what's left

Iran’s acknowledged nuclear fuel plant and Israel’s secret nuclear weapons plant

Posted in Iran, Israel, Nuclear proliferation, The New York Times by what's left on September 28, 2009

By Stephen Gowans

Western press accounts of the existence of an unfinished Iranian nuclear fuel plant near Qum have subtly changed, drawing closer to a view more compatible with Washington’s aim of marshalling support for stepped up sanctions against Iran.

While early press reports acknowledged that Iran had on Monday, September 22 notified the International Atomic Energy Agency of the plant’s existence [1] (that is, days before the Obama administration drew attention to it) stories in major dailies now omit any mention of the Iranian notification. Instead, the reporting on the issue now creates the impression that the existence of the facility was unknown outside of Iran until US officials revealed it on Friday, September 26. For example, New York Times reporters David E. Sanger and William J. Broad write of “the revelation Friday of the secret facility at a military base near the holy city of Qum.” [2] The facility could hardly be secret, since it existence had been revealed by Iran itself five days earlier.

U.S. media have also omitted any mention of a secret nuclear weapons plant in another West Asian country, Israel.

Israel’s secret nuclear weapons plant, long in existence, is located in the Negev desert near Dimona. [3] I.A.E.A inspectors have never visited it and never will unless Israel becomes a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, a treaty Iran has voluntarily submitted to. (While the United States is a nominal signatory, it acts as if it’s not bound by the treaty’s provisions, and therefore is effectively no more a member than Israel is.)

Neither are Israel and the United States members of the International Criminal Court (sharing non-membership with Russia and China.) I.C.C. non-membership, however, doesn’t mean the court can’t pursue prosecutions in connection with non-member states. It can, if ordered to by the U.N. Security Council (i.e., by the United States, Russia and China, the same countries that won’t join the court themselves.) The Security Council ordered the I.C.C. to investigate crimes committed in connection with fighting in Darfur. That’s why the president of Sudan is wanted by the I.C.C., even though Sudan isn’t a member of the court. Washington’s de jure and de facto power to veto the Security Council (the overwhelming strength of the U.S. military pretty much allows the United States to operate by its own rules) are ultimately the reasons why the former president of the United States, George W. Bush, isn’t wanted by the court and not because Bush is free of the taint of massive war crimes. It only matters that you commit crimes if you aren’t the United States or don’t have its backing. And even then not having Washington’s backing is frequently all that matters. After all, Iraq was attacked, invaded, and occupied even though it wasn’t concealing the banned weapons Washington said it was failing to come clean on.

When the U.N. Human Rights Commission’s fact-finding mission on war crimes committed in Gaza from December 2008 to January 2009 said Israel should carry out serious, independent investigations, and if it didn’t, the Security Council should refer the matter to the I.C.C., [4] Israel immediately rejected the demand. Not widely reported was that the United States said there was no chance it would allow the Security Council to refer the matter to the I.C.C., arguing the U.N. report was “unbalanced.” U.S. officials noted that 85 percent of the commission’s report detailed Israeli war crimes, and only 15 percent those committed by Hamas. [5] But the “imbalance” reflected the imbalance in the struggle, with Israel using its formidable war machine to cause considerable civilian death, injury and destruction, while Hamas fired crude, home-made rockets whose effect was hardly registered. If the report was mostly about Israeli war crimes, it was because Israel committed most the war crimes.

Owing to the protection it receives from Washington, Israel won’t be answering to the I.C.C., and nor will it be sanctioned for failing to sign up to the non-proliferation treaty or for having a secret nuclear weapons program. These penalties are solely reserved for countries that are resisting U.S. domination, not facilitating its extension, the role Israel plays as U.S. attack dog in West Asia and northern Africa.

Israel already has an attack on another country’s nuclear facilities under its belt (the 1981 bombing of Iraq’s Osirak reactor.) Over the last year it has issued a series of military threats against Iran’s civilian nuclear facilities. That is, a nuclear weapons state has repeatedly threatened a non-nuclear weapons state. And yet Iran not Israel is presented in the Western media as dangerous and aggressive.

Israel has always relied on the deception that it is under existential threat to justify its numerous aggressions, when always it has had at its command military force in excess of that its opponents can marshal. This is true even going back to its founding in 1948, when it faced off against ragtag Arab volunteers, and then a disorganized agglomeration of Arab armies, while claiming it was defending itself against a second holocaust.

