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The Concept of WMD, and its Use against Syria, in the Propaganda Systems of Western States

May 20, 2015

By Stephen Gowans

John Mueller, the US political scientist who coined the term “sanctions of mass destruction,” to show that “economic sanctions…by large states…may have contributed to more deaths during the post-Cold War era than all weapons of mass destruction throughout history” [1], wrote an article two years ago in Foreign Affairs, the major foreign policy journal of the US establishment, challenging the idea that Syria’s chemical weapons (when it had them) were a threat. [2] Mueller examined the history of chemical weapons since WWI to make the point that chemical agents are misclassified as weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

According to Mueller, chemical weapons accounted for less than one percent of battle fatalities during the First World War; it took one ton of Sarin gas on average, during that conflict, to produce a single fatality; and only 2-3% of those gassed on the Western front died, compared to a fatality rate 10 to 12 times higher among those who were struck by bullets or shrapnel from conventional weapons. [3]

In their official history of WWI, the British concluded that “gas made war uncomfortable…to no purpose.” [4] Accordingly, most handsomely funded militaries with generous weapons development programs or the means to purchase highly destructive armaments were quite happy to relinquish their chemical weapons. They are ineffective and conventional arms produce far higher rates of fatalities.

But in the course of challenging the view that chemical weapons are WMD, Mueller came close to making a far more significant point, namely, that the concept of WMD is used for propaganda purposes to vastly exaggerate the threat posed by official enemies that have “weapons of little destruction.” This is done by creating the impression that the ineffective weapons in the enemy’s arsenal are weapons of great destructive power, through the pairing of weapons of little destruction, like chemical agents, with highly destructive armaments, like nuclear weapons. Two auxiliary points are necessary here: (i) These “enemies” are comparatively weak militarily, without the massively destructive conventional arms found in the arsenals of major military powers; (ii) The previous point explains the “enemies’” possession of weapons of little destruction. To exaggerate to make a point, labeling chemical weapons as WMD is like calling the spears of hunting and gathering tribes WMD in order to turn primitive people into threats.

In 1992, the term WMD was explicitly codified in US law to include not only nuclear weapons but chemical and biological weapons, as well. Then, in 1994, radiological weapons—conventional bombs used to disperse radioactive material—were added. [5] But chemical, biological and radiological weapons have nowhere near the destructive capability of nuclear weapons, to say nothing of the destructive capability of the high yield conventional explosives in the arsenals of the US and other large militaries.

So why would the United States subsume a class of highly ineffective weapons under a rubric archetypically defined by nuclear weapons?

For the same reason the British quintupled their gas casualty figures in WWI—to justify a military intervention. For the British, making gas into a uniquely inhuman weapon demonized the Germans, the major users of gas. This could be used, it was hoped, to draw the United States into the war on the side of the Triple Entente. [6]

For the United States, in 1992, investing chemical weapons with the same kind of horrific aura that nuclear weapons have, served the political purpose of making Iraq, which had chemical weapons—furnished by the United States, which condoned their use by Iraq against Iran [7]—appear to be a unique threat—one that had to be dealt with by imposing what amounted to a blockade to starve the population into submission. The blockade contributed to the deaths of hundreds of thousands, if not over a million, Iraqis—more people than could ever be killed by all of the chemical weapons in the US-supplied Iraqi arsenal—truly, sanctions of mass destruction, and far more terrible than chemical weapons.

So, WMD, applied to chemical, biological, and radiological weapons, is by design, a term of deception, whose purpose is the manipulation of public opinion to soften up attitudes to war against countries that (i) are an obstacle to US geopolitical designs and (ii) have one or more types of these weapons of little destruction.

These days, the concept of WMD as part of the propaganda system of Western states has been used against the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad. The nature of the government in Damascus, and the reason it finds itself in the cross-hairs of the West’s regime-change apparatus, can best be explained in the words of its president. “Syria,” asserts Assad, “is an independent state working for the interests of its people, rather than making the Syrian people work for the interests of the West.” [8] In other words, the Syrian government pursues Syria’s interests, not the interlocked political agendas of Washington and economic agendas of Wall St.

To demonize this obstacle to Western agendas, the charge is leveled at Damascus that it is responsible for at least one chemical weapons attack, for which no clear evidence has ever been adduced that implicates the Syrian army, and for which the use of chemical weapons would have been a transparent tactical blunder since it would have delivered to Washington a pretext to directly intervene militarily in Syria. For this reason it is highly improbable that the Syrian army was behind the attack. An additional charge, made now that Syria has abandoned its chemical weapons, is that it routinely uses chlorine gas as a weapon.

As a weapon, chlorine gas is exceedingly ineffective. It is lethal only in highly concentrated doses and where medical treatment is not immediately available. It is far less effective than conventional weapons. [9] Why, then, would the Syrian army use a highly ineffective weapon, which is deplored by world public opinion, and whose use would provide the United States a pretext to directly intervene militarily in Syria, when it has far more effective conventional weapons, which are not deplored by world public opinion, and whose use does not deliver a pretext to Washington to intervene? Unless we believe the government in Damascus is comprised of a collection of imbeciles, this makes no sense.

On the other hand, let’s look at this from the perspective of the opposition. It has a strong motive to use chlorine gas in order to pin blame for its use on the Syrian army to create a pretext for direct US military intervention. What’s more, the opposition’s major forces have a long history of using chlorine gas as a weapon.

