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Sovereignty Matters


It is a relatively poor country, but the people who live there are proud of their long history and rich culture.  Aside from mining, there are few profitable enterprises, though recently casinos have begun to attract outsiders.  Nevertheless, the country’s government values its independence and uniqueness.  Even more important than self-sufficiency, which has eroded over the years, the country stresses its sovereignty.  And it is suspicious of any actions or laws that might abridge that sovereignty.

The above description could apply to North Korea.  But I’m really thinking of Indian Country.  There’s a reason why I’m making the comparison between these two disparate places.  But first: a bit of background on the importance of sovereignty for Native Americans.

It is not well known either inside or outside the United States that the reservations where many Native Americans live – also known as Indian Country – are sovereign territories.  The citizens of the several hundred reservations that comprise Indian Country – along with the tribal members who have moved to cities – obey federal laws.  But Indian Country also makes its own laws.  Under these separate laws, tribal police keep the peace and tribal courts administer justice.  Like any other country, Indian Country conducts government-to-government negotiations with Washington.  You’ll find this right of sovereignty clearly stated in the U.S. Constitution.

Indigenous people once lived throughout what is now the United States.  Through treaties and broken promises and outright theft, the U.S. government took land away from Native Americans.  The tribes fought back, and wars continued until the end of the 19th century.  The impact on Indian Country of these wars and forced resettlement was devastating.  In 1800, after several hundred years of decline due to disease and clashes with the settlers, 600,000 Native Americans lived on the continent.  By 1890, the population had declined to only 250,000.

After 1880, when the reservation system was established, Indians continued to face the threat of extinction.  The federal government attempted to assimilate Native Americans by forcing children into schools that suppressed their language, culture, and religion.  During this time, the economic self-sufficiency of Indian Country was also under threat.  Reservation land was rarely good for agriculture or livestock.  But when oil was discovered in tribal territory in 1900 – followed by discoveries of coal and uranium – mining and energy corporations began to extract great wealth from land the federal government previously considered worthless.  Money from these operations went into bank accounts for individual Indians.  As investigators later discovered, the federal government mismanaged these trust funds to the tune of billions of dollars.  Native Americans launched a lawsuit asking for restitution – the Cobell case – but the lawsuit has spent the last decade in the court system without resolution.

Although casinos have sprung up on Indian lands, generating wealth for some Indian tribes, Indian Country as a whole remains quite poor.  The unemployment rate for the several million Native American citizens remains higher than any other ethnic group.  The poverty rate is higher than the U.S. average.

Despite the legacy of unfair treaties and the subsequent pressures to assimilate, most tribes have held on and managed to retain their traditions and culture.  The reassertion of sovereignty – the principle of self-government – has played an important role in this renaissance. 

There is a long history of pain and atrocity between the U.S. government and Indian country.  But the two sides have hammered out a working relationship.  Conflicts that were once fought over on the battlefield are now waged in court.  When the relationship prospers, it does so because the U.S. government upholds the Constitution, the relevant Supreme Court decisions, and the federal legislation that all uphold tribal sovereignty.  That is, Washington recognizes the right of Native Americans to govern themselves.

Indian Country and North Korea are different in so many ways.  The comparison is useful, however, for at least one purpose: to demonstrate the importance of sovereignty.  

There is also a history of pain and atrocity in Washington’s relations with Pyongyang.  The United States sent a gunboat to open up Korea in 1866 and, when that wasn’t successful, sent in the Marines in 1871 (the Battle of Little Big Horn took place five years after that).  The United States facilitated the transfer of Korea into Japanese hands in 1905, which eventually led to a colonial policy that forced Koreans to assimilate into Japanese culture not unlike the attempts to force Native Americans into Anglo culture.  The United States arbitrarily divided the Korean peninsula in 1945 much as it arbitrarily created reservation boundaries.  The Korean War was as devastating to the Korean people as the earlier wars had been devastating to Native Americans. 

Here’s the difference.  The United States never formally recognized North Korea as a sovereign country, not even after North Korean joined the United Nations in 1991.   There is no provision of the U.S. Constitution that mandates the recognition of North Korea.  And many Americans may well be skeptical of extending diplomatic recognition to a country that is developing nuclear weapons and has a dismal human rights record.

But North Korea isn’t going anywhere.  The regime survived the worst of the food crisis of the late 1990s and doesn’t show any signs at the moment of collapsing.  The Six Party Talks on resolving the current nuclear crisis are stalled. 

To change this dynamic, the United States should recognize North Korea’s sovereignty.  Only then will the persistent conflicts between the two countries move out of the military realm and stand a chance of resolution at the negotiating table.  After so many wars and so much mistrust, the U.S. government and Indian Country have been able to bury the hatchet.  It’s time for Washington to learn from its history and do the same thing with North Korea.

John Feffer, www.johnfeffer.com, is the author of North Korea, South Korea: U.S. Policy at a Time of Crisis.

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