President George W. Bush coined the term ‘axis of evil’ in his State of the Union Address on January 29, 2002. He then repeated it numerous times throughout his presidency, using it to describe countries which he accused of helping terrorism and pursuing weapons of mass destruction. Iran, Iraq and North Korea were, according to President Bush and his State of the Union address, possessing nuclear weapons. Out of the three, one threat has already been eliminated by the United States, whether the reasons for the military action leading to it (question of Iraq having weapons of mass destruction in 2003, or whether the real reason behind the invasion wasn’t Saddam Hussein’s insistence in 2000 on Iraqi oil being sold for euros instead of dollars) or the way in which it has been conducted (admittedly not the cleanest or nicest way) are agreeable or not. But the other two are still in play, and despite the mainstream media focusing on Iran as the more important one I believe North Korea is actually a bigger problem for the world now and in the near future.

The Iranian threat is publicly discussed as only coming from the military angle, especially the nuclear weapons. The development of nuclear weapons in any country is in a sense a negative development, though admittedly this may be arguable as in certain cases the gain in balance in the world may render it positive. But if this was the only or the main problem then the treatment of Israel and Iran would be exactly the same, as in both these counties nuclear program is illegal according to the international law. But Israel is supported while Iran isn’t. Then one has to assume that the real problem isn’t one of nuclear weapons. The threat is not military either, as Iranian military spending is relatively low, and not comparable with American defence budget. We can reach for historical materialism and conclude that as Hussein’s decision to use petroeuros made Bush more willing to invade Iraq, Iran is treated as a main threat in the world because it threatens US control of Middle East energy resources, and its political influence in the region as well.

If we compare Korean and Iranian military power, and their potential for nuclear capabilities, then North Korea seems trivial with its medieval army. But the possession of nuclear weapons seems not to be the most basic problem with these countries, and only a factor making the whole situation more dangerous globally. If we look at the two remaining countries of the axis of evil, then it may be useful to look how the way these societies operate contributes to the well-being (in the broad sense of the word) of the people living in these counties and in the whole world. The latter is, I suppose, irrelevant in both cases, neither Iranians nor Persians are really upsetting the well-being of the humanity at large. So the question really is what is happening to the well-being of the citizens of these counties. If you look at the problem this way then it’s apparent that the well-being of these people is impaired by the tyrannies instilled upon them.

To look at which of these requires more attention from the global community, or indeed more help, we have to look at the extent of their misery as well as the outlook for change. In both of these categories Iran seems relatively mild compared to North Korea. Not only is the suppression of people in Iran relatively low, but also the country is too big to control carefully and therefore necessarily quite open to the information flow from and to the western world. What that means is that the people themselves will at one point or another rebel against the tyranny, much as their neighbours have done in the past years. The only reason for it not having happened already is the military power and discipline of the rulers, which is greater than in the neighbouring countries. On the other hand North Korea not only makes all their citizens miserable, not even feeding them (international help is a major contributor in terms of food), but also effectively shelters them from any external source of information, rendering the country a real dystopia, a realisation of the ideas of Karin Boye and Aldous Huxley.

Status quo in military conflicts are, if we allow historical materialism, kept in place by someone’s profits. It may be interesting to analyse who is profiting on the Israeli conflict, for instance, which is not as clear as looking at who would profit from steering Iran away from petroeuros, and away from high influence in the region full of oil. It is quite clear, too, why North Korea is not being helped in any meaningful way. There simply is no profit in freeing the people of North Korea from the hideous crimes they’re being subjugated to by the regime. The amount of weapons kept by North Korea in the vicinity of Seul makes it dangerous for South Korea, and the help that would need to be provided makes it unpopular everywhere. Meanwhile the suffering of people on a small Asian island with no oil resources is not picking anyone’s pocket, so it can be safely ignored, by the media and the politicians.

This essay first appeared in The Firebrand Magazine.