While it’s true that the government of Iran is hostile to the Zionist occupation of Palestine, Iran poses no serious military threat to Israel, and wouldn’t, even if it were capable of quickly producing nuclear weapons. The best it could do is present a threat of self-defense. It would take years for Iran to match Israel’s current nuclear arsenal, and in the intervening period, Israel could vastly expand its own. Plus, Israel, already possessing a formidable military – it receives $3 billion in U.S. military aid every year — is backed by history’s most formidable military power, the United States. Iran, even with the rudimentary arsenal of nuclear weapons it may have the capability (though perhaps never the intention) of producing at some point, is no match for Israel – and this its leaders know well. The country, remarked Uzi Rubin, a private defense consultant who ran Israel’s missile shield program in the 1990s, “is radical, but radical does not mean irrational. They want to change the world, not commit suicide.” [6]

1. David E. Sanger, “U.S. to accuse Iran of having secret nuclear fuel facility,” The New York Times, September 26, 2009.
2. See for example David E. Sanger and William J. Broad, “U.S. to demand inspection of new Iran plan ‘within weeks’”, The New York Times, September 27, 2009.
3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Negev_Nuclear_Research_Center
4. Neil MacFarquhar, “Inquiry finds Gaza war crimes from both sides,” The New York Times, September 16, 2009.
5. Colum Lynch, “U.S. faces doubts about leadership on human rights,” The Washington Post, September 22, 2009.
6. Howard Schneider, “Israel finds strength in its missile defenses,” The Washington Post, September 19, 2009.

Iran’s not so secret, ‘secret’ fuel plant

Posted in Iran, Nuclear proliferation by what's left on September 27, 2009

By Stephen Gowans

The construction of a uranium enrichment facility by Iran outside of Qum, which Tehran notified the International Atomic Energy Agency of days ago, has been seized upon dishonestly by Washington “as a chance to…persuade other countries to support the case for stronger sanctions” against Iran. [1]

Washington is seeking an international sanctions regime to pressure Iran into abandoning its enrichment of uranium. So far Washington has had little success in marshalling the support of Russia and China, whose cooperation is needed for a United Nations Security Council resolution to escalate sanctions against the Islamic republic.

The United States and the European Union want Iran to import nuclear fuel for its power plants, rather than enrich its abundant supplies of domestic uranium itself. While Iran insists its fuel program is for civilian use, the means to enrich uranium at home provides Tehran with a nuclear weapons capability. It’s a short step from enriching uranium for use in commercial reactors to enriching it to a higher grade for use in nuclear weapons.

There are, then, two reasons why Washington wants to force Tehran to abandon its enrichment program:

A. The potential to quickly develop nuclear weapons would equip Tehran with the means to deter Washington and its allies from using the threat of military force to coerce the country into surrendering its independence.

B. Were Tehran forced to look abroad for sources of nuclear fuel, its independence would be sharply limited by Washington’s ability to cut off its nuclear fuel supply.

To advance its aims of securing backing for an international sanctions regime, Washington has accused Iran of secretly building, with the intention of producing weapons grade uranium, an undisclosed facility in violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. There are a number of problems with this accusation.

1. There is no operating fuel plant. The enrichment facility is unfinished and is not expected to be operational until some time next year. [2]

2. It is not secret. Iran notified the IAEA that it was building the facility days before Washington contrived to use the acknowledgement as evidence of a secret nuclear weapons program. A September 26 David E. Sanger New York Times article ran under the headline “U.S. to accuse Iran of having secret nuclear fuel facility,” inviting the question, how can a nuclear fuel facility be secret, if its existence is already publicly acknowledged? The headline should have read, “U.S. to accuse Iran of having a nuclear fuel facility that was unacknowledged before it was acknowledged.” That The New York Times has taken a tautology and turned it into an apparently damning revelation points to the ever compliant U.S. media’s role as one of equivocation in the service of marshalling support for U.S. foreign policy positions.

3. Under the terms of Iran’s agreement with the IAEA, Tehran is required to report when nuclear material is introduced into a facility, not when construction of the facility begins. [3] Iran reiterated this point with the nuclear agency in March 2007 [4]. When centrifuges (which are used to process nuclear fuel) began to be moved into the unfinished plant, Iran let the IAEA know of the facility’s existence, in accordance with its agreement.

