Suppose there was a successful negotiation to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. Could North Korea successfully hide the continuation of such a program? Such an exploit relies on the interplay of two factors:
- A conflation of the rights of the accused in Western legal systems, with the corresponding standard of “guilt” of international law. A confusion in language, used by the press and exploited by our adversaries, is rampant.
- A change in the character of North Korea’s nuclear program. Modification of goals, with clandestine techniques, to make invisible to international inspection continuance of part of the program.
The two factors interlock, creating a technical twist on word play in a neglected corner of legal thought.
The language of international law tends to follow the customs of Western legal systems. This influences the vocabulary of journalism. For example, Syrian use of poison gas in Ghouta is described by major news outlets as “alleged.” With this word, the media offers protection in language analogous to the protection in law given to the accused. In short,
An “alleged” violation of international law derives from protection of the accused in Western legal systems.
Autocratic regimes know this confusion of words and standards, and exploit it extensively as a weakness of Western thought. When a consumer of Western media reads or hears the word “alleged” in connection with an international act, there is little chance of distinguishing it from the presumption that the accused is innocent unless proven guilty.
We can have multiple volumes of intelligence data about Syrian chemical attacks, yet like as not, Reuters et al will use the word “alleged.” The likelihood that a slowly deployed UN inspection team succeeds in recovering CBW agents from an area the Russians and Syrians have spent a week cleaning is small to zero. When Russia says, “You have no proof”, they exploit the conflation in language. They have discovered the loophole and use it: In the domain of international law, proof by the standards of Western domestic legal systems is rare.
That this situation persists, created by confusion in language, stems from the whimsical desire to pretend that international law approaches domestic law in constancy and fairness. While international law is not a complete fiction, some of the common memes are lie, cheat, and steal. The occasional successful prosecution of a war criminal does not imply that it is actually a legal system. It might be a negotiating framework.
The media do not invent vocabulary. If they are at a loss for words, having to resort to “alleged” for Ghouta gas attacks, the responsibility is with the intellectual establishment, who have failed to render the distinction between the rights of the accused in Western legal systems, and the “rights” of Assad’s regime. The conflation of “rights of the accused” stems from a language void, which we cannot expect the press to fix on their own.
Now for the reductio ad absurdum . Reuters et al call the Ghouta gas attacks “alleged”, yet there has been a multinational strike against Syrian CBW targets, in direct retaliation for the “alleged” attacks. This shows that Reuters et al extend the term “alleged” to what are, to very high probability, actionable facts.
But while press vocabulary is the day-to-day, there is no fixed barrier in the human mind between different spheres of discourse. The languages of the press and of diplomatic forums cross-fertilize and recirculate. The press reports on diplomacy; diplomats read the press. The linguistic error of legalese is a recirculating loop.
This is the strata of words and logic in which a North Korean nuke program could be hidden, buried beyond what in domestic legal systems is called “proof.” Detected, yet not proven, the Morlocks dig deeper.
Next, the technical changes that make this possible.