Another US retreat?

The potential breakthrough reached in Beijing this week in talks over North Korea’s nuclear programme, involves significant concessions by US imperialism.

Under the agreement hammered out at the ‘six-party talks’ hosted by China, and also involving North and South Korea, the US, Russia and Japan, the North Korean regime will receive what most commentators agree is ‘generous’ energy compensation – 1 million tonnes of heavy fuel oil – plus other economic and diplomatic concessions. In return, Kim Jong-Il’s regime has agreed to first suspend, and then – under a regime of international inspections – dismantle its nuclear weapons programme. Since a previous agreement brokered by the Clinton Administration collapsed in 2002, North Korea is believed to have built up to twelve nuclear bombs. Four months ago it staged an underground nuclear bomb test, although the very small size of the blast it produced has prompted intense speculation about how successful it was.

In cash terms the new agreement is worth about 300 million US dollars to the crisis-torn North Korean regime. The Bush Administration has also agreed to remove North Korea from its list of “state-sponsors of terrorism” and enter one-on-one talks on ‘normalising’ diplomatic relations – a crucial sticking point for Kim Jong-Il’s regime, given that the Korean war of 1950-53 (fought between the armed forces of North Korea and China on one side and South Korea and the US on the other) ended without a formal peace agreement.

Bush’s “war on terror”

The background to the Korean nuclear standoff is the ‘pre-emptive’ military doctrine unveiled by President George W Bush, under the prompting of Washington’s neo-conservatives, in the aftermath of 11 September 2001. In his notorious ‘State of the Union’ speech immediately prior to the ill-fated invasion of Iraq, Bush branded North Korea, alongside Iran and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, as part of a global ‘axis of evil’, accused of manufacturing and exporting weapons of mass destruction. Since then, as the US war machine became bogged down in Iraq (where as everybody knows, there were no weapons of mass destruction), the North Korean regime has stepped up the pressure for a deal to meet its urgent economic and security concerns through a strategy of nuclear brinkmanship.

At every stage, US actions have aggravated the crisis. The capture, rigged trial, and eventual hanging of Saddam Hussein and some of his cohorts has confirmed the view of the other two members of Bush’s alleged ‘axis’ – Iran and North Korea – that Saddam’s biggest mistake was not acquiring nuclear weapons!

In the process, the Bush team’s military adventurism has crippled the nuclear non-proliferation regime of the United Nations, a system of agreements between capitalist governments that socialists have always argued was incapable of seriously checking, let alone reversing, the insane and potentially disastrous spread of nuclear weapons.

‘Lesser evil’

Given the more important conflict now between US imperialism and Iran, it seems the Bush Administration has chosen to cut a deal with North Korea as the ‘lesser evil’, in order more effectively to step up diplomatic, economic and possibly even military pressure on Teheran.

Iran has been enormously strengthened as a regional power in the Middle East thanks mainly to the debacle created by Bush and the ‘neo-cons’ in Iraq.

The Beijing deal means North Korea must shut its Yongbyon reactor, the centre of its nuclear program, within 60 days and allow international inspectors onto the site. In return it will receive the first instalment, 50,000 tonnes, of oil from all the other signatories except Japan. Even during this first phase there are substantial pitfalls to be faced. Today, it is an open question which of the two regimes is the most unstable – Kim Jong-Il’s or George W Bush’s.

There has already been a furious reaction to the Beijing agreement from Washington’s ‘neo-cons’ who still have the ear of the president, as his rejection of the Iraq Study Group’s report and decision to increase US troop deployment, demonstrates. They may seize on this issue as a test of the president’s resolve. The ‘neo-cons’ are up in arms over US negotiators agreeing to bilateral talks, which it previously refused, and promising to unfreeze North Korean-related accounts in a Macau bank. This last point was the issue that torpedoed an earlier agreement reached through the ‘six-party’ framework.

John Bolton, a prominent ‘neo-con’ and sacked US ambassador to the UN, urged Bush to reject the deal, telling CNN: “It sends exactly the wrong signal to would-be proliferators around the world: ‘If we hold out long enough, wear down the state department negotiators, eventually you get rewarded.’”

Even in China, some expressed reservations. Professor Zhang Liankui, a foreign affairs expert at the central party school in Beijing, argued, “Other nations will take a lesson from North Korea’s strategy: develop nuclear weapons and then ask for aid.”

However much Washington’s spin-doctors attempt to disguise this as a ‘victory’, in reality the deal – if it holds – marks a significant retreat by US imperialism, now chastened by what could be called the ‘Iraq syndrome’, a modern, even more debilitating version of the ‘Vietnam syndrome’ which shaped US policy for two decades. As Newsweek concluded, “[Bush] is adjusting to the harsh realities of diplomacy – and straying even further from the ideology of regime change.”

Catalogue of US errors

US policy towards the Korean crisis has been a catalogue of errors. The Kim Jong-Il regime, a peculiar, highly militarised form of Stalinism (one-eighth of the adult population is in the army), has been attempting to navigate a transition to capitalism by fits and starts since the Stalinist Soviet Union, its main trading partner, collapsed in 1991. US policy has consistently bet – wrongly – on the imminent collapse of Kim’s regime. Clearly, this regime is one of acute crisis, experiencing industrial regression, mass poverty, periodic famine and more recently the explosive growth of a black economy based on smuggled Chinese goods. The main miscalculation of US strategists has been to underestimate the role of Korean nationalism, which acts as the lifeblood of the North Korean regime.

