Tensions have been running high on the Korean peninsula. The White House and media commentators have claimed that the crisis was prompted by North Korea’s inexperienced and supposedly irrational dictator, Kim Jong-Un. They have denounced confrontational moves by his regime, including a “declaration of war” and a series of high-profile missile and bomb tests.
The same authorities outrageously pretend that highly provocative actions by the United States were merely defensive measures. The U.S. flew B2 and B52 bombers over the Korean peninsula to make clear they are capable of dropping nuclear bombs on the North. Together with South Korea’s powerful armed forces, the U.S. carried out maneuvers (including scenarios of fighting on North Korean territory) within sight of the North and stationed new “defensive” missiles targeting North Korea on its Pacific island colony of Guam.
That is, the U.S. is continuing the imperialist policies it has aimed at North Korea for nearly seventy years, keeping the country under constant military threat and imposing a starvation blockade. To be sure, Kim Jong-Un has been making a lot of noise – to impress his generals and keep his people in line. But with an economy strangled by U.S. sanctions and targeted by hostile powers, North Korea’s challenges to the West, especially its nuclear weapons program, are attempts at self-defense, aimed in part at winning aid from the West as in the past.
Although North Korea and the U.S. are playing a dangerous game that could lead to military conflict, the reality is that none of the parties involved want an outbreak of hostilities. While the Northern regime made a formal declaration of war, this was an act of political theater – it did not mobilize its military toward taking any action, and a formal state of war already exists. The U.S. is concerned that North Korea’s nuclear program could get out of control, and Washington always wants to make an example of regimes that defy its interests. But they have long been wary of opening a hornets’ nest on the Korean peninsula, all the more so after their disastrous failures to subdue Afghanistan and Iraq. Given that the world economy is teetering on the edge of another Great Depression, the White House knows that it cannot afford a failed military adventure on such a scale.
The vast majority of Koreans believe that their entire peninsula ought to be a united territory of a single nation. Colonized by Japan since before World War I, the country was divided into two trusteeship zones after World War II, which were initially occupied by the rival U.S. and Soviet imperialists under a U.N.-brokered deal. In the North, the Soviets looted Korean industry, dismantling and carting off factories as they did in Eastern Europe; they created a Stalinist pseudo-socialist regime under wartime anti-Japanese guerrilla leader Kim Il-Sung. In the South the U.S. set up a client government that included notorious collaborators with the Japanese occupation. The Southern regime had little popular legitimacy, and a widespread rebellion was repressed by the South Korean army under U.S. command.
The Korean war broke out in 1950, and Northern forces quickly occupied most of the South until the U.S. brought in its own troops in the name of the U.N. The world war had greatly weakened the old colonial powers, and national liberation movements were beginning to rise, demanding independence. Washington was anxious to stop them – and to discourage the Stalinists in Moscow and Peking from thinking they could expand their influence by supporting them.
The North Korean advance against America’s puppet rulers in the South reflected the national liberation struggle despite its Stalinist leadership, and Washington decided to make a horrible example of it. In a few years the U.S. dropped more bombs on this comparatively small country than were dropped on Germany in the entire course of the world war. This included the extensive use of napalm; cities, towns and villages were reduced to rubble, with estimates of the number of civilians killed rising into the millions.
At the time, only a minority of socialists recognized that the Stalinists in Russia had overthrown the world’s first workers’ state from within and become a new exploitative ruling class. They also saw that when the Stalinists seized power in China in 1949 they had overthrown the imperialist grip but had suppressed the working class – theirs was not a socialist revolution. But these anti-Stalinist socialists misunderstood the Korean war as a proxy battle between rival and equally expansionist imperialist powers, America and Russia, and took no side. (This mistake was made even by Natalia Sedova, one of the world’s last surviving Bolsheviks and Leon Trotsky’s widow. She had courageously broken from her husband’s followers when they made a mockery of his ideas by deciding that Stalinism could be progressive and create “workers’ states” while crushing independent working-class activity and organization.)
In our view, the Korean war was one of the first major battles against imperialism in the post-World War II world. In such wars revolutionary socialists side with the oppressed and stand for the defeat of the imperialists. Only through this policy can we hope to show the way for the working-class to lead the anti-imperialist struggle to victory and spread the revolution to overthrow capitalism everywhere.