Chlorine gas has been used by Sunni militants in Iraq for over a decade. It has been used intermittently in attacks against US and Iraqi forces and against civilians since 2003. There was a flurry of such attacks in Anbar province in 2007 as US forces were trying to wrest control of the territory from Al-Qaeda in Iraq [10], an organization from which sprang ISIS and al-Nusra, the principal militant groups in Syria today.

In light of the above, you don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to figure out who’s using chlorine gas in Syria: the forces that have a motive for their use and a history of using them. Nor do you have to be particularly perceptive (only attentive) to determine that the insinuation of US politicians and leading news media that the Syrian government is weaponizing chlorine gas is a deliberate deception, on par with Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Powell inventing a pretext for war on Iraq by concocting a deliberate fiction about Iraq concealing chemical weapons, a fabrication leading news media legitimized.

The concept of WMD provides a context in which the public is manipulated to see governments whose militaries have ineffective weapons, of a destructive capability far below that of the conventional weapons in the arsenals of major militaries, as uniquely inhuman and vastly destructive, thereby depicting these governments as dire threats and consequently as necessary targets for regime change. Syria’s relinquishing its chemical weapons stores has undercut the ability of Western governments to demonize Damascus as a user of WMD. Accordingly, the Western propaganda system, of which governments, leading news media, and leading human rights NGOs are a part, has invoked allegations of chlorine gas use by the Syrian Arab Army to bring WMD back into the picture.

But it should be made clear, first, that it is a corruption of the truth to equate weaponized chlorine gas, a weapon of little destruction, with nuclear weapons and veridical WMD; second, that the allegation that the Syrian military is deploying a weapon of little destruction when it has more effective weapons and use of chlorine gas would deliver a pretext to Washington to directly intervene militarily in Syria, strains credibility; and third, there is, not surprisingly, a complete absence of credible evidence that the Syrian army has used chlorine gas as a weapon. It is the propaganda apparatus of Western states—itself a weapon of mass deception–that advances the antitheses of these points.

1. John Mueller and Karl Mueller, “Sanctions of Mass Destruction,” Foreign Affairs, May/June 1999.

2. John Mueller, “Erase the Red Line: Why WeShouldn’t Care about Syria’s Chemical Weapons,” Foreign Affairs, April 30, 2013.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid; The radiation dispersal range is equal to the blast range. Hence, anyone exposed to radiation would be killed first by the conventional blast. Adding radioactive material, then, to a conventional bomb is pointless—like shooting someone two days after he has been beheaded.

6. Ibid.

7. Glen Kessler, “History lesson: When the United States looked the other way on chemical weapons,” The Washington Post, September 4, 2013

8. President al-Assad: Basis for any political solution for crisis in Syria is what the Syrian people want,” http://www.syriaonline.sy/?f=Details&catid=12&pageid=5835

9. Anne Barnard and Somini Sengupta, “Syria is using chemical weapons again, rescue workers say,” The New York Times, May 6, 2015.

10. Kirk Semple and Eric Schmitt, “U.S. is investigating report that Islamic state used chlorine gas,” The New York Times, October 23, 2014.

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May 20, 2015 at 1:51 am

Western Hypocrisy Going Naked in the Middle East

May 14, 2015

By Stephen Gowans

The dictator of Bahrain—who, with the help of Saudi troops and tanks, ruthlessly crushed an Arab Spring uprising that demanded a representative democracy—is spending a leisurely day, today, in Britain, one of the world’s oldest parliamentary ‘democracies’, visiting a horse show with his fellow parasite Queen Elizabeth II. Britain is neck deep in the undemocratic campaign to topple the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad, amply assisted by Saudi Arabia and other tyrannies of the Persian Gulf, who have provided arms, training and money to al-Qaeda and other Sunni religious fanatics to wage jihad against the secular, anti-sectarian, anti-imperialist, and anti-Zionist government of Assad. Assad must be toppled, the misnamed Friends of Syria aver, because he is a dictator who thwarted an Arab Spring uprising.

ParasitesSensitive to the legitimate demands inhered in the uprising, the Syrian government made major concessions, amending its constitution to open up political participation, and holding a multi-candidate presidential election, which Assad won. Is Syria a democracy? By Western standards, not yet, concedes Assad. But “if you want to compare me to your closest friend, Saudi Arabia, of course we are democratic,” Assad told a French journalist.

In response to news that traces of ricin and sarin have been found in Syria, former US ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, ever vigilant for opportunities to vilify Assad, pronounced the Syrian government guilty of hiding chemical weapons, even though UN inspectors say the discovery is not evidence of “a lingering weapons program” or “new use or production.”

“You’re dealing with a regime that is not very credible on weapons of mass destruction programs,” Ford insisted, to lend weight to his case. To be sure, his observation is incontestable, but not in connection with Syria and only insofar as it refers to the “regime” in Washington, which infamously concocted a fiction about Saddam Hussein concealing weapons of mass destruction as a pretext for war on Iraq. The accusations levelled at Syria are no less baseless, Ford’s transparently politically-inspired arguments notwithstanding.

The Bahraini king’s hobnobbing with ‘Her Majesty’ calls to mind Diderot’s observation that mankind will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest, though an updated version would need to include the rulers of the world’s currently dominant socio-political system, along with an expanded definition of priests to include mainstream journalists, think-tank experts and PR hacks, to say nothing of former US ambassadors, labouring to mislead public opinion into accepting yet another war on a country that seeks to chart its own course, free from subservience to the dictates of Washington and its political masters on Wall St..

