By Stephen Gowans
The Bush administration removed north Korea last year from its list of states deemed to support international terrorism. Washington placed north Korea on the list in 1988, when it claimed the country’s “agents were implicated in the bombing of a South Korean airliner that killed 115 people.” (1) The US agreed to remove north Korea from the list as part of a deal that saw Pyongyang begin to dismantle its nuclear facilities.
Yesterday, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Washington will consider reinstating north Korea to the list “as the Obama administration looks for ways to ratchet up pressure on Pyongyang after recent nuclear and missile tests.” (2)
“’We’re going to look at it’,” Clinton said on ABC’s ‘This Week’ when asked about a letter last week from Republican senators demanding that North Korea be put back on the list. ‘There’s a process for it. Obviously we would want to see recent evidence of their support for international terrorism.’” (3)
In other words, Washington has no evidence of north Korean support for international terrorism and no legitimate reason to restore north Korea to the list. But the Obama administration needs to find “ways to ratchet up pressure on Pyongyang,” and re-listing north Korea seems to fit the bill.
But how much additional pressure will re-listing north Korea create?
Last summer, The Los Angeles Times noted that Washington’s removal of north Korea from the list would “have little practical effect…given the raft of economic sanctions currently in force against Pyongyang.” It went on to point out that then US president George W. Bush said the move would have “’little impact on North Korea’s financial and diplomatic isolation’ and that sanctions related to human rights violations, past nuclear testing and weapons proliferation would remain.” (4)
“North Korea is the most sanctioned nation in the world,” Bush said, “and will remain the most sanctioned nation in the world.” (5)
Bush’s promises made two things plain: (a) north Korea’s removal from the list was largely symbolic and (b) the US had no intention of normalizing its relations with north Korea, despite the deal it had struck with Pyongyang at the six party talks promising to do just that.
Indeed, it could be said that Washington agreed to remove north Korea from the list precisely because the move was symbolic and would not, therefore, weaken US efforts to topple the Communist government in Pyongyang. North Korea would remain the most sanctioned country on earth, whether it dismantled its nuclear capabilities or not.
So, if Washington’s removal of north Korea from the terrorism list was symbolic, then re-instating north Korea to the list must also be symbolic, and therefore hardly a means of ratcheting up real pressure.
Instead, the move seems to have everything to do with reinforcing the recent steps taken to return north Korea to its accustomed role as bogeyman of US foreign policy, a role it occupies rhetorically for reasons related to its supposed belligerence and in reality for its challenging US hegemony, interfering with US geopolitical aspirations, and denying the US a clear sphere of investment and export opportunity on the northern half of the Korean peninsula. Demonizing north Korea allows Washington to mobilize public opinion to support whatever non-symbolic measures it deems necessary to truly ratchet up pressure.
Clinton’s looking to see whether “there’s recent evidence of (north Korea’s) support for international terrorism” is the Obama administration’s equivalent of Dick Cheney looking to see whether there was evidence of Baghdad hiding weapons of mass destruction and forging ties to al Qaeda. The point is not to formulate foreign policy to accommodate the facts, but to accommodate the facts to a pre-determined foreign policy.
There can be little doubt that if Washington sets out to find “evidence” of north Korea supporting international terrorism, it will find something, no matter how flimsy, to satisfy its demand. Given Washington and the Western media’s transformation of north Korea into a looming threat from its reality as an impoverished country that has been beleaguered by embargo and continually harassed by the United States for over fifty years, there is little doubt that whatever contrived evidence Washington discovers will be seized upon as further evidence of the need to ratchet up the pressure.
1. Peter Finn, “US to weigh returning North Korea to terror list,” The Washington Post, June 9, 2009.
4. Los Angeles Times, June 27, 2008.
5. The New York Times, July 6, 2008.