Guest Writings

North Korea – Negotiation or Ultimatum? By STEPHEN GOWANS



March 4, 2005

The US is demanding that North Korea (the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or the DPRK) return to the six party talks to negotiate the complete, verifiable and irrevocable dismantling of its nuclear capabilities. Using the word “negotiate” in this context is akin to characterizing a mugging at gunpoint as a negotiation. There’s no negotiation involved. This is an ultimatum, and the six party talks are simply a mechanism to step up pressure on Pyongyang to comply.

That North Korea refuses to return to the mislabeled “talks” until the US agrees to give up what Pyongyang, with unerring accuracy, dubs Washington’s “hostile policy,” is as sound and just as is its intention to develop a “nuclear deterrent.” There’s nothing to talk about, since Washington has steadfastly refused to do anything but repeat the same demand over and over: give up your deterrent capabilities and maybe we’ll talk–that is, depending on how well you comply with our other demands; and then only maybe. We don’t want to reward bad behavior.

As to Pyongyang’s intentions to develop nuclear warheads, which may have already come to fruition, one might point to a central tenet of non-proliferation: nuclear states should not threaten non-nuclear states with nuclear weapons (as North Korea was before Washington renewed the rattling of its atomic saber.) Nor should they (1) target other countries for regime change and (2) then make plain what happens if they disarm (think Iraq.)

In Washington’s view — at least in the view the press office would like loyal and patriotic Americans to adopt — it is the US that, as always, is the decent, peace-loving hero, whose patience is being tried by thugs who are determined to pick a fight for no other reason than that’s what thugs do. North Korea, according to the American mythologists who work at CNN and the New York Times, is either concocting a diabolical scheme to sell a nuclear device to Osama bin Laden or is planning to send a warhead hurtling toward Hawaii, just for the pure malice of it. Besides, North Korea’s leader, the story goes, is a tyrant who holds his people in subjection, and the world would be well rid of him. What could be better than to bring down his regime? Not that the US has any intention of launching an invasion, mind you. Perish the thought.

Okay, perish the thought. But look at the record first.

Washington refuses to officially end the state of war that has existed between the two countries for over half a century ˆ and it’s not as if North Korea is insisting the hostilities continue, unless you think its refusing to hand the deed to the country over to Wall St. amounts to a declaration of war. “We don’t do non-aggression pacts or treaties, things of that nature,” declared US Secretary of State Colin Powell, after Pyongyang made one of its many demands “for a non-aggression treaty and diplomatic relations with Washington.” [1] Always the demands for peace. You don’t reward that kind of bad behavior.

Not long after the Bush administration rode to power on the crest of a wave of popular support that somehow was weaker than the one ridden by the loser, Washington unilaterally broke off relations with North Korea, and canceled fuel oil shipments that were compensation for North Korea shutting down its nuclear facilities. Energy-short and facing renewed hostility from a hegemonic US, Pyongyang chose to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and re-start its nuclear facilities.

Washington’s renewed hostility was evident in its creation of the “Axis of Evil” list, on which North Korea was given a place of prominence. The DPRK had, like Iraq and Iran, been singled out for a good dose of US-style regime change, a regimen that events in Iraq would later demonstrate involved the targeted regime being asked to disarm and then being invaded once its arsenal was stripped bare. For good measure, Washington let it be known that the DPRK had also been targeted for a possible pre-emptive nuclear strike.

If that wasn’t enough, North Korea has in recent months been decried by Washington, along with a host of other countries pursuing a line of independence from the US, as an “outpost of tyranny.” Tyranny, the president has made clear, will be opposed by the US, even if it means using the formidable, $500B a year, US war machine to do so.

And there are plenty of other signs that Washington has North Korea its sights, including:

The “North Korean Human Rights Act” passed by Congress last summer, which provides funding to individuals or organizations working to promote “freedom” and “improve the human rights performance” of North Korea, code for bringing down the government. (Freedom, as in the freedom of US investors and shareholders to profit from sweatshops in Pyongyang and the freedom of the Pentagon to establish military bases on the Chinese border.)

Last June, Washington announced plans to deploy three squadrons of F-117 Stealth fighter bombers in South Korea. In October, it staged naval blockade exercises in the vicinity of North Korean waters aimed at harassing the DPRK’s weapons exports, the country’s principal source of foreign exchange.

If thugs are thuggish because they’re thugs, the US is an imperialist state with a long and bloody record of seizing by force whatever turf is necessary to fatten the bottom lines of its financiers and industrialists and to keep the bottom lines of other countries’ financiers and industrialists from being similarly fattened. Woodrow Wilson explained it this way in 1907: “The sovereignty of unwilling nations [must] be outraged” in order that “no useful corner of the world…be overlooked or left unused” for US business [2]. The only way for small countries to protect their independence and stay out of the rapacious clutches of America’s plutocrats is to develop deterrent weapons of sufficient destructive capability to make predation too costly. What’s needed is some way to create a Mexican standoff, and nuclear weapons do the trick.

