July 16, 2004

Human rights or sweatshops?

By Stephen Gowans

Last month the US made a proposal to North Korea. Put a stop to your nuclear weapons program, disable and dismantle your nuclear facilities, and let international inspectors rove freely across your country to make sure you've completely, verifiably and irreversibly disarmed. In return, China, Russia, Japan and South Korea will provide you with heavy fuel oil, and Washington, which has 36,000 US troops poised on your border, will "provisionally'' commit not to attack or try to topple the government.

The proposal was said to reveal growing flexibility on the part of US negotiators, but even US officials didn't think it was flexible enough. The proposal would almost certainly be turned down, they said. Russian officials chimed in, offering the same assessment, though they more revealingly pointed out that the proposal would be rejected because it was impossible for North Korea to accept. ("U.S. Revises Proposal at North Korea Nuclear Talks, "Washington Post, June 24, 2004)

Little wonder. Once North Korea had effectively disarmed, completely, verifiably and irreversibly, what would stop the US from rescinding its "provisional" agreement not to attack?

Appended to the US proposal was a pledge to "work toward" normalizing relations -- not to  normalize relations, just work toward it.

A pledge to work towards something is like a pledge to work towards quitting smoking; it's a way of making it seem you're doing something, while dragging your heels. Or it's like the pledge of a newly wed husband to work really really hard toward not hopping into bed with other women.

Under a 1994 agreement, North Korea received fuel oil shipments in return for shutting down its nuclear facilities at Yongbyon. Washington also pledged to build two light water reactors by 2003 and to work towards normalized relations. Neither pledge was kept.

Now, James Kelly, the assistant secretary of state for Asian affairs, has "made it clear that improving relations with North Korea would take much more than the dismantling of its nuclear programs. In particular, he said, North Korea would have to improve its human rights record." ("More N. Korean Bombs Likely, U.S. Official Says," The Washington Post, July 16, 2004.)

This, to put it no more bluntly, is horseshit.

Israel, which receives $3 billion a year in US aid, conducts a human rights horror show in the Occupied Territories. Far from pressuring Israel to mend its ways, the US amply assists Israel in carrying out its human rights outrages.

What's more, Washington blithely accepts that Israel has an estimated 200 nuclear warheads stashed away, and that it refuses to sign on to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

So why is it obsessed with North Korea, which has only a handful of nuclear weapons, if any, isn't occupying foreign territory, and only withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty after Washington made it clear North Korea would be a fitting venue for Round II of the US war on the Axis of Evil?

(Round I, it will be recalled, was illegal, based on a lie, and the subsequent occupation carries on even though most Iraqis want the US out.)

Moreover, the conduct of the US occupying forces in Iraq, particularly in connection with the torture of prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison, should lay to rest any lingering doubts that the US commitment to human rights is anything more than window dressing --  a stalking horse for enlarging the scope of US domination.

And if you need to go further than that, consider the administration's recent full court press to get Congress to back away from a proposal to slash military aid to Egypt -- a notorious human rights abuser.  A tag team of administration officials and arms companies put legislators "on notice that" a reduction in aid "could result in job losses." ("House Votes Down Cut In Military Aid to Egypt," The Washington Post, July 16, 2004)

The shift would also cut into defense industry profits and disturb the regular funnelling of tax dollars from ordinary Americans to US military contractors, a danger doubtlessly far more troubling to Colin Powell, Condoleeza Rice, and the executive suite at Lockheed-Martin than a few thousand nobodies being handed pink slips. Since when do CEOs and their executive committee in Washington care about John and Judy being cut loose from their jobs?

The fact of the matter is that the US has no intention of normalizing relations with North Korea -- that is, not until the communist regime of Kim Jong Il abandons its US export and investement-unfriendly policy of economic self-sufficiency and becomes a US satellite, joins the WTO and ushers in a phalanx of US-owned sweatshops.

When that happens, Washington will declare itself pleased with North Korea's human rights reforms. Until then, expect to hear a lot more nonsense about human rights.

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Stephen Gowans