North Korea’s announcement that it carried out an underground nuclear weapon test, on 9 October, drew strong condemnation from regional and world powers. Although the strength of the blast is disputed by experts in the US and Russia, with some even claiming it was a failed test, the intention of Kim Il Sung to arm his regime with nuclear weapons is clear.
Working people, on the Korean Peninsula, throughout Asia, and, indeed, the world, understandably fear that the Pyongyang regime’s reckless actions will add to the already growing nuclear proliferation and militarisation in the region and internationally.
However, the instant words of condemnation of the test by the Western imperialist countries, and Asia’s regional powers, are drenched in hypocrisy. US President, George Bush, called the nuclear test, a “provocative act”. France and Britain also attacked the North Korean regime, as did President Putin of Russia. Regional powers, India and Pakistan, sharply criticised North Korea, as did even China, Pyongyang’s “ally”, calling the test “flagrant and brazen”.
Yet all these countries hold nuclear weapons and stockpiles. None of the signatories to the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) – Britain, France, Russia and the US – have even begun to work towards nuclear disarmament, as the NPT obliges. The US is the only power to have used atomic weapons; murdering and maiming many hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians in Nagasaki and Hiroshima cities, at the end of WW2. India and Pakistan secretly developed nuclear weapons in the late 1990s. After some limited sanctions imposed on the two countries by the ‘international community’, the regimes were quickly welcomed back into the fold again, by the US and Britain, in particular, as valuable “allies” on the “war against terror”. Israel, a key friend of US imperialism in the Middle East, has secretly held nuclear bombs for decades, yet no action was ever taken against Tel Aviv.
Following the collapse of the Berlin Wall, supporters of the capitalist ‘victors’ said the world was moving into an unprecedented peaceful era, which would see the end of nuclear arms. Exactly the opposite happened. As the CWI warned, on the basis of capitalist crisis and sharper inter-imperialist rivalries, the world is moving into a much more dangerous, violent and volatile period. As well as Iran, countries like Brazil and Egypt recently said they would like to develop nuclear power, and the Australian government is considering it. The aggressive actions of US imperialism create a much more dangerous globe. After US imperialism’s attack on Iraq, small “rouge” countries, like North Korea, will attempt to arm with nuclear weapons, as a way to stop imperialist attacks. In the longer term, as world capitalism goes into deeper crisis, it is not ruled out that volatile, unstable regimes would consider resorting to using nuclear arms; a untold horror for millions of workers and the poor.
Socialists oppose nuclear weapons
Socialists oppose North Korea or any other nation holding nuclear weapons. The 9 October test is anything but “a great leap forward in the building of a great prosperous, powerful socialist nation”, as the North Korean statement on the test claimed. The North Korean regime has nothing in common with genuine socialism. One of the poorest countries in the world, North Korea is a despotic, Stalinist regime that crushes workers’ rights and holds its people in slave-like conditions. It is abhorrent that huge sums of money are spent developing weapons of mass destruction while large parts of North Korea’s 23 million people suffer from great poverty and even semi-starvation.
Without in any way excusing the actions of the autocratic Kim Jong Il regime, it is self-evident that North Korea’s motivation to possess nuclear weapons is primarily due to decades of aggressive US foreign policy directed towards it, particularly since the advent of the Bush administration.
During the Cold War, the US fought to crush North Korea in the early 1950s, bombing innocent civilians. Under the cloak of the UN, the US-led war caused millions of North Korean, South Korean and Chinese deaths, as well as many US, British and other nations’ troops deaths. Since the end of the Korean War, the US imposed an economic embargo against North Korea and from South Korea trains many nuclear missiles on the small country.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, relations between the US and North Korea deteriorated even more. Former US Democrat President, Bill Clinton, threatened military action against Pyongyang, in 1994, before stepping back from the precipice and making the ‘Agreed Framework’, which temporarily eased tensions. Under this agreement, North Korea would cease developing nuclear capabilities and the West would provide the impoverished state with aid and also the know-how and materials required to build civilian purpose power stations. From 2000, South Korean President, Kim Dae-jung, instigated the so-called ‘Sunshine Policy’ with North Korea, leading to talks between the two countries.
Under Bush, however, the White House took a hard-line policy towards North Korea; denouncing the “rogue state” as part of the “Axis of Evil”. Bush, in effect, ripped up the Agreed Framework and fatally undermined the Sunshine Policy “stumbling block”. As tensions between the superpower and beleaguered North Korea worsened in the run-up to the US-led invasion of Iraq, the Kim Jong Il regime restarted its atomic facilities in 2002-2003.
The Pyongyang regime called for a compromise with the US, in return for ‘normalised’ relations and an end to the crippling economic embargo. In 2003, China initiated ‘six-party’ talks, involving North and South Korea, Japan, the US, China and Russia. But the Bush administration, obsessed with “regime change” in North Korea, showed no sign of coming to agreement with North Korea, rendering the six-party talks obsolete. Now the aggressive policy of the Washington neo-cons towards North Korea has resulted in the 9 October nuclear test and deepening regional tensions and crisis. This marks a blow for Bush’s policy towards dealing with North Korea and indeed, the whole of Asia.
