The underground explosion of a massive nuclear bomb on 25 May and the accompanying war-like declarations of the North Korean regime have brought it suddenly to the centre of world attention. It has aroused grave fears in the region and internationally of a major confrontation – a war that could include nuclear exchanges. Even the well-informed capitalist press with its behind-the-scenes sources, is at a loss to understand the motives and the perspectives for the behaviour of what they call this ’rogue state’ – shrouded in mystery and, according to them, one of the last bastions of communism.
With the aim of discrediting the real ideas of democratic socialism and communism, they point the finger at the remnants of a bureaucratic regime that has been run on Stalinist lines for half a century. It is a million miles removed from what true workers’ democracy would mean. Millions of North Koreans live in conditions of near starvation while a pampered clique at the top lives cut off from reality and capable of putting capable of causing an international disaster.
Admitting their perplexity in relation to the man who could soon have his finger on North Korea’s nuclear button, the Financial Times wrote last week: “Rarely in the field of human endeavour has so little been known by so few about something so important.” (June 3)! The once-united peninsula of Korea used to be known as the ’Hermit Kingdom’ about which very little was known. Today, what happens north of the infamous ‘38th parallel’ which now divides it, can have far-reaching consequences for the whole world.
In the past couple of weeks, three ’events’ in the peninsula have hit the headlines. There was the renewed nuclear bomb and missile testing in the north, accompanied by threats of resuming a war that is more than half a century old. At about the same time there was the suicide of a former president in the south, followed by mass demonstrations of grief and protest at the present right-wing government. Thirdly, came news that the ailing North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il, had named his successor.
These events coming together have underlined the instability of the situation on the peninsula. In particular, the question is raised of whether a war will take place – one that could develop into a nuclear war threatening the very survival of the planet.
There has been enough sabre-rattling on the part of the North Korean regime to believe a fighting war could break out. Propaganda from the North denounced “South Korean puppets” for participating in a cordon sanitaire operation with the US-led Proliferation Security Initiative. This amounted, they said, to a declaration of war which would compel the North to take “a decisive measure”!
The most logical explanation for this defiant stand of the Kim Jong-il regime is that it is a grotesque negotiating ploy aimed at getting more attention and aid for its impoverished economy from the Obama government and elsewhere. (This is in addition to the callous holding of two female journalists as bargaining chips in their negotiations with the US). North Korea’s latest weapons testing, however, is at the cost of alienating its most steadfast ally, China, from whom it gets much of its food and fuel. It can also put further pressure on Japan to renounce its post-war ’pacifism’ and move closer to acquiring its own nuclear weapons.
Kim Jong-il’s actions are those of an isolated dictator looking to mollify his military commanders and win their backing for the ’succession’ of his younger son, Kim Jong-woon. He heads a clique that is completely out of touch with reality. Most frightening of all is that they have no conception of the consequences of their actions.
The Korean War of 1950 - 53, which cost up to 3 million lives, arose from the arbitrary cutting in two of the country by agreement of the victors in the Second World War. The armistice, which left the country wrecked and still divided along the same artificial line, brought no satisfaction of the overwhelming desire of Koreans to be in one united country. (The 38th parallel was “a division which made no cultural, political or economic sense”, wrote Peter Popham in the Independent (28 May).)
The two Koreas reflected the division of the world at that time between two socially antagonistic (but collaborating) systems. There were those countries where capitalism had been eliminated but in which a privileged bureaucracy held sway ’in the name of the working people’. And there were those where a handful of ’coupon clippers’ or capitalists ruled through their ’kept’ governments and state machines. Korea, was literally divided in half along the same lines.
The north was in the first camp - with China, whose forces had initially conquered nearly the whole of the peninsula. There was almost complete public ownership and planning, but no workers’ control or involvement in managing industry and society. It was run in a dictatorial fashion by its first ruler, Kim Il-sung, father of today’s Kim Jong-il. He devised, with his advisers, his own ’Juché’ ideology that mirrored the main features of Stalinism and Maoism.
The South remained in the hands of a few giant family-owned conglomerates – the chaebol. There was massive financial, military and political backing from the USA for a series of brutal dictators, most notably the butcher of the workers’ movement, Sygman Rhee. Not only did they crush socialists and communist but all basic trade union and democratic rights.
