Pyongyang. Flickr photo

North Korea’s Government Is Terrible — And That’s Beside the Point

America doesn’t choose its enemies for their moral qualities

Andrew Dobbs
Published in
10 min readApr 21, 2017



When I wrote a piece about how the U.S. government misrepresents North Korea’s alleged threat to the world, I didn’t focus on North Korea’s problems — writing things that everyone already knows is boring.

This failure to mention the regime’s repression, however, led to a great deal of consternation from readers across the political spectrum. Military buffs on one Facebook forum called me a liberal and told me to leave the country.

Actual liberals were aghast — and certain I was confused. Even self-proclaimed socialists on Reddit were scandalized. It truly brought everyone together.

There were many others who liked the article of course, and nowhere in the piece did I say the North Korean government was a good one. Yet arguing that there’s logic behind their actions and a right to self-defense was still widely considered tantamount to endorsing forced labor camps or writing in Kim Jong Un for mayor.

I could see two very clear facts at play here. First, the demand that I write about the North Korean government’s repression had nothing to do with informing readers because everyone knows this fact already. And second, that the failure to say this created stress in the audience, provoking a backlash.

The easy conclusion here is that the reflexive need to relate all writing about North Korea back to their repressive government is a conditioned response, it’s a trope that has become requisite to every story about the country and a sign of the author’s political acceptability.

The function of this programming is obvious. If every story about North Korea has to focus on the government’s repression and most stories about North Korea are told in the context of U.S. military aggression against the country, then the implication is that the U.S. military threatens North Korea because its government is so notably repressive.

But this is obvious bullshit. The United States doesn’t care about human rights or freedom when deciding which nations to support or oppose — North Korea’s repression is irrelevant to America’s military conflict with the country.

Freedom House, an international human rights NGO, publishes a report every year called “Freedom in the World” that classifies the governments of the world as “free,” “partly free” or “not free.” Indexes like this have big problems, but for our purposes this one works.

Freedom House consider North Korea “not free,” just in case anyone was worried.

There are, in fact, 55 countries labeled “not free” in the last report, and the United States has military or close economic relationships with at least 30 of them — just under 60 percent. I say “at least” because a few of them are hard to judge.

Is the United States allied with Iraq, a “not free” country whose government the United States literally invented? The Iraqis seem pretty tired of America’s shit, but they have let us bomb ISIS, so it’s a tough call.

Similar questions exist for Libya, Yemen and Gambia — basically the countries where we have directly or indirectly intervened in recent years. America’s interventions make countries less free, not more, it seems. Yemen, for example, now has two terrible governments, one the U.S. government supports and the other the USA helps Saudi Arabia commit atrocities to suppress.

Oh, and in case you missed it, a coalition of Nigerian, Senegalese, Ghanaian, Malian and Togolese military forces invaded Gambia at the beginning of 2017 to install a new president. The old government was the “not free” one, and while its relations with the United States were strained, it welcomed Peace Corps assistance and a bilateral immunity agreement for its military.

This means that the United States would hold that government harmless before international courts even if its military, say, kidnapped more than 1,000 people and disappeared them on charges of witchcraft after their president decided that a witch had killed his aunt in 2009.

To be fair, the United States did in fact support military intervention to end this regime, one of the last foreign policy acts of Pres. Barack Obama’s administration. Other countries on the list have enjoyed somewhat less ambiguous support.

Turkmenistan, for example, was host to a cult of personality for their late president-for-life Saparmurat Niyazov that made the Kims look like they weren’t really trying. He had a golden statue in the capital with a motor that turned it throughout the day so that it always faced the sun, and every media broadcast began with an oath that the speaker wished that their tongue would wither away if it ever spoke against Niyazov.

Despite this, the United States happily used Turkmenistan airspace during the initial Afghan invasion and there were credible if unconfirmed claims that the CIA maintained a base there. The country has received small amounts of U.S. military aid and weapons, and in 2015 the U.S. military trained 60 of its officers for God-only-knows-what.

Niyazov died in 2006, and his successor, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, dialed back some of his cult, even taking down the rotating statue — though he later replaced it with a gold statue of himself riding a mighty steed — and saying that the tongue withering declaration should only be used for “special occasions.”

Still, the new Turkmen regime allows no political opposition and torture is endemic — it rivals North Korea for its repression, but it’s acceptable to the United States because of its strategic support for America’s imperialist adventures. In fact, here’s a photo of Berdimuhamedow with Pres. Barack and Obama and Michelle Obama in 2009.

White House photo by Lawrence Jackson

Imagine if a city council member from Chattanooga took a photo with Kim Jong Un — the explosion of outrage that would result. Turkmenistan is no less repressive, but because it supports U.S. imperialism its dictator gets access to America’s highest officials and nobody cares. His repression and North Korea’s are irrelevant.

Admittedly, U.S. support for Gambia and Turkmenistan is still limited, but there are many other regimes very close to the United States that rival or exceed their repressiveness and brutality. Saudi Arabia is the most notorious of these, with a military fully armed by the United States and its closest allies, as well as an explicit security umbrella obligating America to protect the kingdom from any outside attack.

Like North Korea, Saudi Arabia is ruled by an autocratic dynasty, without any tolerated political dissent. Any woman, in particular, who had a choice between living in North Korea or Saudi Arabia would have far more freedom and security in North Korea.