Syria,” asserts Assad, “is an independent state working for the interests of its people, rather than making the Syrian people work for the interests of the West.” And therein is the issue. Ford, the New York Times, and other instruments of the Western ruling class, want the Syrian people to work for the interests of Western bankers, high-level corporate executives and major investors, as the Saudis, Bahrainis, and other puppet Arab monarchies do. And they’re willing to lie, deceive the public, do deals with al-Qaeda, and wage wars of aggression, to get their way. Into the Middle East they stride, their hypocrisy going naked, with the new priests scrambling desperately to drape it with pleasing raiment.

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May 14, 2015 at 4:41 pm

Posted in Syria

New York Times Complicit in Spreading False Syria Allegations

By Stephen Gowans

The New York Times ran an article on May 12 suggesting that the Syrian government has held back some of its chemical weapons and is using them against rebel fighters. Significantly, the allegation was backed by no evidence, yet the newspaper chose to run the story anyway.

In their story (“Inspectors in Syria find traces of banned military chemicals”) reporters Somini Sengupta, Marlise Simons and Anne Barnard cited a conclusion drawn by an anonymous Western diplomat who was briefed on findings by inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. The inspectors had reportedly found traces of toxic nerve agents in Syria. The diplomat was quoted as saying that there’s a “strong suspicion” that the Syrians “are retaining stockpiles which are being held back.”

However, a close reading of the article showed that there was not one whit of evidence to back up the diplomat’s suspicion. Indeed, at various points in the article, the story’s lead was challenged by the journalists themselves.

• “[S]mall amounts of banned agents [have been found. But these findings] do not necessarily indicate a lingering weapons program.”
• “[T]here was no clear evidence of new use or production of forbidden chemicals.”
• “There is no evidence that banned materials were used in weapons after Syria signed the treaty, or that Syria possesses sufficient quantities to use in future weapons.”

A fitting headline would have read “Western diplomat accuses Syrian government of hiding chemical weapons, on no evidence.”

In the same article the reporters refer to “mounting evidence that Mr. Assad’s forces had violated the terms of the international treaty banning use of chemical weapons … by dropping jerry-built chlorine bombs on insurgent-held areas.” The mounting evidence turned out to be the testimony of witnesses who say the bombs have been dropped from government helicopters.

However, the quality of the evidence is untested, and virtually useless. There’s no way to determine whether the witnesses are authentic or simply opponents of the Syrian government who have an interest in spreading false allegations.

What’s more, there’s a compelling reason to believe that Syrian forces have not engaged in the action they’re accused of. Jerry-built chlorine bombs are capable only of briefly incapacitating a few fighters. Conventional bombs—which the Syrians have in abundance—permanently eliminate many more. Why, then, would Syrian forces risk worldwide condemnation to use an ineffective weapon, when they have more effective weapons at their disposable which world opinion does not condemn?

Sensing that their source’s allegation may be treated with suspicion, the New York Times journalists acknowledge that “Evidence of chemical weapons remains a fraught issue for global public opinion more than a decade after false claims of an Iraqi chemical weapons program were used to justify the American invasion that deposed Saddam Hussein.”

No less fraught is the complicity of Western media in propagating similarly baseless allegations to serve an obvious political agenda.

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May 14, 2015 at 1:24 am

Posted in Media, Syria

Syria’s Bashar al-Assad on the West’s Quest for a Puppet State in Syria and Its Phony War on Violent Political Islam

Here are excerpts from a Russian media interview with Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

What the West wants from Syria

Assad: “U.S. demands are…to bring down the Syrian state and replace it with a client state which does their bidding.

“The West does not accept partners. It only wants satellite states. The United States does not even accept partners in the West. It wants Europe to follow the United States. They didn’t accept Russia, although it was a superpower. They didn’t accept it as a partner. Russian officials talk all the time about partnership with the West, and talk positively about the West. In return, the West does not accept Russia as a great power and as a partner on a global level. So, how could they accept a smaller state like Syria which could say no to them? When anything contradicts Syrian interests, we say no. And this is something they do not accept in the West. They asked us for a number of things in the past.

“They used to put pressure on us to abandon our rights in our land occupied by Israel. They wanted us not to support the resistance in Lebanon or Palestine which defends the rights of the Palestinian people. At a later stage, a few years before the crisis, they put pressure on Syria to distance itself from Iran. In another case, some of them wanted to use Syria’s relationship with Iran to influence the nuclear file. We have never been a part of this issue, but they wanted us to convince Iran to take steps against its national interests. We refused to do that. There were other similar things.

“That’s why they wanted in the end to make the Syrian state a satellite state which implements Western agendas in this region. We refused. Had we done these things, we would have become, as I said, a good, moderate, and democratic state. Now, they describe our state as being anti-democratic, while they have the best relations with the Saudi state which has nothing to do with democracy or elections and deprives women of their rights (emphasis added), in addition to many other things well known to the world. This is Western hypocrisy.”

Question: So, what does the West require of Syria today in order to stop arming the Syrian opposition and start the political solution?

Assad: “Simply, to be a puppet. And I’m not convinced that the West has a political solution. They do not want a political solution. When I say the West, I mean a number of countries like the United States, France, and Britain. The other countries play a secondary role. For them, the political solution is changing the state, bringing the state down and replacing it with a client state, exactly like what happened in Ukraine. As far as they are concerned, what happened in Ukraine was a political solution. But, had the former president, who was elected by the people, remained, they would have said that this president is bad, dictatorial, and kills his people. It is the same propaganda. So, the West is not interested in a political solution. They want war, and they want to change states everywhere in the world.”

