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LONDON — On May 9, in an interview in Moscow on CNN U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said “the United States, of course, recognizes that North Korea is a sovereign state.”

Many people thought that this represented a softening of the U.S. position on North Korea in an attempt to get that country back to the six-party talks aimed at getting it to give up its nuclear aspirations. That was, however, not how the leadership of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) read it.

Even for those of us used to DPRK rhetorical flourishes, the North Koreans’ reaction to Rice’s statement seemed a bit strong, maybe a bit over the top: Rice’s “loudmouthed recognition of the sovereign state and the like were nothing but a ruse to conceal the U.S. attempt at bringing down (North Korea’s) regime,” an unidentified spokesman for North Korea’s Foreign Ministry said.

The spokesman said Rice was either “ignorant of DPRK-U.S. history” or a “brazen-faced liar.”

I think we can take it that North Korea was not convinced that Rice’s apparently conciliatory gesture was to be taken seriously. Should they have been? Maybe not.

What is this thing called sovereignty? To answer that we have to look back a bit. The system of sovereign states that we are used to is a relatively newfangled arrangement under which groups of people arrange their affairs, or have them arranged for them. It was only introduced in 1648 in the Treaty of Westphalia, which ended the Thirty Years War.

The treaty introduced the concept of sovereignty according to which specific governments were recognized as having absolute power over geographical areas. Recognition of sovereign power carried with it the rule of noninterference in the domestic affairs of sovereign states. This system is that under which the countries of the world continue to operate their affairs.

How do you recognize a sovereign state? In her CNN interview, Rice said: “The United States, of course, recognizes that North Korea is sovereign. It’s obvious. They are a member of the United Nations.”

So that’s it then; members of the United Nations make up the set of entities that we call states, or countries, whose governments are recognized as sovereign powers. Except of course in the case of Taiwan: That country is not a member of the U.N.; according to the U.N., it is part of China. However, the U.S. does not recognize that the Chinese government has sovereign power over Taiwan.

U.S. President George W. Bush has in fact said that the U.S. will do “whatever it takes” to prevent China from forcibly asserting its sovereign power over Taiwan, although it agrees that Taiwan belongs to China. Tricky huh? It’s what the Americans call “constructive ambiguity.”

Actually, Taiwan is not the only case in which the U.S. has not recognized the sovereign rights of nation states that are members of the U.N. and has broken the rule of noninterference. But you have to remember that the U.S. came into existence by violently stealing the sovereign rights of the Native Americans; by fighting Great Britain to remove that countries’ sovereign power over the original 13 states; by buying, in the Louisiana Purchase, sovereignty over much of its territory west of the Mississippi from France; by annexing Texas; and by taking sovereignty over Florida and California by force of arms against Spain.

Sovereignty then, for the Americans, is something you can steal, trade, take over, or fight for, or just ignore.

Even where it accepts the sovereignty of a state, the U.S. frequently overrides the rule of noninterference in that country’s domestic affairs and forcibly limits governments’ exercise of their sovereignty. In the Western Hemisphere, this is called the Monroe Doctrine; elsewhere it is just U.S. politics.

In the last century in South America, the U.S. invaded countries (Cuba, Grenada and Panama), usurped governments (Chile), colonized countries (Puerto Rico), and supported violently repressive illegal regimes and terrorist and insurrectionist movements (too many to list, but start with Peru, Guatemala, Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua — you get the idea).

In the rest of the world, sovereign status did not do much good for Iraq, Yugoslavia, Vietnam and Somalia, which the U.S. invaded; Cambodia and Laos, which the U.S. bombed (in the case of Laos, a neutral country, more bombs were dropped per square kilometer than on any other country at anytime ever); and the Philippines, which it ran as a colony.

In Eastern Europe and Central Asia, the U.S. has been supporting antigovernment forces in the hope that they will be able to take over the sovereignty of those nations, as they did most recently in the Ukraine and Georgia.

North Korea was not admitted as a member of the U.N. until 1991, so it was all right for the U.S. to use biological and chemical weapons in the Korean War in the 1950s. As the country was not a member of the U.N. at that time, there were presumably no sovereign rights that the U.S. was interfering with.

Hmm. Maybe the North Korean government is right to wonder whether Rice’s statement — that the U.S. accepts that the DPRK as a sovereign state — is meaningful. As long as the U.S. does not accept, and it clearly does not, that recognizing sovereignty precludes working actively for regime change, then it is right to question the value of her statement.

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