North Korea: US imperialism confronts Pyongyang

What does Kim Jong Il’s defiance mean for the Bush military doctrine? Can these events lead to yet another US military intervention? Offensiv takes a closer look at the Korean crisis.

While the Bush administration has concentrated on the removal of the Saddam regime in Iraq as its main priority, a new flashpoint of tension has arisen on the Korean peninsula in the last month. Propaganda claims and counter-claims have been exchanged in a situation which appeared to be spiralling out of control.

Undoubtedly US imperialism’s new aggressive and arrogant approach to international relations has massively inflamed tensions in the region. Socialists give no support for the so-called "Communist" regime of the dictator Kim Jong II in North Korea. The CWI stands in solidarity with the workers and youth of North Korea who face US imperialist aggression on the one side and mass starvation and economic collapse under a Stalinist regime on the other.

Once again the breathtaking hypocrisy of US imperialism and the Bush administration has been demonstrated. Whilst they have wept crocodile tears over the widespread starvation in North Korea, they lost no time in cutting off food aid to the country in response to the regime’s stated intention of restarting one of its mothballed nuclear reactors.

The climbing tensions in the region accelerated in October 2002 when US officials claimed that representatives of the North Korean regime had admitted in joint meetings that they possessed nuclear missiles. This has since been disputed by the Kim Jong II regime.

This is not the first time that the Korean peninsula has become a potential nuclear flashpoint. Under the Clinton administration there were serious discussions about a military strike (and even a nuclear one) against the North Korean regime because of claims of the development of its nuclear weapons programme. Fearing the consequences of such an attack (see article below for details), Clinton opted for a more measured approach, signing an ’Agreed Framework’ in 1994 with North Korea. This agreement gave oil and food aid to North Korea in return for which the regime closed down its main nuclear reactor at Yongbyon (capable of producing weapons grade plutonium). The US also promised to build two light-water nuclear reactors in return for the siting of International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors in the country. Work on these reactors was continually delayed despite the fact that the first was supposed to be on line by 1998.

The deterioration in the situation was given added impetus by Bush’s infamous "axis of evil" speech in January 2002 which named North Korea as a "rogue state". In effect this speech tore up the ’Agreed Framework’ and sent tremors of fear through the ruling classes of North East Asia who had adopted a policy of ’containment’ of the North Korean regime.

The North Korean regime responded to the ending of the oil and food programme by proclaiming that it would restart its Yongbyon nuclear reactor. It followed by withdrawing from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty and expelling IAEA inspectors.

Despite its bluster, US imperialism has had no option for the moment but to attempt to open lines of communication with the regime through third parties.

The new Roh administration in South Korea has been insistent, despite its pronouncements of the utmost importance of good relations with the US, of continuing the "Sunshine Policy" of maintaining links with the regime. The Roh administration as well as other governments in the region have questioned even US plans to implement sanctions. The most recent negotiations between North and South Korea have seen plans floated of an economic community between the two economies. South Korea hopes to convince the Kim Jong II regime to disarm or contain its nuclear programme in return for more economic aid and closer ties.

A version of the article below, written by Laurence Coates for Offensiv, first appeared in Offensiv, weekly paper of Rättvisepartiet Socialisterna (CWI Sweden).

CWI Online

US imperialism confronts Pyongyang

What does the clash with North Korea mean for Bush’s military policy?

The Korean stand-off is a blow to the new military doctrine of the Bush administration unveiled in a series of speeches and documents last year. Following the terror attacks of 11 September 2001, Washington asserted its right to take "preemptive" military action against regimes seeking to aquire "catastrophic technologies" (nuclear, biological or chemical weapons) which could threaten the US and its allies. The president singled out three states – Iran, Iraq and North Korea – as an "axis of evil" which represented a serious threat to world peace. This provided the rationale for war against Iraq, ostensibly to destroy its weapons of mass destruction, when the real war aims are to demonstrate US power over an obdurate regime and gain access to Iraq’s strategically important oil reserves.

That there is no oil in North Korea is of course an important difference, but this alone does not explain Washington’s radically different response to these two regimes. The situation on the Korean peninsula is far more complex militarily and politically even than in Iraq. Faced with these realities, Bush has been forced to recast himself as a diplomat rather than a warmonger. The president stated the US "has no plans to invade North Korea", announcing a policy of "tailored containment" instead. This means new but as yet unspecified economic sanctions. Even this non-military response, which increases the risk of social collapse in North Korea, is a source of concern to neighbouring states.