On the West’s war on terrorism

Assad: “When you follow media reports on daily or weekly basis, you see that the rate of the airstrikes conducted by what they call a coalition against terrorism is sometimes less than ten strikes a day or a little more, in Syria or in Iraq, or in both Syria and Iraq. We are talking about a coalition which includes 60 countries, some of which are rich and advanced. On the other hand, the Syrian air force, which is very small in comparison to this coalition, conducts in a single day many times the number of the airstrikes conducted by a coalition which includes 60 countries.

“This shows the lack of seriousness. Maybe some of these countries do not want ISIS to grow larger than it has become in Syria and Iraq, but at the same time they don’t want to get rid of ISIS completely. They want to retain this terrorist force to be used as a threat to blackmail different countries. That’s why we say simply that there is no serious effort to fight terrorism, and what is being achieved by the Syrian forces on the ground equals in one day what is being achieved by these states in weeks. Once again, this shows that these countries are not serious, not only militarily, but politically speaking. An anti-terrorist coalition cannot consist of countries which are themselves supporters of terrorism (emphasis added.) So, there is a political side and a military side, and the two are linked to each other. The result is the same: ISIS still exists. It is struck in one place but expands in another.”

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March 27, 2015 at 4:59 pm

Posted in Syria

NATO knew its intervention in Libya would create chaos and aid al-Qaeda-aligned Islamists

March 2, 2015

Canadian military intelligence knew that NATO’s March 2011 intervention in Libya would aid militant theocratic Islamists aligned with al-Qaeda and could create long-term chaos in the country, according to David Pugliese, a reporter with The Ottawa Citizen, who obtained Canadian intelligence documents.

At the time, NATO military leader, U.S. Admiral James Stavridis, denied that opposition to the secular leftist Libyan leader Muamar Gaddafi was dominated by rightwing Islamist theocrats, calling the bulk of the opposition forces “responsible men and women.”

But Canadian intelligence was clear-eyed about the nature of the Libyan opposition.

Pugliese revealed that “A Canadian intelligence report written in late 2009 described the anti-Gadhafi stronghold of eastern Libya,” from which the uprising against Gaddafi erupted, “as an epicentre of Islamist extremism.”

And Canadian pilots joked privately that they were part of al-Qaeda’s air force, “since their bombing runs helped to pave the way for rebels aligned with the terrorist group.”

Pugliese reports that just days before NATO’s intervention in Libya,

Canadian intelligence specialists sent a briefing report shared with senior officers. ‘There is the increasing possibility that the situation in Libya will transform into a long-term tribal/civil war,’ they wrote in their March 15, 2011 assessment. ‘This is particularly probable if opposition forces receive military assistance from foreign militaries.’

Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper later denied that NATO’s intervention created the chaos that has paralyzed Libya, despite his own military’s warning that there was a good chance it would.

This reveals a dishonest attempt to manipulate public opinion through outright deception, in line with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s efforts to mobilize support for military intervention in Iran by warning in 2012 that Iran was only a year away from making a nuclear bomb when his own intelligence agency had concluded that Iran was “not performing the activity necessary to produce weapons”.

Pugliese’s report can be read here.

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March 2, 2015 at 3:03 pm

Posted in Libya

Saudis Use Leverage Over Oil Pricing To Tempt Russia To Withdraw Support For Syria

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February 2, 2015

By Stephen Gowans

The idea that market share concerns are behind Saudi Arabia’s refusal to use supply management to prop up oil prices is challenged in an article in today’s New York Times.

According to the article, the Saudis “believe that there could be ancillary diplomatic benefits to the country’s current strategy of allowing oil prices to stay low — including a chance to negotiate an exit for Mr. Assad” by encouraging Russia to withdraw its support for the embattled Syrian president in return for the Saudis allowing the price of oil to rise.

Saudi Arabia can sway oil prices significantly by cutting back or increasing production. It is the leading player in OPEC, with a fifth of the world’s oil reserves.

The Saudis reportedly “told the United States that they think they have some leverage over Mr. Putin because of their ability to reduce the supply of oil and possibly drive up prices.”

What’s left unspoken, however, is that the leverage didn’t just happen by chance, but came about because the Saudis have refused to exercise their sway, despite substantial harm to themselves.

As the article points out, “Saudi Arabia needs the price of oil to be over $100 a barrel to cover its federal spending, including a lavish budget for infrastructure projects. The current price is about $55 a barrel, and Saudi Arabia has projected a 2015 deficit of about $39 billion.”

Low oil prices mean the Saudis also have leverage over Iran and Venezuela, which, like Russia, are major oil-producers, and like Russia, are objects of enmity in Washington.

The New York Times also reported that former Al Qaeda operative, Zacarias Moussaoui, currently locked up in a US federal supermax prison, testified before a US District Court “that he was directed in 1998 or 1999 by Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan to create a digital database of donors to the group. Among those he said he recalled listing in the database” were three members of the Saudi royal family:

• Prince Turki al-Faisal, then the Saudi intelligence chief;
• Prince Bandar Bin Sultan, the longtime Saudi ambassador to the United States;
• Prince al-Waleed bin Talal, a prominent billionaire investor.

Saudi sources have long been credited with funding the violent fundamentalist Muslim group, but until now news reports have suggested that the funding has come from Saudi civil society, and not the state.

The Saudi royal family, has, throughout its history, been deeply involved in projects to advance British and US foreign policy goals, in return for arms, diplomatic support, and protection of the family’s power and privileges as unelected leaders of the country.

One service the Saudis have provided to the West has been to export Islamist extremism to counter nationalism and socialist and communist movements in the Arab and Muslim worlds.

Another service has been to use oil supply management to intervene in energy markets to facilitate US foreign policy objectives.