This may also be true of the United Arab Emirates, another absolute monarchy with no political freedoms whatsoever and an economy entirely dependent on human trafficking. The UAE has become one of the United States’ most important allies, and actually hosts more U.S. Navy ports than anywhere in the world outside the United States.

The Emiratis have in turn worked with Saudi Arabia to host military outposts in Eritrea in support of U.S.-led war-making in the Horn of Africa. Eritrea also provides a base for the Arab states’ war in Yemen, and is always neck-and-neck with North Korea for the distinction of the world’s most repressive country.

It’s notable for its system of “national service” that conscripts all citizens as teenagers and forces them to labor for the state under harsh military conditions for indefinite terms, often exceeding 10 years. More than nine percent of the population has fled the country in recent years.

Aside from this close cooperation with two major U.S. allies and support for U.S. military operations in the region, the United States and Eritrea are not particularly friendly. Part of this is because the United States is close allies with two of Eritrea’s major rivals, Ethiopia and Djibouti. America maintains extensive military operations in both countries despite their respective human rights offenses.

Ethiopia actually has fewer political parties in its government than North Korea does, as Pyongyang ostensibly allows the Social Democrats and another minor religious party to serve in the assembly — though this opposition is clearly controlled by the ruling Workers Party.

An animal market in Eritrea. Pixabay photo

Ethiopia is a one-party state with a long record of torture and strict controls on information and communication within the country. Among its more serious offenses is the forced relocation of more than 1.5 million rural people with little consultation or compensation, beating and killing those who resisted.

Djibouti has provided a crucial assist to the Ethiopian regime, rounding up refugees escaping that government and returning them to Ethiopia where, in many cases, they will be tortured or killed. As for Ethiopia’s own citizens, state security forces severely beat the leader of the country’s one independent human-rights group in the middle of a public cafe less than two weeks before he was shot by soldiers and refused medical treatment.

That same, day police killed 27 people and wounded another 150 during a religious festival. Because the United States provides direct military and police aid to the country, sells it weapons and pays it to lease a major naval base, there’s an excellent chance you helped pay for the weapons that killed those people.

And this is the real point here. We’ve all read litanies like this from Noam Chomsky or wherever, and after a while it just seems like pointless piling-on. But if you are a typical U.S. citizen, you got up this morning, dragged yourself to work, busted your pick all day and a chunk of that day — some number of hours, some amount of your effort — was taken by the U.S. government and then handed over to the Saudis so they could stone rape victims to death.

Or to the UAE so it could then pass it on to Eritrea where it was spent beating a 15-year-old kid into submission as an indefinite conscript, or to dozens of other countries where this shit and worse happens all the time with our support and encouragement.

But if someone mentions Ethiopia, you don’t feel the immediate need to hear them condemn that government. A celebrity going to Dubai with its slaves and capital punishment for apostasy is the definition of a dog-bites-man nonstory. Going to Pyongyang would be a major scandal.

We ignore the outrages done in our names and with our resources — the problems we have some influence over, the places where we could conceivably force our elected officials to change course — and instead we focus on the places where our only hope of changing things is to invade and overthrow the government by force.

The fact is that we don’t care about these other countries and their people for the same reason our government doesn’t — because we benefit from their repression. Human rights and repression is ultimately irrelevant to U.S. policymaking. The only thing that counts is access for global corporate power and its drive for resources.

These institutions help repressive states liquidate indigenous peoples or forcibly migrate religious minorities in the way of extraction, they help them torture and kill critics of neoliberalism so that they can make money. Then, they bring that money back home where most of us work for these companies or their subcontractors or vendors or for the services their employees and executives use or for the nonprofits and governments that they fund to make things easier for themselves between long days destroying other people’s lives.

We get paid off not to give a shit, and for the United State and other imperialist countries, this is a much more effective means of control than the brutal methods our clients — and our opponents — resort to in their own poverty.

All of this is repugnant, and perpetuating and defending this system requires a sophisticated system of ideological justification. That system works by repeating the same things over and over again until they become purely reflexive.

North Korea is the most dangerous country in the world. Yes, the United States dropped 26,000 bombs in seven countries in 2016 but North Korea is the most dangerous country in the world. Top Saudi officials were in constant contact with the 9/11 hijackers and the plot received money from official Saudi sources, but North Korea is the most dangerous country in the world.

When the message doesn’t get repeated, it creates discomfort and stress because in the silence a realization starts to set in. Whatever greater freedom or “moral high ground” we have was bought at the expense of others.

If you are legitimately outraged and sickened by the tales of horror from North Korea, then you must ask yourself whether it is the crime or the perpetrator that really upsets you — an authentic moral stance or a programmed response you can’t seem to locate when the perpetrator helps the U.S. war-making apparatus.

If you really do care about human rights then why not focus for now on the crimes your resources are being used to perpetrate?

Part of the reason more folks don’t — besides their material interest in keeping the killing going — is that right now the perpetrators have made a priority of war on North Korea and Syria, so struggling against the empire means resisting these demands and defending these targets.

As we saw this week, this makes a lot of folks uncomfortable, but our comfort was bought at the expense of other people’s lives and this is the only shot for moral legitimacy we’ll get. It ought to go without saying, but this is what it means to stay defiant today.

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Andrew Dobbs

Activist, organizer, and writer based in Austin, Texas.