While Bush has refused to be a victim of "nuclear blackmail", his change of approach will underline the impression that nuclear deterrence can hold back even the world’s only superpower. However, the Korean crisis merely underlines the fact that – regardless of the extent of US military power – on the basis of capitalism and imperialism it is impossible to halt the spread of "catastrophic technologies". On the contrary, the national and regional tensions which are inherent in capitalism make the spread of such weapons, including nuclear weapons, inevitable.

Will the US go to war against North Korea?

Despite the statement by Donald Rumsfeld that the US can fight and win two regional wars (Iraq and Korea) at the same time, this an extremely unlikely scenario. The US military budget is greater than that of the next 15 powers combined. There is no question who would prevail in a war between the US and North Korea. But such a conflict could inflict terrible devestation on South Korea and the region. It would risk drawing in other powers such as Japan, Russia and China. With one million troops, North Korea has the third largest land force in the world. Even excluding the possible use of nuclear weapons, a new Korean War could cause "the kind of conventional destruction we haven’t seen since Stalingrad", according to Kurt Campbell, former US deputy assistant secretary of defence. Seoul, the capital of South Korea, is just 40 kilometres south of the demilitarised zone which separates the two states. US commentators claim that Pyongyang has up to 5,000 tons of biochemical weaponary plus relatively advanced ballistic missiles which can reach Japan. Of particular concern to US strategists is a possible attack with chemical or nuclear weapons against the 37,000 US troops based in South Korea or the 40,000 in Japan. The US presence in both countries, but especially South Korea, is under severe strain at the present time, a fact which the North Korean regime is keen to exploit. Many South Koreans blame the US for precipitating the current crisis and believe the surest way to peace is for US troops to leave Korea.

The option of "surgical" air strikes against the North’s nuclear facilities was considered by the Clinton administration in 1994 but rejected because it ran the risk of unleashing a radioactive cloud upon South Korea. Clinton also rejected a nuclear strike against North Korea for the same reason

"The fact is you can’t decapitate North Korea," warns Campbell. "It would be the kind of conflict that holds hundreds of thousands of Koreans hostage in the South."

For this reason the governments of South Korea, Russia, China and Japan are exerting pressure on Bush to rule out military action. The US cannot lightly disregard this pressure, especially from its main allies in Asia, Japan and South Korea.

Could nuclear or chemical weapons be used?

Since the collapse of Stalinism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, world relations have become more unstable and unpredictable. This is true also in relation to possible nuclear threats. The proliferation of nuclear weapons to countries such as India, Pakistan, Israel, and possibly Iran and other states in the future, presents a much more complex range of threats than the comparatively ordered bipolar system which existed under the so called Cold War. Even then it was possible, as in the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, for the military leaderships of the two opposing camps to misread each others’ intentions and take the world perilously close to a nuclear exchange.

Despite Kim Jong Il’s "war" rhetoric, his regime knows that any deployment of nuclear or even chemical weapons will provoke such massive retaliation from US imperialism that his regime, and much of North Korean society, would be destroyed. The regime is attempting to exploit the potential threat of nuclear Armageddon to force the imperialist states to negotiate. But there are future scenarios in which a nuclear exchange in Korea is conceivable, for example during an escalation of hostilities in which a US invasion looked imminent, or in the event of the regime disintegrating into warring factions, one or more of which could have access to the country’s stockpiles of doomsday weapons.

What are the intentions of the North Korea regime?

Kim Jong Il’s Stalinist regime is waging a desperate struggle to stay in power. Since the collapse in 1991 of its main trading partner, the Soviet Union, gross domestic product has shrunk by one-third. Life expectancy has fallen by six years since 1993. Of a total population of 22 million, over half are malnourished and seven million are dependent on the UN and foreign food donors. The UN has warned that due to a drop in international donations three million North Koreans will go unfed this winter, rising to six million next year. The hawks in the Bush administration may rely on this humanitarian catastrophe to either force the North Korean regime to retreat or even to bring about its fall.

The North Korean economy has collapsed. Everything is in short supply. Steel production has been abandoned due to lack of electricity. The regime only has one form of leverage with which to try to wring concessions in the form of aid and investments from the imperialist states. This is the threat to destabilise northeast Asia – a region of decisive importance for global capitalism – and ultimately to wage war. The fear that after Iraq, Bush may target the North Korea has only heightened the regime’s desperation. North Korea wants the US to sign a "non-aggression pact" ruling out military action. It also hopes to extract promises of substantial aid from Japan in particular, in the form of "reparations" for Japan’s brutal colonial rule 1910-45. In return for this, Pyongyang would readmit UN inspectors. With the US forced to concentrate on its conflict with Iraq, the Bush administration may be forced to make temporary concessions.