This traces its roots back centuries because of the Korean peninsula’s geographic location wedged between Asia’s two giants – China and Japan – and the latter’s notoriously brutal military occupation of Korea from 1910-45.

The Southern regime is regarded especially by sections of the Korean left as an imperialist construction, imposed in 1945 on the people of the peninsula by the US and the departing Japanese, while the North is seen by these layers as having stood up to imperialism. Some left organisations in South Korea therefore support the North in the current standoff with US imperialism. Other left organisations support reunification but fear its economic and social consequences.

The Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) believes it would be a mistake for workers’ organisations and socialists to give support to the dictatorial North Korean regime, which has nothing in common with genuine socialism and is not capable of seriously struggling for the national unification of Korea or the removal of US troops.

Throughout the five-year history of the latest crisis, Bush has consistently outpolled Kim Jong-Il as “the biggest threat to peace” among the South Korean public. Last September, when the Northern regime carried out its nuclear explosion, 43 percent of South Koreans held Bush responsible, compared to 37 percent who blamed Kim Jong-Il. Inside the North, it is likely that US sabre-rattling has increased support for the regime.

Inter-imperialist tensions

The interests of the other regional powers represented through the six-party talks do not always coincide with those of US imperialism. South Korea’s capitalist class want to avoid an uncontrolled collapse of the Northern state at almost any price, and have therefore grown increasingly wary of US policy. The Seoul government, which fears the astronomical costs of reunification (which would dwarf the costs of German reunification since 1990), would prefer a gradual ’phasing out’ of the Northern state over years and even decades. This they believe can be achieved through a series of trade, investment and diplomatic agreements progressively increasing their control over the North. According to this plan, the North would retain its own borders – and border guards – to prevent a mass exodus of destitute northerners to the relative affluence of the South, until economic convergence has been realised. Here, there is the outline of a future agreement with the North’s military rulers, who no longer stand for ’socialism’ – in reality they never did – and desperately need investment and funding from the South. The major sticking point for the northern regime is their own fate as a ruling group. An arrangement that allows them to keep their titles and privileges, even within a northern ‘statelet’ that is economically dominated by the South, would satisfy their most important requirement – self-preservation. Their elaborate and at times skilfully ’unpredictable’ diplomacy, including the use of nuclear brinkmanship, has the ultimate aim of securing guarantees for the survival of the ruling group.

The Clinton Administration demonstrated a less crass approach to the issue, when in 2000 it sent Albright, the Secretary of State, to Pyongyang to meet Kim. At that stage, Kim Jong Il was suggesting a deal whereby, in return for economic concessions and guarantees, he would agree to rule an autonomous northern province of a united Korea, with US troops remaining in Korea and being allowed to move north to the Chinese border!

Such a plan would inevitably provoke serious opposition in China, however. The Beijing regime’s attitude towards North Korea has nothing to do with solidarity between two ostensibly ’communist’ ruling parties. Nor is it just dictated by their fear of Japanese nuclear armament (using North Korea as a pretext). China wants to prolong the existence of two states in Korea, regardless of any public statements to the contrary. Despite their growing vexation with the antics of the North Korean regime, it provides a ‘buffer’ against a unified Korea under US hegemony, which would pose a major strategic threat to China. There is also, as always in Chinese foreign policy, an important internal dimension. A united capitalist Korea, after a period of economic dislocation, could rise to pose a major economic challenge to the Chinese regime especially in relation to China’s northeastern provinces that border Korea. Here, there is massive dissatisfaction with Beijing as a result of the wholesale closure of heavy industries and resultant mass unemployment as economic power has shifted to the southern coastal provinces.

Fragile agreement

It is still too soon to say if the deal reached in Beijing will hold when, as yet, none of the signatory governments have ratified it. Stumbling blocks include North Korea’s alleged uranium enrichment scheme – the current deal applies only to its plutonium programme. Japan may also nullify the accord, with its Prime Minister Shinzo Abe insisting North Korea resolves the cases of Japanese citizens kidnapped by its spies in past decades. Abe, a hawkish nationalist, has used the Korean crisis to beef up Japan’s military capabilities and wants to redraft its allegedly ’pacifist’ constitution.

For workers and youth in northeast Asia, as elsewhere, there can be no trust whatsoever in the governments and capitalists of the region to solve this crisis or guarantee peace. The Committee for Workers’ International unreservedly condemns the provocative policy of Bush and the US, which has created the current crisis. However, Kim Jong-Il’s regime cannot provide a way forward either: the overriding aim of North Korea’s ruling group is its own survival, with its privileges in tact; regardless of on what basis this is achieved. Socialists stand for:

  • A nuclear-free Korean peninsula and a nuclear-free world.
  • Imperialism out of the Korean peninsula – let the Korean people decide their future.
  • The struggle for a united Korea, on a democratic and voluntary basis, and an end to imperialist domination is inextricably linked to the struggle to end capitalism by taking over the chaebol conglomerates in the South and to overthrow the dictatorship in the North, and by spreading the struggle for democratic socialism regionally and internationally.

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