4. Lost amid Washington’s spin is the reality that “even United States intelligence officials acknowledge that there is no evidence that Iran has taken the final step toward creating a bomb.” [5] And yet the Obama administration is treating Iran’s public disclosure of the existence of the unfinished fuel plant as evidence of a secret weapons program. While news reports now suggest that U.S. intelligence “had been tracking the covert project for years” [6] and that the facility is too small to be used for enriching uranium to commercial grade, only two weeks ago The New York Times reported that “new intelligence reports delivered to the White House say that the country has deliberately stopped short of the critical last steps to make a bomb.” [7] If Iran has deliberately stopped short, then the facility could hardly be intended to produce bomb fuel. Isn’t the construction of such a facility a step in making a bomb?

Not so hidden in Washington’s accusation is a threat of war. United States President Barack Obama announced that “the alternative to (the Iranian’s) giving up their program…is to ‘continue down a path that is going to lead to confrontation.’” [8] Obama added that the ‘secret’ (though publicly acknowledged) Iranian plant “represents a direct challenge to the basic foundation of the nonproliferation regime.” [9] This is nonsense, and it is so for all the reasons cited above. But it’s also nonsense for another reason: the real direct challenge to the basic foundation of the nonproliferation regime is the United States itself. It tolerates the nuclear arsenals of its allies — not being particularly vexed by proliferation to Israel, India and Pakistan — while threatening non-allies militarily, and thereby providing them with an incentive to acquire nuclear weapons as a means of self-defense.

The true foundation of the nonproliferation treaty is a quid pro quo, whereby nuclear weapons states agree to give up their weapons while non-nuclear states agree not to acquire them. Part of the agreement is that non-nuclear states are to have access to nuclear energy for civilian use, as long as they abide by the provisions of the nonproliferation treaty. Iran has abided by the agreement, though for Washington and the EU, it’s not enough. Iran is expected to renounce its right to an independent civilian nuclear power industry, to prevent it from acquiring the capability of developing nuclear weapons, should it ever need to counter U.S. or Israeli military (and possibly nuclear) blackmail. It also forces Iran into a dependence on the West for nuclear fuel. The selective enforcement of the non-proliferation treaty in the interests of U.S. foreign policy represents the real challenge to the nonproliferation regime.

1. Helene Cooper and Mark Mazzetti, “Cryptic Iranian note ignited an urgent nuclear strategy debate,” The New York Times, September 26, 2009.

2. David E. Sanger, “U.S. to accuse Iran of having secret nuclear fuel facility,” The New York Times, September 26, 2009.

3. Neil MacFarquhar, “Iran’s leader mocks West’s accusations,” The New York Times, September 26, 2009.

4. “Tehran’s nuclear ambitions: A timeline,” The Washington Post, September 26, 2009.

5. Cooper and Mazzetti.

6. Sanger, “U.S. to accuse Iran…”

7. David E. Sanger, “US says Iran could expedite nuclear bomb,” The New York Times, September 10, 2009.

8. David E. Sanger and William J. Broad, “U.S. allies warn Iran over nuclear deception,” The New York Times, September 26, 2009.

9. Ibid.

The Problem with Nonviolent Regime Change

Posted in Color Revolutions, Imperialism, Non-Violent Direct Action by what's left on September 17, 2009

A wrecking ball of imperialism

Posted in Anarchism, Color Revolutions, Imperialism, Non-Violent Direct Action by what's left on September 7, 2009

By Stephen Gowans

Brian Martin, a professor of social sciences at Australia’s University of Wollongong, has written a reply to my article Overthrow Inc.: Peter Ackerman’s quest to do what the CIA used to do and make it seem progressive , and then a reply to my reply. Martin is the author of a number of books and articles on nonviolence, including Nonviolence against Capitalism, Technology for Nonviolent Struggle, and “Nonviolent strategy against capitalism” (in Social Alternatives, Vol. 28, No. 1, 2008, pp. 42-46.)

In the latest exchange, I try to show that the disagreement between Martin and me is rooted, I believe, in a conflict between Marxist and anarchist perspectives on the state, and the question of whether the state is inherently good or bad.

