What's Left

January 15, 2003

What the North Korean "standoff" is really about

By Stephen Gowans

Nuclear stand-off on the Korean peninsula. The Korean crisis. North Korea playing with matches. Pyongyang becomes increasingly belligerent. President Bush won't reward North Korea's bad behavior. An irrational regime plays brinkmanship.

From the headlines you'd think North Korea had declared the United States part of an axis of evil, and had put the country on a nuclear hit list, rather than the other way around.

You might also think North Korean submarines, equipped with nuclear tipped missiles, were lurking off the coast of the United States, while tens of thousands of North Korean GI's lay in wait in Mexico, ready (according to a thin official story) to push back an American invasion of Mexico, should it come. You might think this was true, though it is North Korea, not the United States, that is surrounded by a vast, nuclear-equipped, and hostile military presence.

What's more, you might think there was far more to the "stand-off" than this: Washington says North Korea can't have nuclear weapons, and Pyongyang says "piss off."

But that's all there is to it. So, why the fuss?

Who is Washington to tell North Korea that it can't have nuclear weapons? Granted, as the world's most powerful country, the United States is able to use its leverage to get its way. It can wage an economic war against North Korea (which it has done), and it can threaten military intervention (which it has also done), but that's simply using economic hardship and the threat of force to extort concessions. In other words, it's behavior that fits Washington's own definition of terrorism to a tee.

But what legitimate authority does Washington have to issue diktats to other countries? You'd think from the way Washington is behaving, that it is perfectly within its rights to tell North Korea what to do.

Moreover, from the media's references to North Korea's "bad behavior" and "defiance" you'd think North Korean leader Kim Jong Il was a naughty child who has to be disciplined by papa. Indeed, the White House, in its paternalistic way, even talked about North Korea needing to "feel a firmer hand."

But as it turns out, Washington has absolutely no legitimate authority to tell North Korea it can't have nuclear weapons. While it had signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), once it decided to reopen its mothballed Yongbyon nuclear power plant (which is capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium), Pyongyang announced its withdrawal from the treaty. Washington, it will be recalled, not too long ago announced its withdrawal from the Antiballistic Missile Treaty, on grounds the treaty was no longer compatible with US defense requirements. Similarly, the NPT no longer serves North Korea's defense requirements.

Given that Washington virtually declared war when it said North Korea was part of an axis of evil (North Korea's inclusion reflecting Washington's need to take a firmer hand, according to David Frum, the White House speechwriter who coined the phrase) and given that North Korea, along with six other countries, have been declared fair game for a US nuclear first strike, it's hardly surprising Pyongyang has decided it needs to develop a nuclear deterrent. Far from being irrational, as the country's leaders are often called in the press, the move is entirely rational.

History, it can be said, is the story of how the powerful have used law, morality, and religion to turn the ability to force compliance into a shared expectation of compliance. Kings, it was said, ruled by divine right; the aristocracy, it was claimed, ruled by virtue of inherited traits congenial to governance. Britain's conquest of other people's land and resources was based on a moral mission of civilizing the dark corners of the world, it was said, as today, the Anglo-American, Washington-London axis portrays its program of conquest as a mission of bringing democracy and human rights to countries presided over by dictators. Wherever a class of people or country has grown powerful enough to compel compliance through force or sanction it seeks to justify its raw exercise of power through law or morality or religion.

Having no legitimate authority to demand North Korea fall in line with its edicts (not only on leaving itself defenseless to US military depredations by foregoing a deterrent nuclear weapons program, but also in refusing to open its doors to US trade and investment on terms favorable to US capital), the media, ever the willing janissaries of Washington, have stepped up to the plate: if Washington has no legitimate grounds to assume the role of world dictator, the media will confer it upon them.

