North Korea Doubts America’s Rules-Based International Order: And Pyongyang Gets It Right!

Normally one shouldn’t seek wisdom from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. After all, Freedom House gives the DPRK just three points out of 100, earning the label of "not free." (Actually, "not even friggin’ close to free" would be more accurate!) However, stunningly, Eritrea and Turkmenistan come in lower, with just two points each. Imagine countries less free than North Korea!

Still, the North recently put its propaganda writers to work. They issued a broadside against the new AUKUS alliance, by which the US, United Kingdom, and Australia intend to cooperate on security in the Pacific. The article’s title was "Why does US make a fuss about ‘rules-based international order’"?

Pyongyang complained that it was inconsistent for Washington to transfer nuclear technology to Australia, thereby "posing danger of nuclear proliferation and triggering the arms race." Canberra deploying nuclear-powered subs, the most immediate objective of AUKUS, obviously is different than the North possessing nuclear-tipped missiles. However, the DPRK’s broader argument was on stronger ground.

First, noted the North Koreans: "It is a well-known fact that the US has long deployed its nuclear assets all over the world to threaten and blackmail the countries of its dislike with nuclear weapons, in utter breach of international agreements and order." Which is essentially true. That is, Washington is intent on defending much of the world, and in doing so has relied on "extended deterrence," that is, threatening to go to nuclear war on behalf of select nations.

Of course, this is done with the agreement of allied states and directed against governments viewed, usually with good reason, as unreasonable and threatening. This "nuclear umbrella" is open over NATO members, as well as Japan and South Korea. Australians believe they would be protected if they were fighting with America. If Iran developed nuclear weapons Washington would face substantial pressure to open at least a nuclear parasol over several Middle Eastern nations.

Although a logical policy, extended deterrence has substantial downsides for all concerned. While it seems simple against non-nuclear powers, as the DPRK long was, nuclear strikes would escalate any conflict and multiply the resulting destruction, including to nearby nations. The nuclear umbrella also invites other governments to develop nukes in response. That was the obvious response for Pyongyang.

As nuclear weapons spread extended deterrence becomes much more dangerous for the US, risking the destruction of America’s homeland for less than vital or even important interests abroad. Which increases pressure on Washington to forestall proliferation, with force, if necessary. However, threats of military action against potential nuclear powers encourages them to develop nukes, as has the North.

As for America’s support for the existing system, the DPRK was equally critical: "the US talks quite often about ‘rules-based international order,’ posing as if it alone is ‘faithful’ to the international agreements and order and has authority to ‘supervise’ them. … Having no scruple about withdrawing from an international organization when it does not suit its taste and even reducing overnight the international disarmament treaty directly related to world peace and security to a mere scrap paper – this is the true nature of the US-advocated ‘rules-based international order’."

Of course, this is all true. There are few more common international events than US diplomats making sanctimonious pronouncements about one rule or another right before or after Uncle Sam violated the same or an equally important principle. American officials chide China for not following a judicial ruling under the Law of the Sea Treaty, which Washington did not ratify (for good reason, actually). Washington questions why other nations, usually targets of the US, arm themselves as American military spending hits the stratosphere.

Moreover, America routinely walks out of agreements and organizations, the JCPOA, or Iran nuclear deal, merely being the latest example. Similar is the hypocrisy of attacking human rights violations by an adversary (say, Iran) while ignoring human rights violations by a friendly power (such as Saudi Arabia), which was a hallmark of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s unprincipled tenure. Indeed, Pompeo acted as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s consigliere, seeking to protect the latter from being held accountable for his many crimes.

Then the DPRK put the nuclear issue and American inconsistency together. Insisted Pyongyang: "the ‘rules’ that the US is making a fuss about are not the ‘rules’ of impartiality, objectivity and universality but those of the ‘US style which serve the American values to the core, and the US favorite phrase of ‘international order’ is the one necessary for maintaining the US’ hegemony as it is a far cry from world peace and security. The US uses the American-style gangster-like logic and argument that its nuclear threat to other countries is ‘for keeping the international order’ and that other countries’ exercise of the right to self-defense to cope with the US military threat is a ‘breach of the international order.’ This is the height of application of double standards."

It certainly is. Of course, there are manifold reasons why North Korea is not trusted by its neighbors, starting with its invasion of South Korea in 1950. Still, the US has created a massive nuclear arsenal, more suited to coercing other nations than defending America, but objects to those same governments developing much smaller nuclear forces that could be used to defend them against Washington.

Like the DPRK. No doubt political reasons also undergird the program, including the desire to intimidate other states and solidify domestic military support for the regime and dynasty. However, most analysts believe that Pyongyang wants to acquire nukes to deter attack by the US. Certainly, North Koreans have little reason to credit American lectures about the moral imperative for nuclear disarmament, which never acknowledge Washington’s own obligation under the Non-Proliferation Treaty to ultimately denuclearize.

Finally, the North is concerned about regional security. The Pyongyang authorities observed: "peace and security in the region and the rest of the world are becoming much more unstable owing to the self-opinionated and hypocritical acts of high-handedness and arbitrariness perpetrated by the US around the world. Peace is the common desire of mankind. The international community should squarely see the reactionary nature of ‘rules-based international order’ advertised by the US and no longer tolerate high-handedness and arbitrariness of the US that totally destroys and tramples on peace and security in the region and the rest of the world."

Again, despite the florid rhetoric, it is impossible to simply dismiss the charge. The US is self-opinionated and hypocritical and commits high-handed and arbitrary acts. This unfortunate reality damages "peace and security in the region and the rest of the world." Of course, Washington is not the only culprit in this regard. This description applies to most governments worldwide, especially ones like the DPRK. However, America, seeking to preserve its role as the world’s leading state and moral tutor, has an obligation to do better. Else, why should anyone follow Washington?

A broken clock is right twice a day. So are the North Koreans. The US should take the North’s criticism seriously and work harder to fulfill the ideals that America traditionally espouses. Otherwise the rest of the world will have little reason to take Washington’s pronouncements seriously.

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.