I argue that because anarchists are opposed to domination, and because the state is an instrument of domination, anarchists often line up alongside imperialist forces seeking the overthrow of foreign states. Because the regime change efforts of imperialist forces are aimed exclusively at states operating outside the North Atlantic imperialist orbit, the effect is for anarchists who participate in campaigns to challenge these states to act as one of Western imperialism’s wrecking balls. While the anarchist aim is to challenge state authority, the aim of the imperialist forces that fund and provide training for the nonviolent resistance campaigns anarchists are often involved in, is to transfer control of the state from often popular and anti-colonial forces to comprador forces that are willing to facilitate the despoliation of their countries by North Atlantic banks, corporations and investors. Anarchist challenges to North Atlantic states, without the generous funding Western governments, corporate foundations and wealthy individuals are prepared to allocate to challenges to states operating outside the United States’ informal empire, are modest and ineffectual by comparison.

The State

I think Martin would agree that the state is an instrument of domination, which claims a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence within a defined geographical territory, exercised by the police and military. In the Marxist view, the state enforces the interests of one class over another, which is to say, it is an instrument whereby one class dominates and oppresses another. Slave owner states oppress slaves, landowner states oppress serfs, capitalist states oppress workers, and working class states oppress capitalists to limit or prevent capitalist exploitation. To Marxists, the question of whether the state is good or bad depends on who controls it, and who’s asking the question. To people conscious of their membership in the working class, the capitalist state is bad, not because it’s repressive, but because it’s repressive against their interests. Similarly, to a capitalist, the working class state is bad, not because it relies on the use or threat of violence to enforce a system of laws that privilege the working class, but because the system of laws backed by violence is against the interests of capital.

Anarchists, on the other hand, regard the state as inherently bad because it is based on domination enforceable through violence. To Martin, nonviolence is “especially useful for those who want to challenge domination” and it “involves empowerment of the population to challenge groups backed by force.” In other words, nonviolent resistance (NVR) is useful for doing what anarchists do: challenge the state.

But what if the state is under the control of a previously oppressed class or nation and its repressive function is used to prevent its former oppressor’s return to power? The leaders of Zimbabwe’s national liberation, for example, have used the state, and its repressive powers, to advance the interests of indigenous people at the expense of a former colonial oppressor, European settlers, and would-be neo-colonialists. The Bolsheviks used state power to enforce a wide array of measures favourable to the working class at the expense of capitalists and landowners. Is the use of state power to crack down on forces which seek to reduce Zimbabwe to neo-colonial servitude inherently bad? And were the Bolsheviks wrong to use state power to repress class enemies, as a condition of advancing the interests of the working class?

To anarchists the answer is yes. The Zimbabwe state is repressive. It uses violence to enforce the interests of indigenous Africans over those of European settlers and their descendants. The Bolshevik state was also repressive. It used violence to repress capitalists, estate-owners, rich peasants, saboteurs, and political enemies. Whether working class or capitalist, anti-colonial or colonial, the state is repressive; it is an instrument of domination. For these reasons anarchists oppose it.

A movement which challenges the state in Zimbabwe, or the state in countries in which working class interests are dominant, earns the support of anarchists. Indeed, because anarchists are against any state, whether feudal, capitalist, working class or anti-colonial, they often find themselves lining up with capitalist and neo-colonial forces against working class-oriented and anti-colonial states. And because North Atlantic governments, corporate foundations and wealthy individuals are eager to bankroll challenges to working class-oriented and anti-colonial states, but not to North Atlantic states and their satellites, anarchists who participate in these campaigns act as a wrecking ball of imperialism; their function is to tear down independent states so that control can be transferred to forces acceptable to Western banks, corporations and investors. At the same time, anarchist nonviolent resistance aimed at Western capitalist states – which tends to be low-level and largely non-disruptive, owing to the absent or meagre funding received from governments and philanthropic foundations – poses no serious threat.

Interestingly, Martin took exception to what he believed was my description of NVR as being guided by the goal of seizing power. This wasn’t my description, but that of Peter Ackerman, one of the principal proponents of NVR. Anarchists don’t seek power (the ability to dominate); they only seek to undermine it. What Martin failed to recognize was that Peter Ackerman, while a proponent of nonviolence, is not an anarchist but a capitalist, and a very wealthy one, whose avocation is to assist in the transfer of state power abroad from forces not yoked to U.S. financial and export interests, to pro-capitalist forces beholden to the US ruling class. Ackerman defines NVR as the use of strikes, boycotts, mass demonstrations and other forms of civil disobedience, including nonviolent sabotage, to make a country ungovernable in order to seize power. And yet while Ackerman’s NVR aims are clearly at odds with those of Martin, Martin talks favourably of Ackerman, and Ackerman’s docent, Gene Sharp.


