North Korea: Bush’s Korean crisis

Just when George Bush and Tony Blair have been having difficulty proving that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), the government of North Korea has been making open declarations that it is proceeding to develop its nuclear weapons capability! Does this mean that war will shortly be declared on North Korea, already on the list of ‘rogue states’ in Bush’s ‘Axis of Evil’, or does it mean the opposite?

As with the attack on Iraq and, indeed, with the overall military strategy of the USA, the Defence Department and the State Department have been "at loggerheads", as the BBC’s Steve Schiffres puts it, over this issue too. The State Department believes that North Korea can be persuaded to give up its nuclear ambitions in return for security guarantees and aid. But the New York Times reported that, even before the talks held in Beijing in April, Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, insisted that regime change, not negotiations, was the only way forward. The talks finished a day early, with the North Koreans threatening to carry on testing their nuclear weapons and/or "sell them to others" and even Colin Powell asserting, "As the president has said, we will not be blackmailed".

The Pentagon has not ruled out a pre-emptive strike, even against nuclear installations in the North, and has been repositioning long-range bombers in the region. It has also made an approach to the government of Thailand to set up a new base there. Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution points out that pre-emptive strikes by US forces would be extremely risky, as, "given the highly secretive nature of the society" in the North, it might not be possible to find and destroy all the nuclear weapons that exist.

Living in terror

Many in South Korea who live in terror of a US attack on the North believe their fears have recently been confirmed. Washington has announced the relocation further South of tens of thousands of US troops who have been patrolling the Demilitarised Zone at the ‘38th parallel’ for more than 50 years. The move is aimed at enabling ‘tactical strikes’ to be launched throughout the region as part of the Pentagon’s new military doctrine and will cost the US $11 billion. The new bases will be equipped with the latest long-range precision weapons (‘smart bombs’) and unmanned aircraft (drones) "to carry out spy and attack missions", as the North’s Central News Agency puts it (20 June).

US Deputy Defence Secretary, Paul Wolfowitz, in reply to pleas for a delay from South Korea’s new President, Roh Moo-hyun, told him bluntly that the reorganisation "could not wait". He also insisted that Seoul should match the sum being spent by the US in order to modernise its own 700,000 strong army and take up the duties at the DMZ themselves. The South Korean Defence Minister has asked for an increase of 28% in the armed forces budget – a total of $18 billion!

Critics of the US within South Korea understandably suspect that withdrawal from the DMZ is aimed at letting Korean soldiers and civilians take the brunt of any attack from the North provoked by the US in the form of either economic sanctions or military threats – perceived or real.

Some US officials were hoping that the tough US line in Iraq would have a "demonstration effect" on regimes like North Korea, especially in its weakened economic state. But the North Korean regime may be drawing the conclusion that nuclear weapons are their only defence. Kim Jong-il, the head of state in the North, has declared that economic sanctions would be considered an "act of war". Now, Washington’s attempt to rally support for a virtual naval blockade of the North is being seen in the same light. While China and South Korea remain nervous about such a policy, which is anyway of dubious legality, Australia and Japan have already carried out ‘selective interdictions’.

A US official explained to the Korea Herald that the effort "will be focussed on those activities which require no additional laws, no new international treaties, no going to the United Nations Security Council". "Look at the Japanese," he continued, "Who can’t stop transfers of money in North Korean ships, but suddenly discovered they can do ‘safety inspections’". The Japanese authorities arranged for 2,000 inspectors of various kinds to await the arrival from North Korea of the only ferry that plies between the two countries – the Mangbongyong 92. It is known to carry large amounts of narcotics from the world’s third largest opium producer and to take back to North Korea as much as 90% of the parts it needs for its nuclear weapons programme. Pyongyang immediately withdrew the ferry from service.

Unimaginable disaster

Under increasing pressure, Pyongyang has threatened to respond to provocations by bringing about "unimaginable disaster". With an army of more than 1 million, even a conventional attack would inflict enormous damage. Pentagon studies suggest that it could cause thousands if not millions of casualties in the South’s capital, Seoul, which is within range of 11,000 North Korean artillery pieces. But the actual use of nuclear weapons as a desperate last stand by North Korea’s totalitarian regime can also not be ruled out. The ‘Taepo-Dong 1’ rocket which was test-fired over Japan in 1998, is said to be able to reach any target in Japan or South Korea. The American CIA says an up-graded version now being developed could soon be able to hit the US mainland.

