Affinity for Autocrats or National Independence?
By Stephen Gowans
“Turning the threatened into the aggressor: Media distortions in coverage of north Korea’s nuclear test,” posted here on May 31, 2009, was published by the Zimbabwe newspaper The Herald in two installments a few days later. In a reference to the article, a June 12, 2009 New York Times report by Celia W. Dugger notes that “The Herald published a two-part defense of North Korea’s nuclear tests.” Dugger cites this as an example of Zimbabwe’s president Robert Mugabe flaunting “his affinity for autocrats.” Mugabe, Dugger writes, “still controls” the Herald, which is state-owned. Dugger also points to Mugabe’s welcoming “Sudan’s president Omar Hassan al-Bashir, charged with war crimes by the International Criminal Court, to a summit meeting attended by African heads of state” as a further example of Mugabe’s “affinity for autocrats.”
“Turning the threatened into the aggressor” points out that the behavior of the north Korean government can be understood as a response to the United States, Japan and south Korea taking a more confrontational approach to their dealings with Pyongyang, and not to an inherent belligerence on the part of north Korea or a desire to extort rewards. Confrontation has been Washington’s standard operating procedure from the moment the Workers’ Party – the governing party in north Korea — was formed in 1948, but the degree of confrontation has varied with the circumstances. In the early 1990s, with the Soviet Union’s collapse depriving the Pentagon of its principal bogeyman, then top general Colin Powell complained he was down to just two targets: Fidel Castro and north Korea’s founder Kim Il Sung, who, at the time, was still alive. With the Soviet Union being succeeded by a prostrate Russia returned to capitalism, the United States retargeted some of its strategic nuclear weapons on a then non-nuclear north Korea. When north Korea withdrew from the nuclear non-proliferation treaty in protest, signaling its intention to build its own nuclear weapons if it was going to face the threat of nuclear annihilation by the United States, Washington was forced to try to arrive at an accommodation. This it did when the Clinton administration negotiated the Agreed Framework, which saw north Korea shut down its plutonium reactor, which could be readily used to produce fuel for nuclear weapons, in exchange for fuel oil to tide it over until two light water reactors could be built to supply its energy needs. Pyongyang stuck to its end of the deal – despite the US delaying promised fuel oil shipments and tarrying on building the light-water reactors – until the Bush administration ripped up the agreement, accusing north Korea of operating a secret uranium enrichment program. A subsequent deal worked out during the so-called six party talks collapsed, largely because the Bush administration was divided over whether to work toward an accommodation or to pressure north Korea through threats and sanctions into collapse. North Korea eventually gave up on the deal when Washington signaled its refusal to normalize relations and demanded an intrusive verification protocol.
Bullying north Korea, the strategy that eventually gained the upper hand under Bush, and continues to be the favored strategy under Obama, was bound to produce only two outcomes: either the government in Pyongyang would capitulate or north Korea would restart its nuclear program. The north Korean government didn’t collapse, and missile launches and a nuclear test were carried out instead.
The magazine Foreign Policy, which reflects the position of the US foreign policy establishment, echoes the point. Asking whether the next north Korean leadership will give up the country’s nuclear weapons, Jennifer Lind, a professor of government at Dartmouth College, provides the answer by inviting readers to perform a thought experiment. Put yourself in the north Korean leadership’s shoes.
“Bristling enemies surround you. To the south is a country with double your population and 20 times your GDP. The southern neighbor has spent the past six decades preparing its large army to annihilate yours. In stark contrast to your army, its healthy young men and women train regularly. (Your hungry soldiers can’t train for want of fuel; they spend all of their time fixing roads or bribing officials for smuggling opportunities.) The enemy boasts state-of-the-art weapons technology. (You can’t find spare parts for your 1950s relics.)
“Oh, and that country has a friend. It’s the global superpower, a country of such vast economic might that your GDP is just a rounding error in comparison. Your people never go a day without thinking about how that country, 60 years ago, burned yours to the ground in an incendiary bombing campaign. Its people have absently labeled that episode “the forgotten war.” Today, that country has more military power than the rest of the world combined, and a large nuclear arsenal trained on your palace.
“The superpower recently overran not one but two countries (that lacked nuclear weapons) and is batting around the idea of attacking another (that lacks nuclear weapons). You watched when the superpower conquered Iraq without breaking a sweat and briskly put bullet holes through the leaders’ sons. Your eyes widened when the superpower dragged a grizzled Saddam Hussein blinking out of a rat-hole, put him in an orange jumpsuit, and then hung him brokenly from a gallows.” (1)
My article may not have painted US foreign policy as the expression of benign intent The New York Times painstakingly constructs every day in the pages of its newspaper, but exploring the surrounding events that have conditioned north Korea’s nuclear tests hardly amounts to expressing an affinity for autocrats. It does, however, signal an affinity for national independence and those willing to fight to protect it.
At the same time, Mugabe’s welcoming Sudan’s president to a summit meeting of African heads of state is not an expression of affinity for autocrats, either. It is, more likely, an expression of solidarity with a leader who has been targeted by an illegitimate court. While Dugger may regard the court as valid, even though her own country does not (it refuses to sign on to it), it has little legitimacy elsewhere, and even less in Africa, where it is seen correctly as a tool for bullying weaker countries by superpowers who will never be targeted by the court’s prosecutors, not because they haven’t committed grave crimes that fall under the court’s jurisdiction, but because they exercise enormous influence over the court and can block its investigations. For the ICC, justice is a spiderweb: the weak get caught in it and the great powers, which created and preside over it, lurk in the shadows, ready to pounce on prized delicacies that stumble into it.
“By October 2007, the ICC prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, had received 2,889 communications about alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity in at least 139 countries, and yet by March 2009, the prosecutor had opened investigations into just four cases: Uganda, DRCongo, the Central African Republic, and Sudan/Darfur. All of them in Africa. Thirteen public warrants of arrest have been issued, all against Africans.” (2)
The court, which is supposed to deal with four groups of crimes — genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and crimes of aggression (and not just in Africa) – has been conspicuously silent on Israel’s January assault on the Gaza Strip, and on the humanitarian crisis touched off by Washington’s and London’s war of aggression on Iraq. No surprise. As Robin Cook, then British foreign secretary, explained, “If I may say so, this is not a court set up to bring to book prime ministers of the United Kingdom or presidents of the United States.” (3) It is, on the contrary, a court to target Africans who refuse to be controlled and dominated by the West. As author John Laughland summed it up, the ICC is “just another excuse for superpower bullying.” (4)
The Herald’s publishing of my article tracing Pyongyang’s nuclear tests to north Korea’s fierce commitment to independence, and Mugabe’s welcoming of Bashir, are not expressions of an affinity for autocrats, but for the fight for national independence. It is fitting that Zimbabwe, whose heroes took up arms to achieve independence from white colonial rule, and which has struggled to invest its political independence with substantive economic content, would express an affinity with fraternal countries whose peoples continue to fight for meaningful national independence in the face of Western military threats, sanctions and politically-inspired international courts.
1. Jennifer Lind, “Next of Kim,” Foreign Policy (Web exclusive), June 2009.
2. “Selective Justice,” The New African, No. 484, May 2009.
3. Millius Palayiwa, “What’s the ICC up to?” The New African, No. 484, May 2009.
4. The Times (London), August 29, 2000.