Whether nonviolence is a defining feature of anarchism is a matter of dispute among anarchists. Martin, I suspect, would say it is. Peter Gelderloos, an anarchist whose book, How Nonviolence Protects the State, rejects exclusive nonviolence as an effective strategy for anarchists, would say it isn’t.

I agree with Gelderloos that proponents of nonviolence have claimed success in excess of what the data support. The modus operandi of NVR advocates is to exaggerate the achievements of campaigns which have featured the use of nonviolent tactics (India’s liberation from British colonial rule; the US civil rights movement; the anti-Vietnam War movement; the anti-nuclear weapons movement) and then to attribute the success of these campaigns to nonviolent tactics alone.

For example, in his reply to me, Martin credits the movements against nuclear weapons — “which used NVR as well as conventional political methods” — with saving the world from nuclear catastrophe. But how do we know that demonstrations and civil disobedience made any difference? The fact that some people used nonviolent tactics in an effort to deter superpower nuclear proliferation hardly means that nonviolence worked. If it did, I could say the crowing of the rooster causes the sun to rise, because the rooster crowed and the sun soon rose.

A more compelling case can be made that the end of the arms race came about because the United States no longer needed to expand its nuclear arsenal. It had embarked on an arms build-up to force the Soviets into bankruptcy. With the goal of toppling its ideological competitor achieved, there was no longer a need to pile weapon upon weapon. And after acquiring the capability to obliterate the world many times over, there was little point in acquiring more nuclear weapons. There comes a point where one more nuke makes no difference.

Moreover, were the decision to end the arms race attributable to nonviolent tactics, we could still say very little was achieved. The United States, Britain, France, Russia, China, and Israel still have nuclear arms, and evince not the slightest interest in giving them up. India, Pakistan and north Korea have acquired their own nuclear arsenals (or at least, capabilities.) The United States continues to threaten non-nuclear countries with nuclear weapons, thereby encouraging non-nuclear states to develop their own nuclear arms to deter U.S. aggression. What success was achieved was minor indeed.

Ackerman uses the same approach, attributing the success of campaigns that involved nonviolent tactics in some way to nonviolence alone, as if massive surrounding violence played no role. Believe his version of history, and the violence of a Western-sponsored armed insurgency in Kosovo, sanctions, a 78-day NATO terror bombing campaign, unceasing Western hostility, and a political fifth column, had nothing whatever to do with the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic in the former Yugoslavia in 2000. It was all due to anarchist activists practicing nonviolent resistance.

In the same manner, proponents of NVR attribute India’s political independence from Britain to Gandhian nonviolence. In doing so, they ignore the armed struggle led by Chandrasekhar Azad, Bhagat Singh’s campaign of bombings and assassinations, and the effects of the massive violence of two world wars and the armed resistance to British rule in Palestine in weakening Britain and sapping it of the manpower and resources it needed to hold onto its colonies. What’s more, the success was limited. Britain exchanged direct rule for indirect rule. It authored India’s constitution, handpicked its successors, and continued to dominate India’s economy. India’s independence was largely symbolic.

Relatedly, Martin disagrees with my point that NVR is a means to an end, and is therefore neither inherently good nor bad, but is good or bad depending on what it’s used for. Nuclear weapons, he rejoins, are inherently bad, because they are indiscriminate, and because they are a means of domination. The corollary, it seems, is that NVR is inherently good, because it challenges the state, an instrument of domination, and does so without recourse to violence, violence also being a means of domination. This follows consistently from the anarchist abhorrence of domination.

On the other hand, one could argue that Martin has to claim that NVR is good independent of its consequence, because the consequences of the Ackerman-Sharp-Helvey deployments that have been associated with regime change successes have been so negative from the point of view of the working class, that to do otherwise would leave his pro-NVR case in a shambles. NVR looks good only if its recent outcomes are ignored and the role of violence in the progressive outcomes it claims as its own are passed over. In other words, NVR’s positive reputation depends on ignoring the reality that NVR color revolutions have cleared the way for the ascension to power of Washington-aligned neo-liberal regimes that have privileged North Atlantic investors at the expense of domestic workers. At the same time the role of violence in the progressive developments (India’s liberation from British colonial rule, the end of the Vietnam War, and so on) that NVR advocates claim as their own must be ignored. Or you can simply say – as Martin and some peace advocates do – that the outcomes are immaterial; what matters is the process itself. This is sheer sophistry. A process cannot be evaluated independent of its outcomes. If so, a process that invariably produced bad outcomes, would be considered good.