The war ended in 1953 with the U.S. stalemated by the massive intervention of Chinese military forces. But it pointed to the basic choice the U.S. would seek to impose on the “third-world” countries. One option was to accept super-exploitation and oppression through imperialist investment, trade domination and looting of natural resources; then the local ruling classes could hope to grab at least some of the fruits of “modernization.” Otherwise they could go it alone and face a political and economic isolation that is particularly harsh for technologically and resource-poor countries – if they didn’t actually face armed conflict with imperialist-backed forces.
North Korea implemented its variant of the Stalinist model of development, keyed on a rapid build-up of heavy industry with Soviet and Chinese aid. Over the years Kim learned to play off its Soviet and Chinese overseers against each other and added an ideology of “juche,” or self-reliance, to the formulaic “Marxism-Leninism” of his sponsors. Needless to say, despite its socialist label, Stalinist rule repressed and exploited the working class. Moreover, just as in the USSR and Eastern Europe, North Korean industry became increasingly obsolete as the Stalinist system inhibited innovation and neglected consumer production. Much of the state budget went to weapons and the maintenance of a huge army. By now, practically its only strength is its massive military and primitive nuclear arms program.
After the collapse of the USSR, economic support from Russia ended and China reduced its aid and began to insist on payment in hard currency. All this led eventually to the breakdown of industry and agriculture and widespread starvation, causing millions of deaths. Harsh even in its earlier days, North Korea developed one of the world’s most repressive dictatorships, squelching all dissent. It features the personality cult, almost deification, of the three Kims – grandfather Kim Il-Sung, father Kim Jong-Il and the present leader – who have ruled in monarchical succession for over 65 years.
Meanwhile, South Korea – for a strategic period, and for reasons of Cold War geopolitics – was exempted from imperialism’s prevailing pattern of plunder and domination. Under heavy state intervention (and partial ownership) starting in the 60’s, and granted a protected home market, it developed a significant industrial base geared to exports. The real key was initially low pay, long hours and heavy repression for the workers, enabling the country to move up the economic ladder. Following mass militant struggles in the 80’s and 90’s, the capitalist conglomerates that run the economy had to grant higher wages and more benefits, and military dictators were forced out.
After the East Asian crisis of the late 1990’s, Western firms began buying up many Korean assets. South Korean capital also upgraded its productive technology and itself looked abroad for new sources of cheap, disciplined labor; most prominently in China but in the North as well. A joint industrial park was set up in the North, employing tens of thousands of impoverished, super-exploitable North Koreans. China also invests in the North, where wages are even lower than at home.
North Korea’s economic crisis threatens the break-up of the regime, and this poses a serious problem for all the countries in the region. If the regime totters, hundreds of thousands or millions of desperate Northerners would head for China and the South. A potentially chaotic situation within the North would hardly be the most suitable one to profitably super-exploit. So even though the current regime causes serious problems, all the powers involved – South Korea, Japan, China, Russia and the U.S. – consider it preferable that the North Koreans remain in their country-sized prison.
The people of North Korea have lived for a century under the domination, exploitation and strangulation by imperialist powers: Japan, Russia and since World War II, above all the U.S. The recent outburst by the regime is a response to the latest round of economic sanctions imposed by the imperialist-dominated United Nations in response to North Korean missile tests. The imperialists assume the right to determine who is entitled to nukes and who isn’t. Thus the U.S. approves India’s weapons as a counter to China and has long kept silent about Israel’s growing nuclear arsenal – although both those countries did not play by rules the imperialist powers themselves imposed.
Whether or not its nuclear weapons are yet a real military threat, North Korea’s rulers concluded that in a world of general imperialist hostility, it is safer to have them than not to. Nuclear weapons are an abomination, a threat to the survival of humanity. But as internationalists we reject the imperialists’ hypocrisy in declaring that some countries cannot be allowed to have such weapons. After all, the U.S. is the only country that has yet used nuclear weapons, and it did so on civilian populations. In that sense, we defend North Korea’s right to have nuclear weapons against imperialist demands for its disarmament.
