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Rogue relations: The US vs North Korea



At this point in time, a truculent rogue in the White House fumes at an upstart rogue in Pyongyang, both fumbling away in the kindergarten of blunder and realpolitik. The issue is to see how they measure up in the stakes of rogue behaviour.

Kim Jong-un portraitUnfortunately, US President Donald Trump has shown, like his various predecessors, that international law, for the bomb-heavy bully, is a convenient moral reference when needed, but will be avoided like a leper when it becomes an impediment. Power, unadulterated in purity and application, will always triumph over hollow ideals and moral reminders.

One particular tic of the US, deemed by William Blum to be the rogue state par excellence, is that of regime change. Noam Chomsky has repeatedly reminded readers the US 'holds the world championship in regime change'. All this, despite the superficial assertions of sovereign equality between states in the United Nations charter.

Even conservative commentators such as Samuel Huntington, author of the 'clash of civilisation' thesis involving the West and Islam, noted in 1999 that 'while the US regularly denounces various countries as "rogue states", in the eyes of many countries, it is becoming a rogue superpower'.

The US has made the formulation and breaking of international law cardinal features of the international system. It is hard to imagine any international covenant, convention or agreement touching on state conduct in the last century that does not have some element of influence from the legal eagles of the US.

Without the bountiful US legal contribution to international institutions and jurisprudence, there would have been no crime against peace, considered in 1945 novel and dangerously eccentric by European counterparts.

The very idea of an international criminal court seized of authority to try potential war criminals was also forged in the adventurous, if overly zealous, thoughts of US lawyers keen to view international relations as a game of moral decisions with consequences.

This inventive, maze-driven homework on the moral order of the world's international engagement has always come back to stalk, not always with the necessary menace, US policy makers keen on pushing an agenda of force at the expense of the legal order they claim to maintain. He who creates can also undo and ignore.


"The indignant missile strike on Syria, in the absence of any United Nations Security Council Resolution, could hardly count in the context of a proportionate, legal response."


A few cases come to mind. The US State Department was deeply troubled when questions were asked about whether Washington was pursuing an agenda of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Vietnam, a point raised during the proceedings of the Russell War Crimes Tribunal held in Stockholm. It arose again in the matter of the Iraqi invasion of 2003 by US-led forces, with various subsequent vain efforts to hold President George W. Bush to account for international law violations.

The problem here, as it has always been, is that the eagle of law is often blinded after its enthusiasm for finding new prey. Excuses intervene; apologias mount. There are times, goes this line of thinking, when rogue states need to be punished; their ways righted by a nuclear armed policeman who knows what laws need to be policed.

To that end, it is worth noting that the latest, indignant missile strike on Syria, in the absence of any United Nations Security Council Resolution, could hardly count in the context of a proportionate, legal response. Even humanitarian advocates struggled to identify the rationale for the strike, despite its supposedly very humanitarian pretext.

The poorly named Democratic Republic of North Korea is hardly a state to be exonerated in this theatrical farce of international relations. It punishes its populace with a ruthless regime that still endorses the brutality of forced labour camps. It murders political dissidents. Like the United States, it avoids conventions and covenants it does not like.

But in its very psychic existence, troubled and terrified by the intrusive, regime altering powers of the United States, options are few and far between. A rogue state North Korea may well be, but there are always bigger rogues to contend with.


Binoy KampmarkDr Binoy Kampmark is a former Commonwealth Scholar who lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.

Topic tags: Binoy Kampmark, North Korea, US, Donald Trump



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Existing comments

This use of a higher moral ground as a pretext to military action started way back with the US's own rogue start - the Confederate states. It obviously wasn't just a quest to abolish slavery - but to crush the rival economic threat of the southern states' wealthy plantation system. Ironically when Haiti's slaves freed themselves, the US rejected to accept Haiti as sovereign nation until 60 or so years later.

AURELIUS | 20 April 2017  

Binoy, North Korea is led by a narcissistic psychopath who rules by force. No one seriously questions that. His incursions into the South are well documented. Trump has threatened a preemptive strike. Let the sabre rattling begin. As for Assad's chemical weapon attacks, one strike could be a mistake. Two strikes is stretching it. Three is beyond belief. Both Assad and Kim Jong-un are not leaders of rogue states - they are rogue dictators with no remorse in the way they go about eliminating their opposition. They rule by fear. Both must go. Trump leads our major military ally. If he has a crack at North Korea, then higher moral ground or not, we should support him.

Francis Armstrong | 20 April 2017  

I am not sure your inference that the United States and North Korea are as amoral politically as each other is quite true. It is an oversimplification. Much American foreign policy - for instance the invasion of Iraq - is certainly open to question. I think there would have been more chance of George W Bush being impeached at home rather than in the Hague. Given the setup in North Korea there is no possibility of Kim Jong-un being doubted, let alone impeached. International Law is a bit like morality, many think it a good thing in theory, but not in practice, especially in relation to them. I am not sure President Trump is a "rogue". He is certainly a master at brinkmanship. In the Middle East they understand and respect him. I think the North Koreans fear him. They certainly should. He keeps his actions guarded. As far as I am concerned, the jury is out on him. Time will tell.

Edward Fido | 20 April 2017  

North Korea playacts the id that China, now bearing the gravitas of a senior citizen of the world family of nations, cannot be seen to display. The impression of id is for China’s sake, to keep most of the Korean peninsula safe for a proud country which already suffers one nuclear power on its northern border and doesn’t want another on its southern. The job of the US is to calibrate the theatre by allowing Kim Jong-Un some appearance of threat (lest, through loss of face, he accidentally makes a mistake which does cause a problem) but not let success go to his head. Kim isn’t crazy. The North Korean elites are a kleptocracy. They are materialists who want to live as long as they can with all the foreign-manufactured luxuries that North Korea, Inc. can import. Kleptocrats aren’t interested in dying from pure ideological motives and wars usually play havoc with the import of luxury goods. If you’re concerned about an armageddon, move on because there’s nothing to see. If you’re interested in an elaborate dance, stay awhile because there’s plenty.

Roy Chen Yee | 24 April 2017  

I have just heard that my small home city of Darwin in the far north of Australia (pop 150,000) has been identified by DRNK as a site where the US and Australia continue to play war games together. What should I do to make your important analysis more engaging to people who count?

Mike | 25 April 2017  

Western writers are rarely punished for anti-establishment views, yet regularly 'Slam dunk" the US and Israel. They rarely call to account China or Russia, two 'super-powers' using money; selling vast quantities of arms; all to ntimidate and coerce third world countries ... yet seemingly exempt from the same critism. One answer of course is that the US is transparent compared to communist dictatorships. Assad can bomb his own people relentlessly for six years; Russia assists him in this while Assad uses bio-tech weapons of "mass destruction". Why then is US preventative intervention slammed? Syria occupied Lebanon for 30+ years but is not called to account. Israel attempts to respond to Hamas bombing its civilians from Lebanon and is called an Occupation force. Russia supports Assad with arms and money; and helps rebels destroy the fabric of African Nations. China establishes (builds) military bases in the Sea of Japan and buys the loyalty of small Pacific island nations as it imposes its military might on e.g. Tibet. But, the US and Israel are constantly criticised. The UN remains silent when Iran or North Korea threatens to destroy those two democracies. Both face terrorist attack, or in the case of Israel... Annihilation.

Karl Cameron-Jackson | 26 April 2017  

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