Guest Writings

Deterring Threats to US Capital: What Drives Washington to Crush North Korea and Other Foreign Policy Bogeymen By Stephen Gowans

What’s Left

It’s never good news when a country many times larger puts you on a list of countries targeted for regime change. And the news gets worse when one of the other countries on the list disarms, as a sop, only to be invaded soon after. Unless you’re a slow learner, you arm, not disarm.

Two years after north Korea booted nuclear inspectors out of the country to build what it calls a “nuclear deterrent,” the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) says it’s “now certain that North Korea’s nuclear material has been converted into fuel for four to six nuclear bombs.” [1]

Today, Washington says it was never too concerned about north Korea having one or two nuclear bombs, because Pyongyang would always want to keep those bombs for itself, and wouldn’t sell them. [2] And while it’s implied by Washington but never said directly, north Korea would never launch an unprovoked nuclear attack, because to do so would be to invite instant annihilation.

But with material for four to six bombs, it could sell some, and still have enough in reserve as a deterrent. Explained General Leon J. LaPorte, commander of US forces in south Korea, “North Korea, in its desire for hard currency, could sell weapons-grade plutonium to some terrorist organization.” [3]

So, if north Korea was a menace before, it’s even more of a menace now. But does this add up?

First, Washington’s professed lack of concern over north Korea having one or two bombs is at odds with its rhetoric. Two years ago, Washington wasn’t so unperturbed about a nuclear-armed north Korea — or so it said. Odds are the non-threat was elevated to a pressing threat to justify an escalation of US harassment (think Iraq), and to provide a pretext for ripping up the Antiballistic Missile Treaty and beginning work on a missile shield.

Second, Washington has carried on a war of intimidation, threat, and economic aggression against north Korea for over 50 years. Trying to bring down the country’s communist government didn’t start the moment Pyongyang became desperate for hard currency and therefore became a possible vendor of nuclear weapons to terrorists. Indeed, Pyongyang’s shortage of hard currency is an outcome of that policy.

So is its poverty. US rhetoric holds that north Korea’s socialism is inherently inefficient; that’s why the country is poor. But the real reason is because north Korea has long been the target of US economic strangulation policies. North Korea’s planned, state-owned economy clashes with US plans for a world open to US exports and investment. By warfare, economic and otherwise, Washington hopes to force Pyongyang to open its economy to domination by US capital.

This isn’t unique to north Korea. Economic domination pervades US foreign policy as a principal, if not the principal, aim. Find a regime that isn’t amenable to carving a wide-open space for US capital, and you’ll find a regime that Washington is hostile to, and will work, through economic warfare, military confrontation, or civil society — and sometimes all three — to overthrow. The aim is to get US capital in, European capital out, and keep the natives down.

Tucked away in Annex B of the Rambouillet Accords, presented by the US to Yugoslavia as an ultimatum on the eve of NATO’s 1999 war of aggression, was a demand that the Kosovan economy be converted to a free market economy, its state-owned assets privatized. [4] If Washington was only concerned about putting a stop to a civil war in Kosovo, why let economic demands potentially get in the way? Surely the proposal should have been restricted to relevant issues, unless economic transformation was a big part of the reason for the subsequent attack.

What’s more, NATO pilots had a remarkable ability to hit publicly owned enterprises, the core of Yugoslavia’s largely socialist economy, while avoiding privately-owned businesses. NATO bombs destroyed 372 state- and socially- owned firms. Foreign and privately-owned factories escaped unscathed. [5]

Or take the case of Victor Lukashenko, president of Belarus. Lukashenko is one of Washington’s bogeymen. He’s called “the last dictator of Europe.” US officials will tell you they worry about Lukashenko’s contempt for democracy and human rights, but what really annoys them is that Lukashenko has largely preserved the Soviet state-owned economy intact, and leans toward economic union with Russia, not Europe and the US. [6] That’s bad for US businesses and investors. Therefore, it’s bad for Washington. Therefore, Lukashenko is portrayed as a demon and US foundations, the US Congress-funded National Endowment for Democracy, and the CIA work quietly behind the scenes to build “civil society” to overthrow him.

How about Iraq? It, like Yugoslavia, had a largely publicly-owned economy — that is, until US proconsul Jerry Bremer arrived on the heels of US troops and started to lay the ground work for a capitalist’s wet dream of a flat tax, no tariff barriers, a privatized economy, and an end to Saddam Hussein’s social welfare programs. CIA asset Ayad Allawi, Bremer’s US-installed successor, is seeing to it that the transformation carries on. The beneficiary: US capital. The losers: Iraqis.

As to north Korea, it’s amazing how US resolutions demanding human rights reforms also come equipped with ultimata demanding open market reforms, as if the former were the Trojan Horse and the latter the invaders hidden deep in its belly. [7] David Frum, former Bush speechwriter and “axis of evil” inventor, and Richard Perle, top Pentagon advisor, wrote that they didn’t really care whether the communists remained in power in north Korea, so long as they adopted economic reforms, i.e., opened the economy to US economic penetration. [8]

But let’s assume north Korea isn’t interested in becoming an economic subsidiary of the US, and will continue to build nuclear weapons to deter US efforts to make it cry uncle. If Washington is genuinely concerned about the possibility of north Korea selling bombs to terrorist organizations to alleviate its economic problems, shouldn’t the US lift its sanctions and ease up on its military pressure — the root causes of these problems? The US keeps 37,000 troops on the Korean peninsula, sends its warplanes aloft to spy on the country, deploys its navy along north Korea’s sea frontiers, and leads the Proliferation Security Initiative whose de facto aim is to harass north Korean shipping. As a result of this state of military siege, north Korea is forced to channel a significant share of its limited resources to the military. If it could trade freely and devote its resources fully to the civilian economy, there wouldn’t be any talk of the possibility of north Korea selling bombs to get hard currency.

Problem is, the US economy – that is, capitalism – is driven by an expansionary logic that demands access to markets, raw materials, low-wage labor and investment opportunities, which means sweeping planned economies, state-owned enterprises and tariff barriers aside. If north Korea were allowed to develop unharassed, it would become a model of what can be accomplished outside the strictures of the global capitalist economy, inspiring other Third World countries to follow the same path. Planned, socialist economies fared better in the 20th century than unplanned, dependent capitalist economies in turning stunted countries of the Third World into independent, industrial nations capable of meeting the basic human needs of the whole population. [9]

But this would deprive US capital of markets and opportunities for investment. And it would limit the pool of labor available for exploitation to the populations of those countries that remained within the capitalist orbit, thereby driving up the cost of labor and strengthening labor’s hand. An unmolested north Korea is a threat to capitalism itself, and, therefore, according to the logic of the US state, must be crushed. But a stifled or crushed north Korea is hardly a boon to labor in the West or to the underdeveloped countries of the global South. We shouldn’t wish fervently for its downfall, but hope for its continued defiance.

1. “North Korea Said to Expand Arms Program,” The New York Times, December 6, 2004.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Neil Clark, “The Spoils of Another War,” The Guardian, September 21, 2004.

5. Ibid.

6. “Voices of Freedom Are Stilled by Europe’s Last Dictator,” The New York Times, October 27, 2004.

7. “Powell and Japan Ask North Korea to Resume Talks,” The New York Times, October 25, 2004.

8. David Frum and Richard Perle, “End to Evil: How to Win the War on Terror,” Random House, 2003.

E-mail list. Send an e-mail to and write “subscribe” in the subject line.

To unsubscribe, send an e-mail to and write “unsubscribe” in the subject line.

Main Index >> Back