Against the threat of war in Korea

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During the past months tensions between North and South Korea and the USA have once again been on the rise. Repeated missile tests, threats of missiles, artillery and even nuclear attacks against South Korea as well as targets in Japan, Hawaii or Guam have been in the centre of the North Korean war rhetoric. South Korea, the USA and Japan have in turn declared their determination to strike back militarily against North Korea. Once again the ruling class of these countries is ready to threaten the life of millions of people in order to defend their sordid national interests.

Faced with the threat of war it is the fundamental responsibility of those who fight for the interests of the exploited and the working class:

  • to affirm very clearly the internationalist position against all forces of capital which are trying to push the exploited into the massacre hanging over them,
  • to analyse the real issues hiding behind the smokescreens of the speeches of the leaders of the ruling class.

The internationalist position

In October 2006, following a nuclear test by North Korea, a meeting of internationalists from South Korea and other countries adopted the following statement:

Following the news of the nuclear tests in North Korea, we, the communist internationalists meeting in Seoul and Ulsan:

Denounce the development of a new nuclear weapons capability in the hands of another capitalist state: the nuclear bomb is the ultimate weapon of inter-imperialist warfare, its only function being the mass extermination of the civilian population in general and the working class in particular.

Denounce unreservedly this new step towards war taken by the capitalist North Korean state which has thereby demonstrated once again (if that were necessary) that it has absolutely nothing to do with the working class or communism, and is nothing but a most extreme and grotesque version of decadent capitalism's general tendency towards militaristic barbarism.

Denounce unreservedly the hypocritical campaign by the United States and its allies against its North Korean enemy which is nothing but an ideological preparation for unleashing – when they have the capacity to do so – their own pre-emptive strikes of which the working population would be the principal victim, as it is today in Iraq. We have not forgotten that the United States is the only power to have used nuclear weapons in war, when it annihilated the  civilian populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Denounce unreservedly the so-called "peace initiatives" which are bound to appear under the aegis of other imperialist gangsters such as China. These will be concerned not with peace, but with the protection of their own capitalist interests in the region. The workers can have no confidence whatever in the "peaceful intentions" of any capitalist state.

Denounce unreservedly any attempt by the South Korean bourgeoisie to take repressive measures against the working class or against activists in their defence of internationalist principles under the pretext of protecting national freedom or democracy.

Declare our complete solidarity with the workers of North and South Korea, China, Japan, and Russia who will be the first to suffer in the event of military action breaking out.

Declare that only the world wide workers' struggle can put an end for ever to the constant threat of barbarism, imperialist war, and nuclear destruction that hangs over humanity under capitalism.

The workers have no country to defend!

Workers of all lands, unite!

In the face of the present situation the declaration of October 2006 remains totally valid.

Understanding the rising military tensions

In order to analyse the recent escalation between North Korea and its rivals, and the perspectives which flow from this, we must place this conflict into the broader historical and international context.

The sharpening of tensions between North Korea and its rivals is part of a more general sharpening of tensions in the Far East. During the past months the two major rivals of the region, China and Japan, have repeatedly claimed control over the Senkaku/Diayo islands and whipped up patriotic campaigns (URLlink to statement).  During the past years China and several states surrounding the South Chinese Sea have been colliding over territorial claims in the South China Sea. South Korea and Japan regularly quarrel over Takeshima/Dokdo island. The recent escalation crystallises a global trend of sharpening imperialist tensions in the region. At the same time, the conflict between North and South Korea is also one of the longest standing conflicts in East Asia[1]

 The roots of the conflict

In World War 1 East Asia was basically spared from the atrocities of the war. However, in World War 2 East Asia became one of the major battlefields between all imperialist powers (more than 20 million people lost their lives). As soon as the Nazi regime in Germany was defeated and Europe divided up amongst the winners of the war in May 1945, the Soviet Union and the USA clashed with each other over the control of Asia in several zones. Fiercely determined to prevent Russia from grabbing parts of Japan, the USA dropped the first nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, after having flattened Tokyo with fire-bombs in the winter of 1944/1945. In China, Russia supported Mao’s Red Army and the USA Chiang Kai-shek. China was the first country to be divided between a pro-Russian (People’s Republic of China) and a pro-American part (Taiwan), leaving behind a deadly division which still exists today, with the two sides pointing a heavy arsenal of weapons at each other. And in 1945, after the defeat of the Japanese occupiers, while Russian troops prepared to take over the entire Korean peninsula, the USA forced Russia to accept a joint occupation of Korea, which led to the division of Korea along the 38th parallel in 1945. Thus since 1945 East Asia has constantly been marked by a confrontation between the USA and its allies on the one hand, and China and Russia and other allies on the other. It is no coincidence that the Korean war 1950-1953 was the first and one of the bloodiest phases in the Cold War between the two blocs, pitting a coalition of US-led forces against North-Korean forces supported by Chinese and Russian troops. During the Korean war, more than 3 million people died. Many got killed in massacres perpetrated by both sides. The war itself left behind a destroyed country, with Seoul and Pyongyang heavily bombed on a number of occasions. The country remained divided, with a very high level of militarization: it was one of the “best defended” military zones in the world and the armies have been pointing their weapons at each other for more than 60 years.