Heroic movements in South Korea in the 1980s ended the rule of the dictators; the ’90s saw ‘democracy’ fighters voted in as presidents. But it was against one of these - Kim Young-sam - that the first ever general strike against globalisation broke out at the end of 1996 and beginning of 1997. Led by well-organised illegal trade unions, the movement forced the president’s resignation. He was followed by Kim Dae-jung, in whose cabinet Roh Moo-hyun, a self-taught human rights lawyer, served.
As the CWI argued at the time, unless such figures moved with the backing of workers and poor people to end the rule of the chaebol, taking them into public ownership, these leaders would end up running capitalist governments according to the (very UNdemocratic) rules of the dominant capitalist class. The governments of Kim Young Sam, Kim Dae-jung and also Roh Moo-hyun (who came to power in 2003) initially enjoyed enthusiastic support amongst workers and young people. But they found themselves (and/or their families!) sucked into the culture of bribery and corruption, unable to solve the economic problems of an export-dependent South Korean ’Tiger’ and losing the confidence of the people.
The mood in the South
Roh came into power as a ‘clean pair of hands’, opposed to US domination and in favour of continuing the ’sunshine’ policy towards the north, with the hope of carrying through a re-unification that would not lead to economic catastrophe. By the end of his five-year term of office he had lost most of his popularity, having been impeached for an election ’irregularity’, having sent Korean troops to assist the US in Iraq, having lost out to the belligerent Bush in the six-party talks about the future of the North and apparently himself, or at least his family, being involved in a bribery scandal worth $6 million.
The populists of the right were the beneficiaries of mass disappointment in the election of 2008. But, in turn, they have quickly lost support and found themselves being blamed for hounding Roh Moo-hyun to his death. As hundreds of thousands turned out for the state funeral on May 29th, his successor, Lee Myung-bak was booed as he laid his wreath and made his address. Many carried placards with a warning to the government: “Today the condolences; tomorrow the anger!”. “Apologise for political murder!” shouted others. Riot police were deployed to disperse the angry crowds. Workers in the South have also been involved in important strike action to fend off attempts to make them pay for the bosses’ crisis.
These issues were apparently of more concern to the long-suffering people of South Korea than the rantings of a 67-year old ’Dear Leader’ in the North. In the South, war alerts are a frequent occurrence – an occasion for the government to carry out civil defence drills, an excuse to bring troops onto the streets of the capital and generally to remind the population of the evils of ’communism’.
Changes in the North?
The North is far from genuinely socialist, let alone communist. The overwhelming majority of the population live in dire poverty while the Kim dynasty lives in luxury and the army consumes one quarter of the budget. The likely new ’Young Leader’ – Kim Jong-woon - elected by nobody but his father, has been educated at a top private school in Switzerland, where he has become particularly keen on basketball. His oldest brother was passed over as a candidate for head of state because of his misdemeanours in obtaining a false passport to visit Disneyland in Japan and the next brother is deemed by his father to be “too effeminate”! Maybe the most worrying aspect of the latest nuclear testing and belligerent noises from the North is that the ruling clique are unrelated to reality and could carry out acts of mass destruction for no apparent reason!
This is the least likely variant. Whoever is the titular head of North Korea, army commanders like Kim Jong-il’s brother-in-law, Chang Sung-taek, will hold the reins of power. The nuclear testing and firing of missiles may well have been a way of reasserting this position.
But tensions have undoubtedly been ratcheted up in the region by the detonation of a bomb with the power of that which destroyed Nagasaki in 1945 and the declaration that any attempt to inspect shipping in the area of the Yellow Sea will be seen as an “act of war”.
Russia, China, Japan and South Korea all have a border with North Korea. In the case of Jap[an it is the sea. In China it is a no-man’s land 800 miles long. In Korea itself it is a euphemistically named de-militarised zone across which 2 million soldiers face each other. There are 28,000 American troops in bases in the South which many want removed. If anything, as a result of the latest developments, those numbers could now be increased and Japan’s right-wing government could claim justification for abandoning its post-second world war policies and developing its own nuclear weapons. It has accused North Korea in the past of aiming missiles in its direction. It would take only a few minutes for one aimed at a Japanese city to reach its target. (It would take less than a minute for one to hit Seoul.) There are deep-seated national antagonisms, arising from Japan’s imperialist past, that only genuine socialist governments will be able to begin to dissolve.