It's not as if the press is unaware that Washington is vastly overstepping its bounds; it just doesn't say anything about it. When the Pentagon starting abducting Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters from Afghanistan and elsewhere, throwing them like animals into cages at Gauntanamo Bay, a reporter grilled White House spokesman Ari Fleischer on whether Washington had the authority to do what it was doing. After ducking and weaving, Fleischer finally said in exasperation, "Look, there's a war going on." In other words, Washington has no legitimate authority whatever to abduct and cage al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters, but uses, wherever it can, the events of Sept. 11 as legitimation for scores of illegal, immoral, indecent, inhumane and repellent acts that it gets away with by virtue of having a larger military and more economic leverage than anyone else. Lamentably, vast sections of the American population, including large parts of what passes itself off as the political left, have bought into the idea that the deaths of 3,000 on Sept. 11 justify all manner of US outrages. Sept. 11, with all its associated rhetoric of good vs. evil, has become what the divine right of kings was to monarchs: an excuse to exploit, plunder and abuse the weak.

Regrettably, you'll hear few Americans complain about the treatment of abductees at Gauntanamo Bay, or the flagrant Constitutional violation that has seen American citizens tossed into military brigs without charge, where they're to be held indefinitely as combatants in a war that has no planned end. "The bastards should be treated even more severely," is the accustomed cry, while the minority that lean away from these punitive excesses hold their tongues, cowed by the prospect of being seen to defend monsters, for how can al-Qaeda or Taliban fighters be seen as sympathetic figures, worthy of a defense? Though hardly admirable and cleaving to reactionary and repellent views, they are human beings, and are deserving of respect as such by a country that professes to be civilized and humane. And while their views are repellent to us, how many can say their own views are not repellent to the viciously right-wing thugs who have their hand on Washington's tiller, and may decide, some day, for the sake of homeland security, that you too should be locked away?

For as long as governments have resorted to propaganda to justify acts of war and conquest, demonizing the enemy has been the standard way of drawing attention away from relevant questions, like, Have all countries a right to defend themselves?, to irrelevant questions, like, What are we going to do about this monster?

This technique has been used repeatedly by Washington to great effect, in Yugoslavia, where all kinds of wildly exaggerated claims were made about Slobodan Milosevic, including the charge that he ordered the killing of 100,000 ethnic Albanians (whose bodies were never found), and in Iraq, where Saddam Hussein has been portrayed as more evil than Old Nick himself.

"What are we going to do about this monster?" it is asked. Well, what has the "monster" Saddam done that we need to do something about? Not a hell of a lot, except, we're told, he has cleverly hidden weapons of mass destruction, after the UN told him to disarm. Of course, we don't know that Iraq is hiding weapons. The UN inspectors have turned up zilch, and all we have to go on is the word of Donald Rumsfeld and George W. Bush who have shown themselves over and over again to be notorious liars.

And then we can ask whether an edict from the UN Security Council for Iraq to disarm is legitimate. Doesn't the demand that Iraq disarm amount to the world's great powers forcing a country that is strategically situated atop great oil wealth to abandon its right to self-defense, thereby allowing one or more of those powers to take control of the country's assets for their own benefit? Doesn't Iraq have a right to defend itself from aggression, either that of neighbouring countries, or that of UN Security Council members?

But these issues -- though central to the question of war in the Middle East -- aren't addressed. Instead, the discussion centers on Saddam Hussein's personal qualities, as the pro-war propaganda's standard operating procedure prescribes. But Saddam Hussein's personal qualities, and whether there's a dictatorship of capital (under the guise of a US imposed democracy) or a dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, are completely irrelevant to the question of whether (a) the United States or NATO or the UN Security Council or any other group has a legitimate authority to go to war with Iraq over weapons of mass destruction and (b) whether Iraq has the right to defend itself against attack. (Equally, do Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters have the right to defend themselves from US attack on Afghanistan soil? The answer is obvious -- they do; the question, however, is never asked.)