The present escalation is thus an expression of this continuity and an intensification of the series of conflicts which have gripped East Asia since the end of WW2. Its roots lie in the imperialist carve-up, the fragmentation of the world into nations, which are engaged in deadly struggles for survival, threatening each other with annihilation. Korea is no exception. The whole of Europe was divided after 1945 between two blocs, Germany remained divided until 1989, the entire Indian subcontinent was carved up between Pakistan/Bangladesh and India, Vietnam was divided, in the 1990s, former Yugoslavia torn apart by a number of secessionist wars. The territories of the former Ottoman Empire in the Middle East were broken up into a number of small and constantly warring nations, with the additional factor of the foundation of Israel in the midst of this landscape, leaving behind another permanent war zone. All this shows that the formation of new nations no longer offers any progress for humanity. They are a deadly trap, a cemetery for the working class.

In the same way as the Korean war in the early 1950s was already a direct confrontation between the USA and China, the present escalation also opposes the same “staunch defenders” of their allies.

The imperialist chessboard

The North Korean regime has been supported to the hilt by China from its first day of existence. The geographic-strategic position of Korea means that the country is both a target for all neighbouring rivals, as well into a precious buffer. In particular China sees North Korea as a buffer between itself and Japan and the USA.

  • China is an emerging power and has constantly been challenging the USA and extending its influence internationally. The country has been modernising its armed forces and trying to set up a string of bases in the whole of Asia to expand its position – at the expense of the USA. The USA, aware of the danger that this new challenger poses in the long term, has declared its intention to mobilise the major part of its troops in East Asia to contain China. The USA is trying to rally as many countries as possible behind itself. Thus any conflict in East Asia is not only overshadowed but becomes more or less directly a part of this global power struggle between the USA and the newly rising China. China could not tolerate a collapse of the Pyongyang regime, because North Korea’s bellicose stand polarises tensions with Japan and South Korea and above all it ties down the US military arsenal aimed against North Korea, which otherwise would be directed even more against China. The idea of a reunification of North and South Korea (under South Korean domination) and the prospect of US military bases near the Chinese border can only increase Chinese determination to defend North Korea. Although it is impossible to assess the degree of influence and control China has over North Korea, a defeat of the North Korean regime in a military confrontation with the USA would mean a significant weakening of China. Thus China has to try and “restrain” North Korea, yet at the same time let North Korea “tie down” US troops.
  • Russia, as in many other zones of conflict since 1989, has been in a contradictory position. On the one hand, Russia has been a rival of China since the 1960s after their initial alliance in the Cold War, but since the rise of China as an “emerging power” during the past decade, Russia has tended to take sides with China against the USA. At the same time it does not want China to become too assertive. Concerning North Korea, Russia does not want the USA to increase its presence in the region.
  • The USA has never been ready to let Korea fall into the hands of China or Russia. In the present stand-off they are again the staunch defenders of South Korea and Japan. Of course their major motive is to contain China. To a certain extent the North Korean military threats are a welcome justification for the USA to increase their arsenal of weapons in the Pacific (they have already moved more weapons to Guam, Alaska, and Korea itself). Of course these can be used against North Korea but also against China. At the same time, any country that directly threatens US bases in Guam or Alaska, or the territory of America’s allies, is a challenge to US domination. Thus in addition to the weakening of the US position by China, North Korea’s threats to use nuclear weapons cannot be tolerated by the USA. The US policy of containing China in turn contributes significantly to the tensions with North Korea.
  • Japan, the old arch-enemy of China, feels most threatened by China and its ally North Korea. At the same time, Japan has a conflict with South Korea over the Dokdo/Takeshima islands. Since the demise of the Russian bloc after 1989, Japan has been aiming at loosening the USA’ regional grip. At the same time, due to the emergence of China and the repeated and escalated conflicts with North Korea, Japan has not been able to reduce its dependency on US military might. And if Korea was reunited, Japan would face another major rival in the region. Japan, which occupied Korea for more than three decades, would also – paradoxically – regret to see disappear the North Korean buffer state. The recent increase of tensions with China and North Korea has been a welcome pretext for the Japanese government to increase its arms spending.

Thus almost exactly 60 years after the end of the Korean war in 1953, not only are the same forces opposing each other, but now we are seeing nuclear, conventional missile or artillery threats from North Korea and vice versa against some of the biggest metropoles of the world (Seoul, Tokyo, Pyongyang). With the growing polarisation between China and the USA, the two biggest economic nations, East Asia has become another permanent zone of conflict, with consequences for the whole world.