A Marxist would say that domination isn’t always bad. It depends on who’s dominating who, and why. The domination of the formerly exploiting few by the formerly exploited many is not bad, but good, progressive and necessary. Marxists don’t want to dominate for the sake of domination, but if dominating a minority of exploiters and the use of violence are necessary to prevent the minority’s return to power, and to prevent the resumption of mass exploitation, then domination and violence are acceptable. Likewise, if a nuclear weapons capability allows north Korea to deter the United States from using military (including nuclear) aggression to dominate the Korean peninsula and integrate north Korea into Washington’s informal empire, can nuclear weapons be said to be inherently bad and necessarily bound up with the enforcement of domination? On the contrary, it would seem that north Korea’s nuclear capability challenges the domination of the most violent of all states, that of the United States.


At root, the disagreement between Martin and me seems to boil down to this: is domination and the use of violence always bad, or are domination and violence bad depending on who uses them, why they’re used, and what the outcomes are? These are normative questions.

An empirical question concerns whether the commitment of anarchists to challenge the state is useful to imperialist forces. Through their control of philanthropic foundations and such organizations as the International Center for Nonviolent Conflict, involved in the training of (often anarchist) activists in techniques of destabilization, and through their control of the media, which shape public understanding of states that operate outside the North Atlantic imperial orbit as being based on unjustified authority, imperialist forces galvanize anarchists into action as one of their wrecking balls — challenging working class-oriented, anti-colonial, and North Atlantic-independent states. These challenges never develop to the point where the state collapses, as anarchists hope, but to the point where state control is transferred to comprador forces, as the imperialist sponsors of NVR campaigns intend. Despite their aim of challenging the state, NVR activists act in ways that help enhance the power of North Atlantic states to dominate and exploit the global south and Eastern Europe. Anarchist nonviolent strategy hasn’t threatened capitalism or challenged the domination of North Atlantic states. On the contrary, its record is one of service to North Atlantic imperialist forces in integrating hold-out countries into Washington’s informal empire, through the participation of NVR activists in campaigns to smash independent states.

Vilifying the victim: U.S. journalists Ling and Lee ignore the role of U.S. policy in impoverishing north Korea

Posted in north Korea by what's left on September 3, 2009

By Stephen Gowans

Laura Ling and Euna Lee, the U.S. journalists who snuck into north Korea and were captured, tried and sentenced by north Korean authorities, have recounted their story in the September 1st edition of The Los Angeles Times. Their op-ed piece is more a propaganda offensive aimed at vilifying north Korea (and excusing their crime) than an honest account of their ordeal.

The journalists, freed last month after former U.S. president Bill Clinton flew to Pyongyang to arrange their release, acknowledged that they entered north Korea illegally, a charge U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton originally dismissed as baseless. The U.S. media, acting in its accustomed role as unofficial propaganda apparatus of the U.S. government, accepted Clinton’s claim, never wondering whether the charges were indeed baseless or how Clinton could know one way or the other.

But while admitting their actions were illegal, the two journalists nevertheless sought to extenuate their guilt. “There were no signs marking the international border, no fences, no barbed wire,” they wrote, suggesting they stumbled innocently into north Korea, and that part of the blame lies with north Korea for failing mark its border clearly. They also suggested that their guide had ‘set them up.’

But it’s clear the two journalists (a third, cameraman Mitch Goss, eluded capture) knew they had crossed an international border. They were led by a seasoned Korean Chinese guide who knew the terrain. And they recognized that the frozen Tumen River, which they walked across, marked the frontier. When “our guide beckoned for us to follow him beyond the middle of the river” (i.e., the international border) “we did, eventually arriving at the riverbank on the North Korean side,” the pair wrote.

Ling and Lee had travelled to the area to interview what they called “several North Korean defectors – women who had left poverty and repression in their homeland.” The designation of the women, economic migrants, as ‘defectors’ (are Mexicans who cross the Rio Grande ‘defectors’?) is a standard practice of Western journalists seeking to vilify an ideological enemy. So too is the obligatory reference to ‘repression.’