The United States, as a declining economic power but still dominant militarily, remains the greatest danger to peace and human survival. The American military maneuvers are a reminder not only to North Korea of its devastating power. The U.S. also wants to let China know who is the real superpower, as potential conflicts build. To that end it is also shoring up its alliance with Japan, China’s main rival in the region. The Korean crisis, even if unplanned, serves the Obama administration’s “pivot” to East Asia in order to maximize its influence in this critical area. For its part, China has used its privileged access to North Korea as a bargaining chip in its dealings with the U.S. But most recently China has been trying to rein in its nominal ally in order to reduce tensions and give the U.S. no excuse for a military build-up.
We can’t say what will happen, but we do know that the imperialists will keep their own interests of exploitation and domination foremost, well ahead of the human costs. While both sides see advantages in building up tensions, neither desires a full-scale confrontation. There has been a mutual drawback in provocative rhetoric and maneuvers. But the danger of matters getting out of hand, of incidents and accidents that blow up, is real. In the event of war, while we would consider a defeat of American intervention as a blow against the world imperialist system, that outcome is highly unlikely. Much more probable is a catastrophe of greater misery and death for the North Korean masses, and a great deal of the same for those of South Korea as well. In any event, we oppose the dangerous maneuvers of American imperialism and the sanctions of the imperialist world order.
Some on the far left defend North Korea not only on the grounds of opposition to imperialist intervention but also because they consider the country to be progressive, a socialist or workers’ state. This idea is nonsense: as with all the states subjected to Stalinism after World War II, the working class never ruled and was brutally suppressed by the regime. North Korea’s backwardness is fundamentally a result of imperialist strangulation as well as of the decadent state-capitalist rule of the Kim dynasty. Its “self-reliant” and allegedly planned economy is a shambles that serves only the elite. And there is nothing at all progressive in the regime’s bizarre ideology, a blend of Stalinist rhetoric and quasi-religious cult worship of the Kims.
Revolutionaries stand for the unification of Korea – through genuine working-class socialist revolution, North and South. East Asia is a region with massive and strategic economic production and the world’s largest concentration of workers, particularly in China. Not surprisingly, it is the scene of growing mass working-class unrest; it thus holds great promise for a working-class alternative to imperialist exploitation, oppression and war. Revolutionaries in Korea should build a revolutionary party of the working class, a party that would show the way to a real working-class seizure of power that is so necessary.
1. This information is not well known. It was revealed when Soviet archives became available after the fall of the USSR. Here is an excerpt from the document “Soviet Aims in Korea and the Origins of the Korean War, 1945-1950: New Evidence from Russian Archives”, by Kathryn Weathersby, Florida State University Working Paper No. 8:
“In December 1945, as part of the preparations for the anticipated elections, the 2nd Far Eastern Department of the Foreign Ministry compiled a biographical report on Rhee, Kim Koo, and other leaders in the South. ... The Soviet Union also had very specific economic aims in northern Korea which they would be unable to realize should a government hostile to the USSR come to power on the peninsula. Another briefing paper for the December conference, ‘A Report on Japanese Military and Heavy Industry in Korea,’ written by Suzdalev, Senior Advisor of the Foreign Ministry’s 2nd Far Eastern Department, gave a detailed list of Japanese property in Korea and drew three conclusions:
‘1. Japanese enterprises of military and heavy industry in Korea, having been created for the purpose of serving Japanese aggressive policy and having actively fulfilled that role, indisputably must be fully taken away from Japan.’
‘2. Japanese enterprises of military and heavy industry located in North Korea must be considered trophies of the Red Army, since all these enterprises to one degree or another worked for the Japanese army, which fought against the Red Army, and were seized from the Japanese at the cost of great sacrifices by the Red Army.’
‘3. Finally, the Japanese military and heavy industry in North Korea must be transfered to the Soviet Union as partial payment of reparations, and also as compensation for the huge damage inflicted by Japan on the Soviet Union throughout the time of its existence, including the damages from the Japanese intervention in the Far East from 1918 to 1923.’”
The notion of war reparations is completely foreign to Marxism and Bolshevism, since it means further suffering for the masses of the defeated nation. It is even more outrageous in this case, since Korea in the war had been not a belligerent against the USSR but an oppressed colony of Japan.