By Stephen Gowans
“The International Criminal Court has launched a preliminary investigation into allegations that North Korean forces committed war crimes when they shelled civilian areas in South Korea and allegedly sank a South Korean warship,” according to The Washington Post of 7 December.
The North Koreans, it should be pointed out, didn’t shell civilian areas in South Korea; they shelled a South Korean military installation on Yeonpyeong Island, only eight miles from North Korea, after artillery was fired from the island into North Korea’s territorial waters. 
The North Koreans warned the South—which at the time was conducting massive military exercises with the United States—that it would retaliate if the South went ahead with its planned test firing from the island into its waters.
Pyongyang regarded the joint South Korean-US exercises as a rehearsal for an invasion, based on their substantial size (70,000 South Korean troops had been mobilized), the fact that they were taking place for the first time ever in the North’s international customary law–defined territorial waters, and involved US Marines based in Japan who were trained in amphibious assault and urban warfare. 
Despite the North’s entreaties that the South not proceed with its planned shelling, the South went ahead anyway. The North retaliated, as it warned it would and as Seoul surely knew it must.  It fired artillery at the South’s garrison on the island. While many news reports, such as the one cited above, suggest the North deliberately targeted civilians, the civilian casualties were accidental; the target was military.
The allegations that North Korea sank the South Korean corvette Cheonan—allegations which seem to owe their existence more to South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s political agenda than anything else—are in tatters, the victim of an official Russian investigation and a series of independent inquiries that have punched holes in the misnamed “international”—more aptly named South Korea-plus-allies-report.  Is it any surprise that an inquiry carried out by countries that are hostile to North Korea would arrive at a conclusion that justifies their hostility? The report’s findings—that a North Korean torpedo sank the warship–resonated with Lee’s intuition, expressed well before the investigation was launched, that North Korea was to blame.  It’s difficult to escape the conclusion that the report was written to justify a conclusion Lee had already arrived at, despite his own military’s initial assessment that no evidence existed to link North Korea to the mishap. 
The Cheonan–which had been operating in the shallow waters off Baengnyeong Island, only 10 miles from North Korea but 120 miles from the South Korean mainland—appears to have either run aground or struck an old mine.  But the official South Korean investigation rejected all alternative explanations, settling on the North Korea-is-guilty conclusion that members of Lee’s right-wing Grand National Party had seized upon immediately after the sinking, despite the South Korean military initially trying to dampen speculation that the North was involved. There was no evidence linking North Korea to the corvette’s sinking, Won See-hoon, director of South Korea’s National Intelligence, told a South Korean parliamentary committee in early April. South Korea’s then defense minister Kim Tae-young backed him up, pointing out that the Cheonan’s crew had not detected a torpedo , while Lee Ki-sik, head of the marine operations office at the South Korean joint chiefs of staff agreed that “No North Korean warships have been detected…(in) the waters where the accident took place.”  Notice he said “accident.” Blaming the sinking on a North Korean torpedo, however, fit with what Selig Harrison, the US establishment’s foremost liberal expert on Korea describes as Lee’s goal: to “once again [seek] the collapse of the North and its absorption by the South.”  So too does blaming the recent artillery exchange between the two Koreas on the North, when, in point of fact, it was the South that pulled the trigger. And so too does the ICC investigation.
While the ICC serves US interests, the United States itself refuses to submit to the court’s jurisdiction. The court could be subverted by political mischief-makers, US officials say. China, Russia and Israel also refuse to submit to the court’s purview. But Washington’s real problem with the court isn’t that frivolous charges might be brought against the country’s armed forces, but that legitimate charges most surely would be. The US record of war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan alone, to say nothing of the other theaters in which it pursues its war on resistance to US domination of Southwest Asia, could keep the ICC permanently occupied for the next decade. And Israel’s crimes—most especially those committed in Gaza–could keep the court going for years to come. Indeed, there’s a string of US and allied leaders who should be dragged before the court to stand trial—from George W. Bush to Tony Blair to Benjamin Netanyahu to Barack Obama. But they won’t be. The US, Britain, NATO and Israel have never been investigated by the ICC, and never will be, no matter how monstrous their crimes. The court exists to prosecute the weak and legitimize the crimes of the strong by ignoring them.
We have, then, a situation that is ludicrous beyond words: An ICC that is mute on US, British, NATO and Israeli war crimes—war crimes that have led to countless fatalities, the deliberate destruction of civilian infrastructure, the collective punishment of displaced Palestinians for voting for a party that refuses to accept Israeli ethnic cleansing as legitimate, the displacement of millions of Iraqis—but is prepared to investigate the events surrounding the death of two South Korean civilians! A court that ignores the major crimes of the strong while investigating crimes that—even if they had been truly committed—would be microscopic in comparison, is an abomination against reason, justice and humanity. 
While its surface mandate may be the pursuit of justice, the ICC is every bit as much a part of the apparatus of imperialist domination as the US military and NATO are; its justice that of the powerful against the weak; its mandate to demonize the resisters and trundle them off to jail, while the imperialist architects of war crimes on a grand scale furnish the court with its prosecutors, direction, and agenda.
1. For sources see Stephen Gowans, “Wrong country blamed for artillery exchange on Korean peninsula”, what’s left, November 24, 2010 and “North Korea attacks South Korea…or is it the other way around?” What’s left, November 23, 2010.
2. Tim Beal, “Fire fight at Yeonpyeong: the manufacturing of crisis”, The Pyongyang Report, Vol 12 No 1 December 2010.
3. In order to enforce its claim to territorial waters, Pyongyang must contest the South’s exercise of military force in its waters, or its claim will be weakened. Moreover, failure to respond resolutely to the challenge would invite the South to take further liberties. See “US Ultimately to Blame for Korean Skirmishes in Yellow Sea”, what’s left, December 5, 2010.
4. See the following by Gregory Elich: “The Sinking of the Cheonan, Reviewing the Evidence,” globalresearch.ca, July 30, 2010 and “The Cheonan Incident. America’s Pretext for Threatening North Korea”, globalresearch.ca, December 6, 2010.
5. “Kim So-hyun, “A touchstone of Lee’s leadership”, Korea Herald, May 13, 2010.
6. See Stephen Gowans, “The sinking of the Cheonan: Another Gulf of Tonkin incident”, what’s left, May 20, 2010.
7. See Elich.
8. Nicole Finnemann, “The sinking of the Cheonan”, Korea Economic Institute, April 1, 2010.
9. “Military leadership adding to Cheonan chaos with contradictory statements”, The Hankyoreh, March 31, 2010.
10. Selig S. Harrison, “What Seoul should do despite the Cheonan”, The Hankyoreh, May 14, 2010.
11. I recognize that the ICC can only prosecute citizens of signatory countries or those of countries the UN Security Council—many of whose permanent members are not signatories themselves—direct the court to investigate. But this doesn’t make the actions of the court in investigating events surrounding the deaths of two civilians while ignoring large scale war crimes which have led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands if not millions, any less ludicrous or any less an abomination against reason, justice and humanity.