Yet while the journalists invoked hoary anti-communist shibboleths, they failed to cite even the flimsiest evidence the women were fleeing repression, noting only that “most of the North Koreans we spoke with said they were fleeing poverty and food shortages.”

Indeed, it is poverty, not political repression, which compels north Koreans to leave their country. They leave in search of a better life elsewhere, just as poverty compels countless Latin Americans to migrate to the United States, many illegally, also in search of a better life.

Ling and Lee failed to ask, or indeed to illuminate, why north Koreans are poor and short of food in the first place, implying, in the standard U.S. media fashion, that north Korea’s command economy has failed north Koreans. The real reason has much to do with U.S. foreign policy.

Korea scholar Bruce Cumings explains that north Korea “has been sanctioned since 1950, when the Korean War began. It’s been isolated by the United States since the regime was formed in 1948.” [1] Why? According to David Straub, director of the U.S. State Department’s Korea desk from 2002 to 2004, “North Korea’s closed economic and social system means the country has virtually nothing of value to offer the United States.” [2] U.S. policy since 1948 has been to pressure north Korea militarily and economically to open its doors to U.S. exports, investments and military bases. Pyongyang has, however, successfully resisted Washington’s pressure, remaining closed to U.S. domination, and therefore remaining of virtually no value to the U.S. corporate class. As a consequence, it is an object of U.S. enmity.

Despite being sanctioned, north Korea managed to rebuild after the Korean War (the U.S. Air Force flattened every structure in the country over one story) and was able to grow economically at a faster pace than south Korea, until the mid 1980s. And this despite the reality that south Korea received huge injections of aid from the United States and Japan, while Pyongyang received far less from the Soviet Union and China.

A major set-back came when the socialist bloc collapsed. North Korea was deprived of its markets, and this eliminated counter-pressure against the West’s sanctions. Now, the sanctions bit more deeply.

On top of economic warfare, north Korea faced unceasing U.S. military hostility. Tens of thousands of U.S. troops were stationed on Korean soil, and continue to be stationed there, while 40,000 more are deployed in nearby Japan. U.S. warships patrol the country’s maritime borders, and U.S. warplanes fly menacingly close to its airspace. Washington introduced battlefield nuclear weapons into the Korean peninsula soon after the war, and while claiming the weapons have since been withdrawn, refuses to renounce the first strike use of strategic nuclear weapons against north Korea – and refused even before Pyongyang acquired its own nuclear weapons capability. The principal reason north Korea embarked on a program of nuclear proliferation is to deter U.S. nuclear aggression. Had the U.S. Strategic Command not announced in the early 1990s that, with the Soviet Union having collapsed, it was re-targeting some of its missiles on north Korea, Pyongyang might never have withdrawn from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

North_Korea_by_Latuff2North Korea hasn’t been the only country to face Washington’s hostile treatment. What Felix Greene wrote in 1970 of China and Cuba, remains true of north Korea today.

“The United States imposed a 100 percent embargo on trade with these countries; she employs great pressure to prevent her allies from trading with them; she arms and finances their enemies; she harasses their shipping; she threatens them with atomic missiles which she announces are pre-targeted and pre-programmed to destroy their major cities; her spy ships prowl just beyond these countries’ legal territorial waters; her reconnaissance planes fly constantly over their territory. And having done all in their power to disrupt these countries’ efforts to rebuild their societies by means of blockades to prevent essential goods from reaching them, any temporary difficulties and setbacks these countries may encounter are magnified and exaggerated and presented as proof that a socialist revolutionary government is ‘unworkable’.” [3]

Faced with much larger, hostile adversaries (south Korea’s military budget is many times larger than north Korea’s) Pyongyang has been forced to channel a crushingly large percentage of its meagre budget into defense. With scarce resources going to the military, productive investments can’t be made. That, in combination with sanctions and financial isolation, has meant poverty for millions of north Koreans.

The United States used the same strategy against the Soviet Union. The Reagan administration spent massively on an arms build-up in the 1980s in an effort to spend the Soviet Union into bankruptcy. [4] As the Soviets struggled to keep pace, their more limited resources were diverted increasingly into arms spending. Improvements in living standards were slowed and investment and consumption expenditures were forced to take a back seat to military outlays. U.S. cold warrior Robert McNamara explained the strategy.