Kim Jong-il’s recent provocations may well be aimed not only at getting more concessions out of the US and Japan but in changing the relationship of forces. An increase in US and Japanese military capacity would obviously shift the balance of power in the region, angering North Korea’s other neighbours - Russia and China. But this would seem to be against North Korea’s own interests. China used to be “as close as lips and teeth” to North Korea, as Mao Zedong put it. 90% of North Korea’s energy and 40% of its food are supplied by China. Its share of the North’s trade is three-quarters, with a value of $2bn. Russia also provides basic supplies to this isolated state.
For their own reasons, China and Russia have traditionally blocked any moves by the so-called United Nations to impose more than the weakest of sanctions against North Korea. But this time round, both have made statements condemning the nuclear and missile tests. How far they are prepared to go in ’punishing’ their recalcitrant neighbour remains to be seen. Neither wants to see the collapse of the totalitarian regime in North Korea and have to pick up the pieces in terms of a mass influx of desperate refugees.
The government in South Korea also dreads this outcome. In response to the North developing its nuclear capacity (including processing at the Yongbyon plant) Seoul has threatened to close down its Kaesong industrial complex inside North Korea. Kim Jong-il has anyway demanded increased wages for the specially favoured workers there. But bailing out a collapsed northern economy would set the South back possibly irrecoverably. At present it is the fourth largest economy in Asia but this is a time of world recession. Exports from the South to the rest of the world have plummeted 28%. There is a huge yearning of the Korean people for unification, but if there is an implosion it would result in absolute economic catastrophe. The cost of re-unification would be far greater than that of Germany 20 years ago. In Asia South Korea ranks 3rd out of 44 countries and North Korea 35th.
The “sunshine” policy was swiftly abandoned by multi-millionaire president, Lee Myung-bak and his Grand National Party government. But fear for the future as well as the longing of the Korean people for re-unification is a major political challenge to any government. It is forced to call for the re-establishment of talks with the north by representatives of the four ’neighbours’ and the United States. The only way to succeed in bringing the two Koreas back together without a major catastrophe would be through establishing a democratic socialist Korea.
In the North there are millions of poverty-stricken workers, fed night and day with government propaganda about being part of a glorious workers’ state but without an ounce of control over their future. The one political formation permitted to exist is the horribly mis-named ’Workers’ Party’ of flunkies who surround the ’Dear Leader’ now said to be in poor health but known to live in palatial surroundings and lavishly indulge his penchant for foreign films in his own private cinema.
Even if an immediate crisis is over, the North Korean regime remains extremely unstable and unpredictable. It is a monstrously undemocratic remnant of a state-owned economy run by a demented leadership who are quite capable of not understanding the consequences of their actions. During the ’Cold War’, what prevented the actual use of nuclear weapons by either the ’Soviet Union’ or the US was the consciousness that it would mean ’Mutually Assured Destruction’ (or MAD). The North Korean regime is out of control and apparently feels no such restraint. But within the army it is possible at least some of the top commanders would understand the disastrous consequences for themselves in terms of retaliation and escalation.
The Korean peninsula must be rid of parasitic incubuses like the Juche regime in the North and the chaebol conglomerates in the South. The best hope for the workers and poor people of the tragically divided nation lies in the building of a genuine party of workers. Moves have been made in this direction, particularly from the powerful trade unions in the South. There is a strong left and socialist tradition to be drawn on.
Advocating socialism, given the monstrous distortion of the very idea in the North, has been difficult. (It was only legalised in the South under the presidency of Roh.) But there is no alternative for developing the economy of the whole peninsula except through a programme of nationalisation of the chaebol that dominate the economy of the South, along with the banks that they virtually control. Workers’ control and management could be operated through elected committees of the workers in the industry and a genuinely democratic government of workers and poor people. A mass struggle for such policies could spread across borders in the region.
This would mean assisting the poverty-stricken workers of North Korea, where land and industry are still state-owned, to build independent trade unions and a genuine worker’s party. This would involve a struggle to throw off the parasitic clique and establish a workers’ and small farmers’ government which included workers’ control and management in every sphere of life.
No to one-party dictatorship! No to the manufacture, use or threatened use of nuclear weapons! Down with the gangster regime that sabre-rattles and threatens the peace of the region! No to capitalist conglomerate rule! Yes to real socialist cooperation and harmonious economic development in Korea and the whole of North Asia!