For example, The Wall Street Journal pointed out in December that, “During the 1980s, the Reagan administration credited the Saudis with maintaining high oil production to drive down prices and weaken the Soviet Union’s finances.” And “President Barack Obama ’s administration has worked closely with Saudi Arabia to try using energy markets to pressure Iran into constraining its nuclear program, according to U.S. and Saudi officials.”

The newspaper also reported that “U.S. and Arab officials have privately gushed” that the Saudi-assisted price decline is giving Washington greater leverage over Tehran, Moscow and Caracas.

Written by what's left

February 4, 2015 at 7:19 pm

Posted in Saudi Arabia, Syria

South Korea’s Police State Wages War on Proponents of Democracy

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By Stephen Gowans

The South Korean police state has cracked down, with varying degrees of intensity over the years, on virtually any public expression of leftism, including anti-capitalism, anti-colonialism, and anti-imperialism. Some degree of intolerance of leftist dissent is emblematic of all states in capitalist societies. Even in liberal democratic societies, which are believed to tolerate dissent to a higher degree than other societies, the security services have had a long history of surveillance “on the side of the political/economic status quo” and against those “who challenge the powerful and the wealthy.” The history of the political police in such societies is one of “conservatism” where “the targets of state surveillance form a kind of roster of (working class) radicalism” and where those who pursue the class war from the bottom up have been seen as subverting “the proper political and economic order” and therefore are deemed legitimate subjects for surveillance and disruption. This is “an activist conservatism on behalf of capital against its perceived enemies.” [1]

South Korea’s police state differs from that of other liberal democracies in degree only, the difference due to its daily confrontation with a state, parked on its northern borders, which embodies leftism, and which, in its official ideology of self-reliance and rejection of foreign domination—to say nothing of its existing as one of the few top-to-bottom alternatives to capitalism—acts as an inspiration to many South Koreans. It’s virtually impossible to be committed to anti-imperialism and convinced there’s a better alternative to capitalism without espousing values which significantly overlap those of the North Korean state. Consequently, it’s virtually impossible for anyone in South Korea who embraces any kind of serious leftism not to be accused of being a North Korean fellow-traveller—someone who sympathizes with many of North Korea’s aims and values, without having a formal connection to it.

Consider the platform of the Unified Progressive Party (UPP), a leftwing party founded in 2011, which has recently been disbanded by South Korea’s Constitutional Court on grounds that it was intent on pursuing “North Korea-style socialism.” The party sought an end to the US military presence in South Korea (as does Pyongyang), advocated an end to South Korea’s subordinate relationship to the United States (paralleling North Korea’s rejection of foreign domination) and wanted to end the artificial division of the peninsula authored by two US colonels, Dean Rusk and Charles Bondsteel, in 1945, with Soviet compliance (this is also a North Korean goal.) The party talked of “rectifying” Korea’s “shameful history tainted by imperialist invasions, the national divide, military dictatorship, the tyranny and plunder of transnational monopoly capital” and large South Korean conglomerates. [2]

The UPP leader Lee Jung-hee averred that the party rejected North Korea’s political model. Had it not, she told the Constitutional Court, the UPP could never fulfill its ambition to be a mass party since, in her view, South Koreans would never accept North Korean-style socialism. All the same, one would be hard-pressed to argue that the UPP, or at least many of its members, could not be categorized as fellow-travelers of North Korea. And to be guileless about it, it seems very likely that in the event of an outbreak of war with North Korea that some proportion of the UPP membership would have acted as a fifth column—at least, that’s how the South Korean state is likely to have perceived matters, as would any other state—and have states in the past—which share a border with an ideological and military enemy. We can expect that as tensions between the two states heightened, that Seoul’s concern about the dangers of fifth columnists heightened in train. Potential fifth columnists (though not so named) were widely denounced as “jongbuk,” a derogatory term denoting blind followers of North Korea, who conservatives believe are infiltrating South Korean society and spreading subversive ideas challenging the merits of capitalism and South Korea’s subordinate relationship with the United States. [3]

To be understood, the South Korean police state must be situated in the context of South Korea’s relationship with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK, North Korea’s official name. The DPRK has long been vilified and condemned by the Western news media as bellicose, provocative and unpredictable. But blow away the fog of enduring Cold War propaganda and it’s clear that the DPRK represents something praiseworthy: a tradition of struggle against oppression and foreign domination, rooted in the experience of a majority of Koreans dating back to the end of WWII and the period of Japanese colonial rule. This tradition found expression in the Korean People’s Republic, a national government, created by, for, and of Koreans, that was already in place when US troops landed at Inchon in September, 1945. The new government was comprised of leftists who had won the backing of the majority of Koreans, partly because they had led the struggle against Japan’s colonial occupation, and partly because they promised relief from exploitation by landlords and the Japanese. The USSR, which occupied the north of the country until 1948, worked with the KPR in its occupation zone, but the United States suppressed the KPR in the south, worked to exterminate leftist forces in its zone—which included a significant guerrilla movement under the banner of the People’s Army—and backed conservatives reviled by Koreans for their collaboration with the Japanese. By 1948, the peninsula was divided between a northern government led by guerrillas and activists who fought to liberate Korea from Japanese rule, and a southern government led by a US-installed anti-communist backed by conservatives and landowners tainted by collaboration with the Japanese.