“The Soviet Union came out of the Second World War with a brilliant military victory. With heavy casualty and high economic expenditure…this country had three priorities for its plan after the war. 1. Renewing the country’s infrastructure completely so the Soviet people could reach the promise of communism; 2. Rebuilding and renewing the country’s defense in the face of the stalking capitalist world; 3. Gaining new friends in the world, especially in Eastern Europe and the Third World…

“If the United States succeeds in engaging the Soviet Union in an arms race, then all these plans would go out the window…Our goal was very simple: the second priority would, if possible, replace the first priority. In other words, first increasing the military expenditure and last, improving the people’s standard of living…and of course this would affect the third priority as well.

“What is the meaning of this? It means that if the Soviet Union is dragged into an arms race and a massive portion of its budget, 40 percent if possible, is allocated to this purpose, then a lesser amount would be left for improving the people’s lives, and therefore, the dream of communism, which so many people are awaiting around the world, would be postponed and the friends of the Soviet Union and the supporters of the idea of communism would have to wait a long time…On the basis of this calculation, the arms race may even threaten Soviet ideology in Moscow.” [5]

With few socialist countries left, and Cuba and north Korea struggling with poverty, the received doctrine is that socialism is unworkable. But as author William Blum points out,

“…every socialist experiment of any significance in the twentieth century — without exception — was either overthrown, invaded, corrupted, perverted, subverted, destabilized, or otherwise had life made impossible for it, by the United States and its allies.

“Not one socialist government or movement — from the Russian Revolution to the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, from Communist China to the FMLN in El Salvador — not one was permitted to rise or fall solely on its own merits; not one was left secure enough to drop its guard against the all-powerful enemy abroad and freely and fully relax control at home.

“It’s as if the Wright brothers’ first experiments with flying machines all failed because the automobile interests sabotaged each test flight. And then the good and god-fearing folk of the world looked upon these catastrophes, nodded their heads wisely, and intoned solemnly: Humankind shall never fly.” [6]

“North Korea is the most sanctioned nation in the world,” noted then U.S. president George W. Bush in 2008, adding that it would remain the most sanctioned nation on earth for some time. [7] Is it any wonder north Koreans are poor and short of food?

While the causes of north Korea’s difficulties are partly endogenous, they are largely exogenous. In an effort to discredit socialism and create the impression that it is misguided and unworkable, anti-communist ideologues attribute all of north Korea’s difficulties to internal factors, deliberately ignoring the larger external causes. Ling and Lee portray themselves as motivated by humanitarian concern over the plight of impoverished and hungry north Koreans, seeking only to bring their hardships to light. But if they were genuinely galvanized to bring relief to north Koreans, they would have trained their sights on the anti-north Korea policies their own government has implemented, rather than blaming the victim. Poor and hungry north Koreans aren’t sneaking across the border into China because they’re repressed, and they’re not poor and hungry because socialism is incapable of providing for their material needs. Prior to the collapse of the socialist bloc, north Korea was a rapidly industrializing country that left U.S. State Department planners in despair that their south Korean neo-colony would never catch up. [8] North Korea’s problems are not related to socialism. Indeed, it is far more likely the case that north Korea’s socialism has mitigated its externally-imposed difficulties. North Korea’s problems have been largely created by Washington, whose goal since W.W.II has been the domination of the Korean peninsula in its entirety, and the destruction of pro-independence forces within.

1. “North Korea warns of new tests as nuclear standoff intensifies,” Democracy Now!, October 11, 2006.

2. Kim Hyun, “U.S. Has No Intention to Build Close Ties with N Korea: Ex-official,” Yonhap News, September 2, 2009.

3. Felix Greene, The Enemy: What Every American Should Know about Imperialism, Vintage, New York, 1970, p. 292.

4. Sean Gervasi, “A full court press: The destabilization of the Soviet Union,” Covert Action Quarterly, Fall 1990, 21 – 26. 14.

5. Robert McNamara, cited in Bahman Azad, Heroic Struggle, Bitter Defeat: Factors Contributing to the Dismantling of the Socialist State in the USSR, International Publishers, New York, 2000, p. 138

6. William Blum, “The Anti-Empire Report,” September 2, 2009. http://killinghope.org/bblum6/aer73.html

7. The New York Times, July 6, 2008.

8. Bruce Cumings, Korea’s Place in the Sun: A Modern History, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2005.

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