on an important
unfathomable, indeed too unfathomable to be believed. If there was a
program, why say one existed?
Another thing: Can Kelly be believed? The Bush
administration’s track record on telling the truth is hardly what you
call unimpeachable. Where are those weapons of mass destruction,
That’s not to suggest that deception is unique to the Bush
White House. No evidence of a Serb-orchestrated genocide in Kosovo was
found either, despite the war-justifying claims of the Clinton
administration and its NATO partners in London
What seems likely is
that Kelly fabricated the story to
justify Bush administration plans to scupper the agreement. But what’s
intriguing is the possibility that Washington
cooked up the story to frighten off south Korea
and Japan from
relations with Pyongyang .
was moving to establish rail links with the north and to open an
park at Keasong, where south Korean corporations would establish
employing ultra-low-wage labor .
Wages in the north would be only 15 percent of the minimum wage in the
half the base rate in low-wage China.
Ramanson, a south Korean watch
manufacturer was thrilled by the
prospect of paying
skilled north Korean
watchmakers only five percent of the going rate in the south.
For shareholders and investors in the south, the north
seemed to promise a bonanza of profits -- that is, if Pyongyang
keep its socialism confined
To allay their anxiety,
made a promise: Up to 90 percent of
investments in the north would be repaid in the event of war, blockage
remittances or confiscation of assets .
This repeated a pattern typical of capitalist governments everywhere,
socializing the risk of investments that yield huge private returns.
would bear the risk, north Korean workers would furnish huge profits
subsistence wages, and investors in the south would reap the generous
Even more attractive was Pyongyang
promise of a minimal tax regime,
allowing south Korean shareholders to enjoy even higher returns on
While this was
was quietly exploring normalization of
relations with the officially communist half of its former colony.
only found out three weeks before Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro
announced he would travel to the north Korean capital for talks, that
working on a deal .
The Bush administration probably feared
Koizumi would reach
an accord with the north Koreans that would allow Japanese firms to
factories in the northern part of the peninsula, employing dirt-cheap
along the lines of the model the south Koreans were working on. If so, U.S.
corporations and investors would
in the cold, while their counterparts in the southern part of the
grew fat on low-wage north Korean labor.
For the Americans, this was a pattern that was being
repeated all too often. No sooner is a regime softened up through the
war, destabilization and trade sanctions, than a competitor rushes in
the benefits of what might have been decades of legwork.
done oil deals with Sudan
, the oil
had frozen U.S.
corporations out of when it imposed punitive sanctions.
French, German and Russian firms were well placed to
dominate the Iraqi oil industry, at the expense of U.S.
oil majors, if sanctions there
collapsed, a possibility that seemed highly likely on the eve of the
Anglo-American invasion. This, indeed, was possibly a factor that set U.S.
and British boots marching on Baghdad
And while Iran
has come under growing pressure from Washington
over its nuclear energy program, Russia
is in the
building reactors for the Iranians and promising to sell more.
The Americans create commercial opportunities for rivals
when they use their military and economic might to pry open closed
When embargoed states fall to their knees, rather than capitulating and
throwing their doors wide open to U.S
. investment, they look
rivals to provide much needed capital.
This can happen as a result of a mad scramble by great
powers for access to secure supplies of oil. For example, China
has invested billions of dollars
industry, and is Sudan
supplier of arms. Washington
firms from investing in Sudan
the field wide open – though not deliberately – to Chinese oil and arms
Last October, China
signed a $70 billion oil deal with Iran
embargoed country . It’s as
if the Chinese follow the strategy “go where the US
has, through sanctions
economic warfare, left the field wide open by shutting their own
That poses a problem for Washington
How to isolate a country economically and bring it to its knees, if
powers are going to take advantage of the fact that US sanctions keep US
Understandably, the threatened, sanctioned and bombed
governments are uninterested in allowing the corporations of their
tormentor access. So when the economies are
opened up, they’re
to US rivals only, not US corporations. That’s one reason why regime
become an indispensable fixture of Washington
As the Washington Post
put it indirectly in connection with China,
“From Kazakhstan to the Middle East…Chinese
firms have been aced out by the multinational titans
that dominate the energy business. Japan
appears set to claim Siberian stocks that China once thought were in
The U.S.-led war in Iraq
has thrown Chinese oil concessions in that country into doubt" .
among them, are going to
with open arms. There are plenty of other countries that can offer
capital and trade goods, without having to go to the Americans cap in
On the other hand, were
it not for the U.S.
carrying out economic warfare,
these countries probably wouldn’t find themselves in the position of
cater to foreign investors in the first place. This works out well for
junior imperialist countries, but for the Americans, it’s a growing
one, it seems, that necessitates regime change, with U.S.-installed
successors, as the solution.
 Selig S.
Harrison, “Did North
Korea Cheat?” Foreign
 “In Korea,
Hopes for an Industrial Marriage,” New York Times, October 20, 2004.
 “China Invests Heavily In Sudan’s Oil,”
December 23, 2004.