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Putting Missiles Ahead of Feeding People

Stephen Gowans

george W. Bush's coolness -- or is it outright hostility? -- to the recent easing of tension between the two Koreas has merited little press coverage. Of course, with the PR case for the National Missile Defense (NMD) -- the antiballistic missile system -- based on North Korea, the reason for Dubya's enmity to any entente is understandable, and perhaps the reasons for not dwelling too long on his enmity, is clear. It calls forth too many unhelpful questions, like "Why wouldn't Bush be interested in a divided people agreeing to put aside the hostility that has been a constant headache for more the fifty years?"

Maybe it hasn't been such a headache after all. Maybe, in fact, it's been quite useful for Bush, and his predecessors.

North Korea, you'll recall, is the latest version of the bogeyman, the hobgoblin trotted out in the service of practical politics. As Menken said, practical politics is the art of menacing the population with an endless series of hobgoblins, none of them real.

Bush recently took enough time off from playing video games in the Oval Office and handing assignments to Dick Cheney to show how pissed he was when South Korean President Kim Dae Jung issued a joint declaration with Russian President Vladimir Putin, endorsing the Antiballistic Missile Treaty (ABM). The ABM treaty, which Washington dismisses as outdated, would have to be junked before Bush could realistically funnel oodles of taxpayers money into the troughs of porcine defense contractors to deploy the system.

Of course, the nominally free and independent Western press, spoon-fed most of its news by government officials, has done its patriotic duty in limning North Korea as a dark and frightening rogue, a fitting description for the country's role as the new bogeycountry. Iraq, it seems, has been ordered off stage for the moment, awaiting a return to the klieg lights when the time is ripe.

It's now the turn of Kim Jong Il, North Korea's leader, to be unwillingly thrust into a starring role in the never ending play of the US against the bad guys. The media have already picked out a particularly menacing black hat for the North Korean bogeyman to wear.

He's paranoid. He's a head case. He's secretive. He's plotting to build nuclear weapons. And he's going to send them hurtling toward...Montreal!

Yes, Montreal. Members of Canada's socially conservative Alliance party shuffled off to Washington to meet with Pentagon brass, who were interested in persuading Canadians to get behind the NMD. Of course, getting the Alliance onside any harebrained scheme, as long as it is American, is no more difficult than getting Dubya to stumble on big words, like ignoramus, or plutocrat. Still, sensing that one of the weaknesses of the North-Korea-could-attack-the-United-States argument is that it hardly seems believable that Kim Jong Il would invite his country's total obliteration by a retaliatory US strike, no matter how much of a head case he's said to be, the Pentagon types crafted this tale: North Korea knows it can't attack us, because we would retaliate. But Canada can't retaliate, because Canada doesn't have nuclear weapons. So, to hurt us with impunity, North Korea will attack Canada, our ally.

The Alliance members believed this. Who needs IQ tests when the Pentagon does such a good job of sorting out the truly dim?

The Globe and Mail, Canada's newspaper of record, not without its own dim-bulbs, has been running a series of articles on North Korea. The tone has been derisory. Last outpost of the Cold War. People starving. Loony leader. A police state (this said at a time the press has been full of stories about Canada Customs routinely opening people's mail.)

And then there was Mary McGrory's Boston Globe article (Bush casts shadow on Korean 'sunshine policy', 17 March 2001.) North Korea is more interested in building missiles than feeding her people, she wrote. Apart from being dark and frightening, it seems North Korea is also inhuman too. But then, aren't all bogeycountries?

But there's something wrong here. With the largest nuclear arsenal in the world and a seemingly insatiable appetite for defense spending, along side pockets of Third World poverty, the highest child poverty rate in the industrialized world, and tens of millions of Americans without medical insurance, it boggles the mind that anyone in the United States could chide North Korea for putting the manufacture of nuclear missiles ahead of feeding its people, and not feel more than a little hypocritical. Would the Klan complaining about Israeli anti-Palestinian racism be any stranger?

And yet McGrory denounces North Korea for its failings, all the while apparently blind to the want and privation of her own country, and unaware that a fraction of the obscenely bloated Pentagon budget could put an end to it.

As to the hungry of North Korea, and the Communist country's preoccupation with missiles, Washington's five-decade long economic blockade, and the 43,000 American GIs stationed on North Korea's border, may have more than a little to do with the country's paranoia, and the hunger of its people.

And Bush's need for a bogeyman to menace the American population into going along with the NMD -- and the pitch forking of more money into defense, when it could be going into ending poverty -- will ensure that North Korean's hunger, and the poverty of Americans, continues.

Steve Gowans calls himself a radical, but others just call him contrary and a pain-in-the-ass. He can be reached at

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