The dictator-president of the North, Kim Jong-il, claims that he needs to continue developing nuclear weapons in order to reduce the huge state expenditure on maintaining the massive army. But with the North’s economy in tatters, there would be no jobs available for the redundant, and until now, relatively well-fed soldiers.

"Meaningful economic activity has all but ceased," said Mike Newton, an economist working for HSBC in Hong Kong, speaking in to the Financial Times. In its article of 23 April it reports rice going from 0.8 won per kilogram before last year’s sudden increase of prices by the state to 80 won last November and 190 won per kilogram in March of this year. The pricing policy was an attempt to prepare the North Korean economy for the transition from an almost totally state-owned economy, run by dictat from the central bureaucracy to one in which market forces would be decisive. But with the isolation and almost total collapse of the economy, such experiments have only added to the human crisis still unfolding in North Korea.

The same April Financial Times article quotes a recent visitor saying that people are so weak that they cannot do anything and they easily die from disease. Those who can go to work often receive no wages and factories are idle most of the day because of limited electricity being available for only two hours a day. The article finished with another comment from Mike Newton. "The rhetoric of nuclear confrontation has hidden the real issue, which is the economic implosion in the North".

With the ‘hawks’ in ascendancy in the US regime, it seems that such a collapse is the desired aim rather than the idea of a gradual abandonment of the distorted planned and state-owned economy and ‘assimilation’ into the capitalist South. The newly-elected president of South Korea was committed to continuing the ruling New Millenium Party’s ‘sunshine policy’ towards the one-party military dictatorship in the North. Previous articles in Socialism Today and the main document of last year’s World Congress of the Committee for a Workers’ International have explained the main issues at stake on the Korean peninsula itself and the strained relations in the region, involving China and Japan as well as the two Koreas. Japan is edgy not only about a heavily armed North Korea but also about the rising power of China in the region and in the world as its economy still grows at a faster rate than anywhere else at this stage. China fears that Japan is preparing to re-arm itself even with nuclear weapons.

Roh Moo-hyun was not the favoured candidate of the US and his relationship with the White House is extremely strained. Big demonstrations demanding the withdrawal altogether from South Korea of US troops had been organised in the run up to his election and smaller ones still continue almost daily on the DMZ borderline. His predecessor, Kim Dae-jung refused US requests to send ‘combat support’ to Afghanistan. The eventual approval by the South Korean parliament to send 500 non-combat engineers and 100 medical staff to Iraq saw mass protests again on the streets of the capital.

The South Korean president is still fearful of the complete withdrawal of the 37,000 US troops from the peninsula which he sees as affording at least some deterrence against an attack from the North. The reunification process is also stalling, mainly because of the conflicting interests of the conglomerate-dominated capitalist South and the distorted, Stalinist planned economy in the North. But now it has been further discredited by two court cases.

One in China involves a Dutch-Chinese businessman, until recently the second richest of its citizens. Yang Bin had been chosen by Pyongyang to head an experiment in a market-oriented Free Trade Zone close to the border with China. Now he has gone on trial for major fraud and bribery charges which could see him imprisoned for life, obviously unable to take up his new job!

In what is known as the ‘cash for summit’ trial in South Korea, a former deputy director of the National Intelligence Service, Kim Bo-hyun, has been accused of handing over to the North huge sums of money, to get the talks between Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong-il to take place at all. The case also involves one of the South’s biggest capitalists, the Chaebol conglomerate Hyundai, which was sending money North to get special treatment for establishing factories there in order to exploit the appallingly cheap labour of that state.