For the next nearly seven decades, the essential character of the competing regimes has remained the same. Park Geun-hye, the current South Korean president is the daughter of a former military dictator, Park Chung-hee, who came to power in a 1961 coup. As a young man Park Chung-hee joined the Japanese military, training at an officers’ school in Japan. He later joined the Kwantung Army, a unit of the Japanese Imperial Army, which enforced Japanese hegemony over Manchuria. Historian Bruce Cumings notes that a biography of Park “subsidized by his supporters (showed) how proud (Park) was to get a gold watch from Emperor Hirohito as a reward for his services, which may have included tracking down Korean guerrillas who resisted the Japanese.” [4] Significantly, it was the very same Korean guerrillas, among them, Kim Il-sung, who founded North Korea, who Park may have been involved in trying to hunt down. Kim Il-sung, grandfather of the DPRK’s current leader, Kim Jong-un, carried out significant guerrilla warfare against the Japanese in Manchuria. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also has a familial connection to Manchuria. Abe is the grandson of Nobusuki Kishi, a former prime minister who was a member of Tojo’s wartime cabinet and chief industrial planner in Japanese-occupied Manchuria. An historical continuity is thus evidenced in the current leaders of North Korea, South Korea, and Japan, being direct descendants of men involved in the struggle over Manchuria—Park’s father and Abe’s grandfather on the side of colonial oppression—Kim’s grandfather on the side of liberation.

Indeed, the DPRK represents the traditions of struggle against foreign domination, both political and economic, while South Korea represents the tradition of submission to and collaboration with a foreign hegemon. Significantly, there are no foreign troops stationed in the DPRK, but are in South Korea. DPR Korean troops have never fought abroad, but South Korea’s have, odiously in Vietnam, in return for infusions of mercenary lucre from the United States, and later in Iraq. That South Korea’s conservatives are steeped in a tradition of subservience to foreign domination is evidenced by the views of Moon Chang-keuk, a widely known South Korean newspaper columnist who was nominated by President Park Geun-hye to be her prime minister, but whose nomination was later withdrawn. Moon gave a lecture in 2011 at a Seoul church, in which he described Japan’s colonization of Korea as “God’s will” and a “necessary hardship.” He went on to blame Koreans for “laziness, lack of independence and a tendency to depend on others”—these being qualities he viewed as inhered in Koreans’ “national DNA.” It was necessary, too, that the Americans bisect the peninsula, Moon added, otherwise Korea would have been “communized…given the way we were then.” [5] Historians tend to agree that if Koreans had not been interfered with and left to their own devices they would have freely chosen communism. Moon obviously regards this as an outcome that was fortunately avoided, and would seem to view US intervention in 1945, the US-led war to exterminate the left in the immediate post-war period, and the war with North Korea from 1950 to 1953, as necessary to rescue Koreans from themselves.

As regards repression, South Korea’s authoritarianism on behalf of rightist causes is long and enduring. Its centerpiece is the notorious National Security Law (NSL), a piece of vile anti-leftist legislation created in 1948 officially to criminalize communism and recognition of North Korea and to unofficially suppress leftists. Criticized by Amnesty International [6], Human Rights Watch [7], and the UN [8], the NSL has been variously used to lock up South Koreans “for acts ranging from praising North Korea in casual conversation to running as an opposition candidate in presidential elections.” [9]

South Koreans have run afoul of the NSL for making comments that were construed as supportive of the DPRK, setting up web sites with pro-North Korean content, calling for the establishment of a socialist state, discussing alternatives to capitalism in public forums, re-tweeting messages from North Korea’s Twitter account, possessing books published in the DPRK, listening to radio broadcasts from North Korea, and visiting the DPRK without Seoul’s permission. Other sins against the NSL have included criticizing the official government inquiry into the sinking of the South Korean warship the Cheonan (blamed on North Korea by South Korean authorities), [10] and promoting reconciliation between the South and North.

In the 1970s, the poet Kim Chi-ha was jailed under the NSL because his poems advocated “class division.” In 1976, South Koreans who signed a declaration commemorating an uprising against Japanese rule were imprisoned, courtesy of the NSL. In 1987, a publisher was arrested for distributing travel essays written by Korean-Americans who were reputed to be sympathetic to North Korea. The NSL has been used to jail university students for forming study groups to examine North Korean ideology. In 1989, the South Korean police state arrested an average of 3.3 citizens per day for infractions of the NSL. In the first half of 1998, more than 400 were arrested under NSL provisions for demonstrating against unemployment. In 2001, sociology professor Kang Jeong-koo was jailed on his return to South Korea for visiting the birthplace of Kim Il-sung while on a visit to the DPRK. [11]

A 53 year old was acquitted 30 years after being arrested for violating the NSL. He was convicted of having in his possession “printed matter aiding the enemy.” The offending printed material included E.H. Carr’s The Russian Revolution, Maurice Dobb’s Capitalism Yesterday and Today, Eric Fromm’s Socialist Humanism, and Paul Sweezy’s Theory of Capitalist Development. [12] In 2007, Kim Myung-soo was locked up in a jail cell so small “he could spread his arms and touch the facing walls.” His crime: aiding the enemy by operating a Web site that sold Edgar Snow’s Red Star over China, a biography of Karl Marx, and other titles deemed to be pro-North Korean. [13]

In 2008, members off the South Korean military were banned from reading Ha-Joon Chang’s Bad Samaritans: The Secret History of Capitalism (Chang is no Marxist, just critical of capitalism), Noam Chomsky’s Year 501: The Conquest Continues, and Hyeon Gi-yeong’s novel A Spoon of the Earth, all of which have been labelled as subversive books under an order banning pro-North Korea, anti-capitalist, and anti-US publications. [14]

