Threat to world peace, or threat to Washington’s imperial ambitions?

Although it says it has crude nuclear weapons, North Korea is no more a threat to world peace than any other poor, semi-starved, beleaguered country is, and is far less a threat to world peace than the United States is, with its bloated arsenal of weapons of mass destruction and its doctrine of pre-emptive attacks and nuclear first strikes. No, what North Korea has become is a threat to how far the United States can easily push around a country it has designs on, with impunity.

But you would think from the oodles of hysterical commentary that have greeted North Korea’s claim to have nuclear warheads, that we should all be hiring backhoes to hollow out spaces for backyard fallout shelters.

Emblematic of the worst of this commentary was the front page headline of my local newspaper: “North Korea’s nuclear threat is no bluff,” which was followed by a prediction that a “great war” is to soon follow, “not what anyone would want, but in the old Rolling Stones lyric, sometimes you get what you need,” intelligent newspaper commentary excepted.

North Korea may be bluffing about having developed crude nuclear weapons. What matters though, from Pyongyang’s perspective, is that it is seen to have a way of inflicting great harm on Americans, notably the 30,000 or 40,000 stationed on the country’s border with South Korea, should Washington decide to do what’s behind all its sabre rattling, and what it’s about to do to Iraq, and has done to Yugoslavia, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and, oh yes, North Korea, back in the days it bombed the country so thoroughly it ran out of multi-storey buildings to flatten.

So Pyongyang’s sending a message: Hands off, or the outcome won’t be pretty.

For centuries, countries have been threatening potential bullies with reprisals of this sort. It’s called self-defense.

Even so, the gaseous windbags who pen opinion and “analysis” pieces in newspapers think the only countries that have a right to defend themselves are the United States, Israel, and whoever else Washington blesses. Those who fall outside this orbit–like North Korea and Iraq–are “threats to world peace” if they try to do what Washington and its allies claim as their sole prerogative.

To say the view is hypocritical and self-serving, is an understatement.

“I flinch when I hear American, British and French fulminations against weapons of mass destruction,” remarked former chief UN arms inspector, Richard Butler. [They] “ignor[e] the fact that they are the proud owners of massive quantities of these weapons, unapologetically insisting that they are essential for national security, and will remain so.”

So if the US, Britain, France (and Israel, which has 200 nuclear warheads) can have weapons of mass destruction for national security, why not North Korea? Why not Iraq?

(Butler also said, “Among my toughest moments in Baghdad were when the Iraqis demanded that I explain why they should be hounded for their weapons of mass destruction when, just down the road, Israel was not.”)

Of course, the replies to this question are well known, but no less hypocritical and self-serving. Iraq and North Korea are aggressive powers that have invaded their neighbors.

True enough. But the United States is also an aggressive power, whose attacks on other countries have not been limited to neighbors; the Pentagon has struck all over the world. Still, no one (outside of some people in the peace movement) say the United States should be disarmed.

Israel too has had no aversion to attacking, nor occupying, its neighbors’ territories. So why, as Butler put it, has Israel not been hounded for its weapons of mass destruction?

Why, indeed? And why haven’t international monitors been deployed in the Occupied Territories? Surely, an international community concerned with peace, would welcome — no, insist — that monitors be deployed.

Israel’s apologists say Tel Aviv acted in “self-defense” when it invaded and then occupied Lebanon, and equally, is occupying Palestinian territory in self-defense. But this exposes another self-serving and hypocritical deception: The other side pursues aggressive wars to enlarge its power and territory; we pursue aggressive wars for national security.

That’s not to say Iraq’s attacks on Iran and Kuwait were defensive. They weren’t. They were meant to enlarge Iraq’s power in the region, to establish the country as regional hegemon.

This, however, was a problem for Washington. There can only be one hegemon, and it wasn’t going to be Iraq.

Iraq’s war with Iran wasn’t condemned; in fact, Washington abetted it. Who cared if two contenders to US claims on regional hegemony weakened each other?

But when Iraq invaded Kuwait, 200,000 Iraqis had to die (followed by countless more, victims of the sanctions regime the US insists on) to make a point: Iraq wasn’t going to dominate the Middle East; Washington would.

Today, George W. Bush openly worries that if Saddam isn’t crushed, he may try again. Challenges to US hegemony are not to be tolerated.

But the case of North Korea is different. You would be hard pressed to say Pyongyang has aspirations to dominate its region; it’s too weak, too impoverished, and too bedeviled by the overt hostility of the United States. The only aspirations Kim Jong-il has that conflict with Washington’s is over who gets to control North Korea: himself, or someone tethered to Washington?

So North Korea’s nuclear arms boast throws a spanner into what must surely be Washington’s eventual plan to “effect regime change” in North Korea. It can no longer be done with relative impunity.

Saddam Hussein, who doesn’t have nuclear weapons, but could, some day, as Washington and its faithful retainer, Tony Blair keep reminding us, is relatively easy to oust. Indeed, the war (rather, the slaughter) Washington is inexorably moving towards may well be a cakewalk. But if North Korea really has nuclear weapons, a US-led attack in the not too distant future won’t be so casualty-light.

It is an ugly, and infrequently admitted truth, that the US public could care less whether numberless foreigners–especially poor, dark-skinned ones–are blotted out by the weapons they produce at the jobs-generating Lockheed-Martin plants down the road, but send home US soldiers in body bags and their indifference to the spilling of blood suddenly evaporates. Hence, the cornerstone of modern US military strategy: Kill as many foreigners as you like, but don’t put Americans in any real peril (not because you care about American lives, but because you care about PR.) Go for high-altitude saturation bombing, cruise missile strikes, and if ground forces are required, get someone else to do the dirty work.

But how does this work if the victims can lash out, seeing to it that US soldiers are either vaporized, irradiated, or sent home in body bags?

“Your president called us part of an ‘axis of evil,’ remarked Kang Sok, a senior North Korean official. “You have troops facing us in South Korea. Of course we have nuclear weapons.”

Small wonder.

Mr. Steve Gowans is a writer and political activist who lives in Ottawa, Canada.