Looking at the lessons of the US invasion and occupation of Iraq, where no ‘weapons of mass destruction’ existed, Kim Jong Il gambles that it is better to push ahead with building nuclear arms to prevent a military attack or invasion by the US against North Korea.
Following this week’s nuclear test, the White House called for immediate UN action against North Korea, invoking Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, which allows for sanctions and even military force. American diplomats called for a trade ban on military and luxury items, an effort to inspect all cargo entering or leaving North Korea, and the freezing of any assets linked to the country’s weapons programme. Up to now, however, countries on the border with North Korea, like China and South Korea, argued such steps could unleash instability in North Korea or provoke North Korean missile tests or border clashes.
The Chinese regime sees this week’s nuclear test as a “slap in the face” for its years of painstaking efforts to find a negotiated solution between North Korea and the West. Last week, China’s Foreign Ministry publicly warned North Korea not to follow through with its planned test. Now the US will push China to take action against North Korea. China has aided the US in cracking down on North Korea’s alleged counterfeiting of US dollars and Chinese yaun. But will China, which provides an estimated 70% of Pyongyang’s fuel and food needs, agree to tougher financial sanctions?
Beijing would like to achieve a ‘denuclearisation’ of the Korean Peninsula. Above all else, China wants “peace and stability” in the region, to promote “internal economic development, the key to longevity for the ruling Communist Party,” according to Shen Dingli, a “security expert” from Fudan University, in Shaghai.
China’s ruling elite “concluded long ago that generating economic growth requires a benign relationship with the world’s major powers, secure borders, and open markets – in a word, stability” (International Herald Tribune, 10 October 2006). At the same time, Beijing’s foremost strategic priority is ‘reclaiming’ Taiwan, or at least preventing the island from becoming formerly independent of China.
A conflict with North Korea or a toppling of Kim Jong Il’s regime could upset both these goals, potentially creating a huge wave of refugees into China and South Korea and even risking broader conflict in Northeast Asia.
“Playing with fire”
Up until now, the governments of President Roh Moo Hyun in South Korea doggedly stuck to negotiations and talks with North Korea and put billions of dollars into the North in trade and aid; policies which caused sharp friction with Washington. This week, however, Roh publicly doubted whether the Sunshine Policy can continue. He said North Korea was “dangerously playing with fire” that could encourage other countries in the region to seek their own nuclear arms.
But like China, South Korea shares a border with the North, and would fear tougher sanctions against Pyongyang would unleash unrest in the North or provoke the unpredictable and unstable regime.
South Korea, in particular, is keenly aware of the disastrous consequences of the collapse of the North Korean regime. Even the recent nuclear test by North Korea was enough to temporarily shake the region’s stock markets, particularly hitting South Korea’s markets, the 10th largest economy in the world. For years, pro-establishment politicians in the South realised that attempts at unification of North and South Korea, on a capitalist basis, would be anything but smooth. It would be enormously costly financially and hugely destabilising, eclipsing the big problems encountered by German capitalism, after East and West Germany were unified, in the early 1990s.
Japan has taken a more hard-line stance towards North Korea since the coming to power of the right wing, nationalistic Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, who “mused” about a pre-emptive strike against North Korea, in July. This week he called for “stern actions” by the UN after the 9 October nuclear test.
Shinzo Abe will use the actions of the Kim Jong Il regime to push for Japan to take a more “self-assertive and hawkish” direction in the region, including revising the country’s ‘anti-war’ Constitution. This would allow Japan to possess fully-fledged armed forces and to increase its participation in a missile defence shield along with the US.
Japan is estimated to have stockpiles of weapons-grade atomic material, used in civilian nuclear power and research programmes, which some experts believe could be made into a bomb in a few months. There are calls from the political right in Japan for such a programme. But the notion of Japan going nuclear would cause “broad and emotional” opposition in Japan, which suffered horrific atomic attacks in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in 1945. It would also provoke strong opposition in the region, where many people bitterly recall Japan’s brutal colonial and war-time aggression and occupation.
Nevertheless, Japan has added weapons to its arsenal, such as spy satellites and a troop transport ship under construction, that were “unthinkable” just a few years ago. This reflects the growing rivalries between the regional powers, like Japan and China, as they compete for markets, profits and spheres of influence.
Dangerous, volatile region
This week’s nuclear test in North Korea and the bellicose reaction of imperialist and local powers illustrates how the whole of Asia is becoming a much more dangerous and volatile region. Working people and youth must oppose nuclear proliferation and militarisation. Only a united working class struggle, across the region, can end the obscene and hugely wasteful arms race, as well as poverty, joblessness and exploitation. Socialists support urban and rural workers in North Korea overthrowing the nepotistic regime in Pyongyang and introducing genuine workers’ democracy. As part of a socialist transformation of society in North and South Korea, working people can defuse the deadly stand-off between the two countries and democratically determine their future.
Throughout Asia, workers and youth need mighty class organisations, including new workers’ parties, with bold socialist policies, as an alternative to the bosses’ parties, to reactionary nationalism and to imperialism.