When Roh Moo-hyun returned from his visit to Washington in May, he was criticised from both sides – for being at the same time too close to US imperialism and too soft on the regime in the North. The Economist of 7 June points out that his popularity has gone down more quickly than previous presidents to below 50%. (It also quotes a survey in the Dong-a Ilbo newspaper showing 54% of respondents believing the economy to be in a worse situation than at the time of the 1997-98 crisis, and another 35% saying if it was not worse, then at least similar!)

As the Far Eastern Economic Review columnist, Robyn Lim, commented in the June 5 edition, Roh went to Washington seeking two commitments from Bush – not to use force against the North and to postpone the repositioning of the Second Infantry Division. "He got neither".

Seen as a dangerous populist from humble origins and making a number of attempts to halt corruption and fraud within the giant family-owned Chaebol conglomerates, Roh was recently accused of making remarks that indicated he was considering allowing the existence of a communist party in South Korea. Under pressure, he was forced to reassure South Korea’s capitalists by denying it. (Socialism is also still technically outlawed). He made these remarks on a visit to Japan to try and smooth relations there. On the first day of his visit the Japanese parliament passed laws allowing the use of its national Defence Force in offensive military operations – also a snub for Roh. At a press conference, the Japanese prime minister, Koizumi, called for tougher measures against North Korea and Roh Moo-hyun emphasised the importance of dialogue! Five-way talks between the US, North Korea, South Korea, China and Japan – favoured by Washington ‘doves’ – are unlikely to pour much oil on the troubled waters of the Far East!

On a tightrope

At home Roh is walking a tightrope. The economy’s growth rate has slumped from 6.3% to a probable 2.9% this year with the first two quarters showing a negative figure, according to the Korea Economic Research Institute. Another survey shows that nearly 60% of graduates cannot get jobs. A downturn in the US will batter the South Korean economy. The Financial Times of April 23 was already warning of dire consequences for the region of upsets in the financial markets and/or capital flows which could cause "another economic calamity without a shot being fired".

The labour unions in South Korea are still embattled over issues of privatisation, flexibility, wages and jobs. In the first half of this year there have been big strike struggles involving truck-drivers, subway (underground) workers, teachers, electricity workers, taxi-drivers, engineers and even pension agents. Roh himself was instrumental in the release earlier this year of a number of jailed trade unionists, including Dan Byung-ho, president of the biggest trade union federation – the KCTU – after 20 months in prison.

As a human rights lawyer Roh earned a reputation for fighting repression both from employers and the state. However, it is now anticipated that he wants to tighten South Korea’s labour law in the interests of the bosses and still retain on the statute book the hated Security laws used so often against the labour movement. Even these could prove to be an inadequate defence for South Korean capitalism in the face of a united and determined working class, whose traditions of combativity are legendary. On 25 June there was, indeed, a mass walk-out and demonstrations organised by the KCTU against any return to hardline anti-labour policies.

The other nightmare for the South Korean government is an implosion of the regime in the North of Korea, even without a nuclear adventure. There would be would be a flood of refugees to China as well as to South Korea and a massive demand on the resources of the South to come to the rescue of the Northern economy as a whole. This cost could be anything between 5 and 10 times greater than that to West Germany resulting from unification with the ex-Stalinist East in 1989.

Socialists have been explaining for a long time, that, on the basis of capitalism and Stalinism (or Jucheism), there is no hope of a harmonious re-unification of the tragically divided peninsula. Totalitarian rule means that state ownership and planning in the North are failing to assure even the basic necessities for the mass of the population, we oppose the process of privatisation ansd transition to the capitalist market. We say the whole economy should be under the control of the workers through totally democratically elected committees and councils. This would require the removal of the parasitic clique around Kim Jong-Il and the ‘Dear Leader’ himself – a far-reaching political revolution. In the South, the still growing labour movement has the power to get rid of the stranglehold of the mighty Chaebol and the big banks. Independent trade unions and a workers’ party are essential as is a programme for taking into public ownership their assets and running them on the basis of democratic workers’ control and management.

Parties adopting such programmes and aiming to win the support of all conscious class fighters – North and South – would have to include a sensitive demand for re-unification of Korea on the basis of a voluntary union or federation of equal genuinely socialist states.

This is a longer version of an article in the July/August edition of Socialism Today.

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June 2003