Insulting the Nazis

It’s common practice in some circles to heap scorn on the Bush administration by drawing parallels to the Nazis. It’s a rhetorical device, whose goal it is to evoke the deep revulsion most people feel for German Fascism by highlighting areas of overlap between Hitler’s Germany and Bush’s America.

Mapping the degree of overlap between things is fine, but there’s almost always going to be some degree of correlation between any two things, which is to say there are many ways in which US policy and that of the Nazis are alike, but there are important differences, too. And the similarities are hardly unique.

For example, there is a shared strong commitment between the two to industrialists and financiers and to an aggressive foreign policy to conquer sources of critical raw materials and to open up space for the expansion of areas of exclusive exploitation. But predatory foreign policies are hardly unique to Hitler and Bush, and nor is aligning with the interests of capital. Germany’s Social Democrats did that, too. How many governments don’t?

And there are important differences: the treatment of racial minorities, for example. To be sure, the United States’ record is hardly sterling; it is, in a word, deplorable. But while fault can be found with the Bush administration’s record it would be an exercise in unbridled hyperbole to suggest its policies are in any way Nazi-like.

Consider too the treatment of working class parties and trade unions. The Bush administration, and those of preceding presidents, may have worked hard to keep American workers docile, and to disrupt radical left-wing organizations, but overwhelming violence has not been used to crush assertive working class parties and trade unions, though this was a distinguishing feature of Fascism. Granted, there are no assertive trade unions or working class parties of any significance in the US for Bush to crush, so maybe this isn’t a fair objection. But it does reveal a salient reality: the conditions which gave rise to Fascism ˆ an in-your-face working class and frustrated imperialism — don’t prevail in the US today. Hence, saying the US is Fascist, in the way Germany and Italy were Fascist, is like saying Canada is a tropical country; it can’t possibly be a fun-in-the-sun winter getaway spot, because the conditions necessary to make it so don’t exist. And then there’s the problem that equating the Bush administration to Hitler’s government, owing to some similarities between the two, is like saying anyone who likes Wagner must be Hitler-like because Wagner was the führer’s favorite composer.

For these reasons, I eschew the Bush administration = Nazis formula. Besides, there are times when comparing the US to Nazi Germany would, as the old joke goes, be an insult to the Nazis. You would never have seen a headline in a German newspaper during the days of the Third Reich which read: Germany Cites Array of Rights Abuses against Jews by Italian Government. But you could read in the New York Times in 2005 a headline that read: U.S. Cites Array of Rights Abuses by the Iraqi Government in 2004 [3].

The Priests

The inauguration of Uruguay’s new Socialist president has led commentators to remark on South America’s shift to the Left. “Three-quarters of the region’s 355 million people,” observed the New York Times, “are now governed by left-leaning leaders,” [4] as in leaning to the left, but never actually threatening to topple over to the left.

The continent’s leftist leaders, the newspaper pointed out “are sympathetic to the symbols and rhetoric of the left’s revolutionary past, cozy with Fidel Castro, and frequently anti-American in their talk, but they continue to pursue economic policies that are favorable to American interests and sensitive to perceptions of Wall Street. None, for instance, would even think of nationalizing foreign-owned companies, as both Mr. Castro and Salvador Allende of Chile once did.” [5]

Left-leaning Americans, who’ve never elected a left-leaning government, and think that doing so would make all the difference in the world, can be excused for taking heart. But anyone who has lived in a country where Socialist or labor parties have come to power, only to watch them ape their predecessors’ policies with unseemly vigor, will know the analysis is correct. These are people who talk the talk but leave existing power structures in place. They have shown, observes the New York Times [6] approvingly, that “they are willing to play by the established rules of the game,” and so provide a useful service: they create the illusion of the possibility of change within the prevailing capitalist system, deliver small reforms at best, and keep the pot from boiling over. When they can no longer do this, Fascism steps in to use more violent methods to keep the lid on tight; different method, same end. Lenin once said that any ruling class needs two social functions: the hangman and the priest. These are the priests.

1. “Beijing to Host North Korea Talks,” The New York Times, August 14, 2003.

2. Wilson in Michael Parenti, Against Empire, City Light Books, San Francisco, 1995, p.40.

3. The New York Times, March 1, 2005.

4. “With New Chief, Uruguay Veers Left, in a Latin Pattern,” The New York Times, March 1, 2005.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

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