TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Bombs and Rights

Wednesday’s New York Times included an op-ed piece by Jimmy Carter, entitled “Solving the Korean Stalemate, One Step at a Time.” Needless to say, the piece talks about the successful role Carter claims to have himself played in 1994, as an agent of the Clinton administration, in defusing an earlier Korean nuclear crisis, and it also blames the current confrontation with North Korea on the aggressive stance adopted by the Bush administration. No surprises here. Party politics as usual, with a somewhat higher than normal level of self-congratulation.

Of greater interest is the underlying assumption in the essay: according to Carter, the primary problem to be solved one step at a time is the Korean stalemate, i.e., the foreign policy showdown over the nuclear arms—no doubt an important goal, but Carter writes as if North Korea were otherwise a thoroughly normal state, with no significant problems except its misguided foray into the development of weapons of mass destruction. It is true that Carter does mention, twice in fact, the domestic situation in North Korea, but only in order to argue against sanctions. He writes of the “already starving people” and of “its people suffering horrible deprivation”—as if the problem with North Korea were simply some agricultural crisis. There is no mention of prison camps, the sadistic police state and the rampant denial of basic human rights. Indeed to mention these aspects would have undermined Carter’s political agenda of advocating negotiations with North Korea—as if it were a normal state.

The scope of human rights abuse in North Korea has been well documented, just as it has been assiduously ignored by politicians and the public sphere. North Korea has only become a focus of attention in the wake of the renewed nuclear threat. In other words, the de facto political morality of the day involves handing over responsibility for the North Korean population to a murderous regime and to remain silent: the only agenda item to address with North Korea involves breaking the nuclear “stalemate.”

A similar dynamic has characterized western policies vis-à-vis Iran. Human rights abuse counts for nothing; all that has mattered is the potential nuclear armament. Indeed the same polarity has applied, in retrospect, to Iraq: the only question, according to war critics, that should have mattered was the WMD’s, not the abuse of the Iraqi population by its “own” government.

The conclusions to draw include a recognition of how much national sovereignty still counts in the real world (despite all the blather about international government and multilateralism): a regime in power can do what it wants with its population (see Darfur) as long it does not threaten another state (as Iraq did in the invasion of Kuwait). Sovereign regimes have no need to answer to international organizations (the UN)

In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt comments how, around 1900, world opinion was outraged by the evident injustice which Alfred Dreyfus suffered in France—but that only four decades later, world opinion was largely silent, indeed actively apathetic facing the Nazi murder of millions of Jews. The larger the crime, the louder the silence. “The whole world is watching” has come to mean that the “whole world only watches and does nothing.” Of course the international community has every reason to fear nuclear arms in North Korea or Iran; but it has no reason to ignore the inhuman cruelty of these regimes toward their own populations. A real politics would not focus solely on the “stalemates” among diplomats but also pursue an end to the extraordinary misery that reigns in these states which are far from “normal dictatorships.”

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