North Korea's leader Kim Jong Il is also a target of a demonization campaign. We're told (by the ultra-reliable source George W. Bush) that Kim starves his people, and the equally reliable media heap all manner of pejorative adjectives on Kim, the meaning of which -- other than implying something bad -- is unclear. Kim and his country are irrational, unpredictable, neo-Stalinist, secretive, reclusive, bizarre, militaristic. No article on North Korea can be written without using at least two of these words. Press accounts conjure up a picture of a vast and grim concentration camp, where an evil and irrational dictator indoctrinates ordinary North Koreans into supporting his malefic designs on the world, including a nuclear strike on the US and its allies, carried out because Kim resents US power and hates American freedoms and democracy -- another Osama bin Laden, but this time one with a bad haircut and a funny jacket and a neo-Stalinist moniker.

Kim should forget about the American left springing to his country's defense. It's too concerned that to do so would invite the charge that it's Stalinist and supports dictators, a charge it will twist itself into innumerable contortionist knots to avoid, even siding with decidedly conservative and neo-liberal forces such as the MDC in Zimbabwe and the DOS in Serbia to avoid the taint of being seen to support a victim of Washington's demonization exercises.

The demonization is necessary. Without it, Washington can't make its case, can't be seen to be reacting, rather than instigating, for the truth of the matter is that Washington instigates, while pretending it's simply reacting to a threat. As one writer of a letter to a newspaper editor sarcastically put it, "Sure, when I hear Mike Tyson say that Woody Allen threatened him, and that he'll have to beat the snot out of the filmmaker in self-defense, I believe Tyson."

It's a nasty world out there, we're led to believe, where all kinds of crazy and evil dictators are plotting harm to the US, and if you doubt it, remember September 11. The United States government must be tough if it's going to protect its citizens, and if that means telling unpredictable dictators like Kim Jong Il that he can't have nuclear weapons, so be it.

Were Kim (or equally Saddam Hussein) portrayed otherwise, the deceit wouldn't work.  Neither can be allowed to attend to their country's self-defense by acquiring weapons of mass destruction, because (the deception goes) they may use those weapons against the United States in an unprovoked attack. After all, they're evil, they're unpredictable, they're unbalanced and they resent US power, US democracy and US freedoms.  Would you leave the world's most destructive weapons in the hands of unpredictable, irrational, evil dictators?

That the view is kindergarten-like is, of course, no deterrent to its being imbibed holus bolus, and regurgitated in an attractive package by the Anglo-American media, resulting in a level of discourse on world affairs that operates at the level of a nine-year old. They're evil and unpredictable; we're good and moral; therefore, they must be smashed. Remember Sept. 11?

A more adult view, far closer to the truth, is that the powerful seek ways of extending their power, because they can. Washington has made no secret of its desire to establish its primacy in the world by containing regional rivals (countries that are large enough and strong enough to pursue an independent course), and by undermining anti-capitalist countries (those that don't wholly respect the claimed right of US firms and investors to exploit the former's labor, resources and markets.) Countries that have weapons of mass destruction aren't so easy to push around, and can hardly be expected to submit to US primacy or leadership or however else you want to dress it up to hide what it is -- global hegemony, a dictatorship of US capital.

And it is very much a dictatorship of US capital that Washington desires; this, too, the White House has made no secret of. The President's National Security Doctrine reads like a handbook on spreading US trade and investment to every corner of the world, which it is. National security, it must be understood, means freedom for US firms to go anywhere they wish, to sell into any market they wish, and to extract profits from any country they wish, with the security of their investments safeguarded. Ultimately, to borrow from New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, it is the US military that vouchsafes that security, and, through threat or war, that smashes down the doors that lock US investment out. It's no surprise that Washington's axis of evil countries, whether the original three or the larger list that includes Cuba, with Venezuela and Zimbabwe as satellites, are either completely closed to unfettered US trade and investment, have nationalized, or are planning to nationalize, key parts of their economy, or have threatened what stands as US capital's -- and therefore, Washington's -- highest good: private ownership and the security of private investment.

Capitalism is the only sustainable model, says Bush. And he's got a $400 billion per annum military to back him up on it.

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