How do South Koreans view the crisis?

US military officials are reportedly ’bemused’ by public opinion in South Korea. Many blame the US for provoking Pyongyang and even admire North Korea for standing up to the US.

As one Seoul restaurant owner told the Financial Times, "George Bush is a bigger danger to the world than Kim Jong Il".

South Korea is experiencing a wave of anti-US protests dwarfing anything seen in the past. The accidental killing of two schoolgirls in June by a US military vehicle and the subsequent aquittal of the soldiers involved has triggered demonstrations of over 300,000 across the country. This mood dominated the December presidential election which saw the unexpected victory of the ruling party’s candidate, Roh Moo-hyun. Roh exploited the growing anti-US mood to come from third place, declaring that South Korea’s policies should be decided in Seoul, not Washington. Since the elections Roh has appealed for an end to anti-US protests and sharpened his tone towards the North in an attempt to avert a serious rift with Washington. But the protests have continued into 2003, demanding the withdrawal of US troops from Korea. The pressure-cooker atmosphere in South Korea is a key factor exerting restraint on Washington.

Even among the country’s rulers there is massive resentment against the arrogance of the Bush administration and a general view that the "axis of evil" approach has aggravated the situation. In Japan too there is huge pressure for a diplomatic rather than military solution. The historic visit by prime minister Junichiro Koizumi to Pyongyang in September boosted his flagging opinion ratings and genrated widespread support for "normalisation" talks with the North Korean regime. A key issue in these talks is the return of Japanese citizens kidnapped by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 80s. These negotiations have now stalled with Japan forced to fall into line behind US sanctions. Both South Korea and Japan have gone along with this approach at the moment as the "lesser evil" compared to military action.

What kind of regime?

The North Korean regime has nothing in common with the ideas of socialism. While socialists oppose US imperialism’s presence on the Korean peninsula, we give no support whatsoever to this gangster regime which squanders one quarter of state expenditure on arms while millions of people go unfed. Kim’s ’Korean Workers’ Party’ represents a bizarre form of Stalinism which has taken nationalist ideology and autarchy to extremes even by the standards of Stalin himself. A fanatical personality cult with religious overtones surrounds Kim Jong Il and his late father, Kim Il Sung, the founder of the state.

In July the government implemented market ’reforms’ which foreign commentators described as "reckless", "rushed" and "explosive". Prices were freed and the country’s burgeoning black market was legalised. A 30-fold rise in the basic wage was outstripped by a 50-fold hike in bus fares and electricity prices and a 550-fold rise in the price of rice.

The restoration of capitalism in North Korea is however more problematical than elsewhere in Asia. Without a system of safeguards to protect its position, a nascent capitalist regime in the North would be completely devoured by the powerful South Korean capitalists, as happened in Germany in 1990 (during the capitalist reunifcation of East and West Germany). Neither can the South Korean state afford the astronomical costs of reunification. Therefore at this stage neither of the two ruling elites want full-scale reunification, preferring instead to maintain two states, seperate borders, currency and other controls within a "gradual reunification" framework of agreements over trade, investment, security etc.

Historical factors play an important part in the outlook of the northern regime. The South Korean state was set up under US patronage in 1948 based on the remnants of the colonial army which served the Japanese occupation of Korea. The northern state issued from the anti-Japanese resistance movement and then the war against US imperialism (1950-53) in which three million Koreans died. Because of this, North Korea retains an anti-imperialist aura among many youth and workers in South Korea, something evident in the anti-US protests today. While the situation inside North Korea is harder to gauge, the regime can still probably mobilise support by whipping up fears of a US invasion.

Is North Korea near collapse?

An economist at HSBC bank commented that "The nightmare scenario for global investors is the collapse of North Korea and its forcible assimilation into the South". This perspective is by no means fanciful in the coming period. Foreign visitors compare the situation in the North to Romania in the final years of the Stalinist Ceaucescu dictatorship. The disintegration of North Korea would trigger a crisis throughout northeast Asia. A wave of refugees would pour southwards into South Korea and northwards into China. The South Korean economy, the world’s ninth biggest, would be sent into a crippling recession or slump by the costs of reunification. At an estimated $3,200 billion, the bill for reunification is the equivalent of eight years’ GDP. This would pose a bigger threat to the economies of East Asia, including Japan and China, than the Asian crisis of 1997. Should civil war erupt in the North, its huge army could split into warring factions, some elements perhaps resorting to banditry and extortion backed up by the threat of chemical or nuclear weapons. This "chaos scenario" is the strongest card in Kim Jong Il’s hand: "Après moi, le déluge"!

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January 2003