And if the South Korean police state suppresses books, it no less vigorously wipes out online content it doesn’t want South Koreans to see. “When a computer user in South Korea clicks on an item on the North Korean Twitter account, a government warning against ‘illegal content’ content pops up.” [15] In 2011, South Korean authorities blocked over 53,000 internet posts for infractions which included having a kind word to say about North Korea. [16] In the same year, the South Korean police state deleted over 67,000 Web posts that were deemed favorable to North Korea or which criticized the US or South Korean government. Over 14,000 posts were deleted in 2009. [17]

So militantly anti-leftist is South Korea that “a brand of crayon called Picasso was once banned because of the artist’s Communists associations.” [18] Equally absurd, at one time the South Korean police state would splotch black ink over any photographs of Kim Il-sung that appeared in international magazines, to prevent South Koreans from seeing the face of the reviled leftist. [19]

If that wasn’t enough, South Korea’s police state bona fides go way beyond the NSL. The National Intelligence Service—established to spy on North Korea–has illegally “run an extensive operation of bugging the telephones of politicians, businessmen, journalists, and others.” [20] In 2012, NIS agents “posted more than 1.2 million messages on Twitter and other forums in a bid to sway public opinion in favor of the conservative governing party and its leader” Park Geun-hee, in the lead-up to presidential and parliamentary elections in 2012. [21] The messages NIS agents posted anonymously included praise for government policies, as well as denunciations of Park’s rivals as “servants” of North Korea. The NIS defended its actions, saying the posts were part of a campaign of psychological warfare against North Korea. South Korea’s Cyberwarfare Command, a unit of the military created to guard against hacking threats from North Korea, joined in the campaign of online slander of Park’s opponents. [22]

The vigor with which the South Korean police state acts to snuff out expressions of leftism has increased under the last two administrations, led by Lee Myung-bak, who had been chairman and chief executive officer of Hyundai, one of South Korea’s largest corporations, and Park Geun-hye, the daughter of a dictator and Japanese Imperial Army officer. In August 2011, Prosecutor General Han Sang-dae “declared ‘a war against fellow-travelling pro-north Korean left-wing elements,’ and said, ‘We must punish and remove them.’” [23]

South Korea’s police state has lived up to Han’s promise, recently disbanding the left-wing UPP, stripping its legislators of their parliamentary seats, and jailing a handful of its members, including the lawmaker Lee Seok-ki. Lee was convicted of violating the NSL. His offenses include singing the Song of the Red Flag at a gathering of party members and calling Korea “Chosun,” the country’s last official name before colonization by Japan. North Korea resurrected the name, while South Korea has adopted a new name. Ever since, the use of Chosun in South Korea has become associated with sympathy for North Korea. [24] Conservatives, even liberals, have vociferously criticized “jongbuk,” or followers of North Korea, accusing them of spreading “subversive” ideas and worming their way into positions of influence in South Korean society. In Lee’s view, “a problem far bigger than ‘jongbuk’ is ‘jongmi’—blindly following the United States.” [25] Lee was also accused of calling, at a closed meeting, for the sabotage of South Korean infrastructure in the event of war with North Korea. He was convicted of inciting an insurrection. He’s now serving a nine-year jail term.

While Lee’s case was before the courts, the Park government referred the UPP to the South Korean Constitutional Court, asking for the party’s disbandment on grounds that its program mirrored the aims and values of North Korea. The government called the UPP’s commitment to “overcoming foreign domination and dissolving South Korea’s dependence on the alliance with the US,” as well as its defining South Korea as a “not a society where the workers are master, but the reverse, where a privileged few act as masters,” as “identical to the argument coming from Pyongyang.” [26] The court accepted the government’s brief, ruling that the UPP sought to undermine South Korea’s liberal democracy and pursue North Korea-style socialism. This has provided a basis for a further crackdown on leftism, by defining by implication each and every one of the 100,000 members of the disbanded UPP as an anti-state activist. If they belonged to an officially designated anti-state organization, they must carry the taint of anti-state activity, the reasoning goes.

The banning of the UPP and jailing of Lee Seok-ki can be called the death of democracy in South Korea, but South Korea has never been a democracy, not in any substantive sense, not even when it abandoned open dictatorship and adopted a procedural democracy. Democracy can be construed as a set of procedures (voting, political parties, secret ballots, universal suffrage and so on) or as a type of society. “Democracy” in the second sense is more meaningful. We think of democratic societies as operating in the interests of, and on behalf of, the bulk of the people who make them up. And indeed, this has always been how the word democracy has been understood. Democratic societies reflect and promote mass interests. In contrast, societies that exist to serve the interests of a tiny elite at the apex of society, or of foreign masters, or both, can hardly be said to be democratic, even if they have elections, secret ballots, and so on. South Korea fails the test. It is dominated by a few large conglomerates. “The sales of Korea’s ten largest companies are equal to about 80% of Korea’s GDP.” [27] And few deny that South Korea is locked in a subordinate relationship with the United States, which maintains a significant military presence in the country, and has wartime command of South Korean forces. How can a society dominated by a business elite at home and the United States from abroad be a democracy?

As for the designation of South Korea as a “liberal” democracy, it should be recalled that liberalism represents the conditions necessary for the functioning of a capitalist society, not for the flowering of left-wing dissent and efflorescence of workers’ movements and parties. Historically, “liberal” democracies have not been particularly liberal for anyone but the dominant class. The United States, supposedly a model of liberal democracy, maintained slavery for the first 89 years of its existence. “The self-styled champions of liberty branded taxation imposed without their consent as synonymous with despotism and slavery. But they had no scruples about exercising the most absolute and arbitrary power over the slaves.” [28] So too today, champions of liberal democracy may worry about the liberty to exploit labor, but care not one whit about freedom from exploitation. Even after slavery’s abolition in the United States, it took decades—and the Soviet Union pointing to the United States’ deplorable treatment of its black citizens—to goad the United States to fully recognize the civil and political liberties of the descendants of the slaves. As for leftist movements, the United States accommodated them only insofar as was necessary to co-opt them, and otherwise undertook various campaigns of anti-leftist suppression, which waxed and waned, depending on the need to mobilize for war and confront an external enemy.

Indeed, the history of police state suppression of the left is really not much different between the United States and South Korea. The only difference lies in the degree of threat posed by the left to the established order—mostly unremitting in South Korea and only occasional in the United States; accordingly, the United States appears to be the more liberal society, but is only freer when it’s not facing a perceived threat of significance from the left, or, these days, from the efforts of jihadists to end US domination of their homelands. The latter, it will be acknowledged, has spurred multiple efforts to scale back civil liberties.

Under the presidencies of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, both liberals—and Kim, himself a victim of the NSL—the South Korean police state’s war on the left was throttled back. All the same, the NSL remained on the books, and leftists continued to be arrested for NSL-violations, though in more modest numbers. Liberals may have reduced the vigor of the war on leftism, but never called it off.

Rather than being the death of democracy, the suppression of the UPP, the jailing of a handful of its members, and efforts to intimidate its former members by threatening to designate them as anti-state activists, represent attempts to abort efforts to bring a real democracy to life in South Korea. Perhaps, it is the North Koreans themselves, watching from across the 38th parallel, who have summed up the eruption of anti-leftism centered on the UPP most aptly. “It is a political coup d’état aimed at stamping out the progressive forces desirous of independence, democracy and peaceful reunification” [29].

1. Reg Whitaker, Gregory S. Kealey, and Andrew Parnaby. Secret Service: Political Policing in Canada from the Fenians to Fortress America. University of Toronto Press. 2012.

2. Choe Sang-hun, “Leftist leaders accused of trying to overthrow South Korean government,” The New York Times, August 28, 2013.

3. Choe Sang-hun, “Leftist leader accused of trying to overthrow South Korean government,” The New York Times, August 28, 2013.

4. Bruce Cumings. Korea’s Place in the Sun.: A Modern History. W.W. Norton & Company. 2005. p. 355.

5. Choe Sang-hun, “Nominee for South Korean premier exits over colonization remark,” The New York Times, June 24, 2014.

6. Amnesty International recommends that “South Korea abolish or substantially amend the NSL in line with the country’s international human rights obligations and commitments.” “The National Security Law: Curtailing freedom of expression, and association in the name of security in the Republic of Korea,” 2012.

7. Human Rights Watch says that “The law clearly violates South Korea’s international human-rights obligations” KaySeok, “South Korea: Abolish or Fix National Security Law,” Joongang Daily, September 17, 2010.

8. “National Security Law again being used in communist witch hunts,” The Hankyoreh, January 13, 2015.

9. Diane Kraft, “South Korea’s National Security Law: A tool of oppression in an insecure world,” Wisconsin International Law Journal, 2006, Vol. 4, No 2.

10. “Police crack down on Cheonan rumors,” The Korea Herald, May 24, 2010.

11. Kraft.

12. “Man acquitted, 30 years later for ‘subversive books’ on capitalism and revolution,” The Hankyoreh, November 26, 2014.

13. Choe Sang-hun, “South Korean law casts wide net, snarling satirists in hunt for spies,” The New York Times, January 7, 2012.

14. “Military expands book blacklist,” The Hankyoreh, July 31, 2008.

15. Choe Sang-hun, “North Korean takes to Twitter and YouTube,” The New York Times, August 17, 2010.

16. Choe Sang-hun, “Korea policing the Net. Twist? It’s south Korea,” The New York Times, August 12, 2012.

17. Choe Sang-hun, “South Korean indicated over Twitter posts from North,” The New York times, February 2, 2012.

18. Choe Sang-hun, “An artist is rebuked for casting South Korea’s leader in an unflattering light,” The New York Times, August 30, 2014.

19. Bruce Cumings. Korea’s Place in the Sun.: A Modern History. W.W. Norton & Company. 2005. p. 365.

20. Choe Sang-hun, “Prosecutors raid South Korean spy agency in presidential election inquiry,” The New York Times, April 30, 2013.

21. Choe Sang-hun, “Former South Korean spy chief convicted in online campaign against liberals,” The New York Times, September 11, 2014.

22. Choe Sang-hun, “Former South Korean spy chief convicted in online campaign against liberals,” The New York Times, September 11, 2014.

23. Choe Sang-hun, “South Korean law casts wide net, snarling satirists in hunt for spies,” The New York Times, January 7, 2012.)

24. “South Korea Police State: National Intelligence Service (NIS) Arrests Rep. Lee Seok-ki: Did ROK Lawmaker Really Try to Overthrow the Government?” Global Research News, October 1, 2013.

25. Choe Sang-hun, “Leftist leader accused of trying to overthrow South Korean government,” The New York Times, August 28, 2013.

26. Jamie Doucette and Se-Woong Koo, “Distorting Democracy: Politics by Public Security in Contemporary South Korea [UPDATE]”, The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus, February 20, 2014.

27. Kwon Eun-jung, “Top 10 chaebol now almost 80% of Korean economy,” The Hankyoreh, August 28, 2012.

28. Domineco Losurdo. Liberalism: A Counter-History. Verso. 2011. p. 10.

29. “Park Geun Hye Branded as ‘Yusin’ Dictator, KCNA, December 26, 2014.

Written by what's left

January 27, 2015 at 12:59 am

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