Two regimes - two arch-enemies of the working class

The North Korean regime, which claims to be socialist, came to power not through a workers’ uprising, but  thanks to the military help of Russia and China. Entirely dependent on its Stalinist patrons, the regime has been focussing its resources on maintaining and expanding the military apparatus. As a result of the gigantic militarisation, out of a population of 24.5 million, the country claims to have a standing army of 1.1 million plus a reserve of up to 4.7 million men and women. Similar to all the former Stalinist ruled countries of Eastern Europe, the North Korean economy has no competitive civilian products to offer on the world market. The hypertrophy of the military has meant that during the past 6 decades there has been frequent if not permanent rationing of food and other consumer goods. Since the collapse of the Russian bloc in 1989 industrial production has fallen by more than 50%. The population was decimated by a famine in the mid 1990s, which apparently was only halted after delivery of food supplies from China. Even today North Korea imports 90% of its energy, 80% of its consumer goods and some 45% of its food from China.

If a ruling class has nothing to offer its population but scarcity, hunger, repression, and permanent militarisation, and if its companies cannot compete on the world market with any product, the regime can only try to gain “recognition” through its military capacity to threaten and blackmail. Such behaviour is a typical expression of a ruined class, which has nothing to offer humanity but violence, extortion and terror. The posture of threatening its rivals with all kind of military attacks shows how unpredictable and lunatic the situation has become. Faced with a growing economic impasse, the regime for some years has been trying to introduce limited economic measures of “liberalisation”, hoping to improve the supply situation. Some believe that the present sabre rattling is a mere diversion from economic problems and a manoeuvre of the young successor Kim Jong-un to impress the army. While we cannot speculate about the political stability of the regime, we think it would be mistaken to underestimate the real dangers of escalation of the situation. The rise of imperialist tensions is never just “bluff” or “bluster” or a mere diversion and political theatre. All governments in the world are forced to intensify the spiral of militarism – even if this may appear to be working against their own interests. The ruling class has no real control over the cancer of militarism. Even though it is obvious that in the case of a North Korean attack against South Korea or the USA, this would lead to a considerable weakening if not even collapse of a whole regime and state, we must know that the ruling class knows no limits to the policy of scorched earth. In many places of the world, people commit suicide attacks, killing and wounding an endless number of people and sacrificing their own life. The case of North Korea shows that an entire state is threatening to commit massacres and is ready for “suicide”. And even though North Korea is extremely dependent on China, China cannot be sure of being able to “rein” in the regime in Pyongyang, which has shown a new dimension of insanity. During the Korean war both China as well as North Korea were ready to sacrifice millions of soldiers as cannon-fodder. The present North Korean regime is no less ready to sacrifice its “own” cannon-fodder and annihilate as many lives on the enemy side as possible. The North Korean regime thus illustrates the what fighting for your own national interests really implies. As a result this leads to more chaos on the imperialist chess-board.  The policy of threats and blackmails by the North Korean regime is no exception but a caricature of the perspectives of the capitalism system as a whole, which is pushing humanity into an ever growing barbarism.

With a regime in the North so openly threatening South Korea, Japan and the USA, South Korea can present itself as “victim” and “innocent”. But the South Korean ruling class is no better and not less ferocious than its counter-part in North-Korea.

In May 1948 in the South the US-supported Rhee government organised a massacre of some 60.000 people in Cheju (a fifth of the island’s residents). During the war the South Korean government massacred with the same intensity as Northern troops. During the reconstruction period, the country was run by governments which exercised dictatorial rights either indirectly as under Rhee or directly under Park Chung-Hee for more than 4 decades. Whenever workers’ or students’ protests flared up, the regime used repression. In 1980 a popular rising with a strong working class participation in Kwangju was crushed in blood. However, in the reconstruction period after the Korean war, above all since the 1960s thanks to a harsh exploitation of its workforce, South Korean capital managed to get access to the world market through the low price of its goods. South Korea boasts one of the world’s highest percentages of precarious, temporary contract labour[2]. However, with or without a “dictator” as president, all the governments have maintained their policy of repression. The National Security Law gives the government the authority to hunt down any voices critical of the South Korean regime, accusing anybody of being an agent for North Korea. And in so many strikes and protests by workers or students or even “ordinary citizens” (see for example Sangyong or the “candle light protests”), the South Korean State constantly uses repression against the working class in particular. While the media ridicule the way the different generations of the Kim dynasty in North Korea pass on power, the recent election of Park Geun-hye, the daughter of the former dictator Park Chung-Hee shows a remarkable continuity of power transmission under “democracy”. Moreover, the common exploitation of the North Korean work force in the industrial zone of Kaesong shows that the South Korean capitalists are perfectly able to cooperate with any North Korean clique. And the South Korean ruling clique is as determined to use any military means against its Northern rival. Recently Seoul has been aiming at developing nuclear weapons itself.

Class war against imperialist war

History has shown: the two types of regime are basically the same: arch enemies of the workers. The workers cannot take sides with either of them. The recent sharpening of tensions in East Asia crystallises the destructive tendency of capitalism. But the recent conflict is not just a repetition: the dangers have become much bigger for humanity. This time the most powerful rivals are clashing with each other, the USA and China, China and Japan, all heavily armed and committed to speeding up the arms race. During the time of the Korean and Cold War the working class was defeated and unable to raise its head. Only a very small number of revolutionaries of the communist left defended an internationalist position at the time of the Korean war. Today, the proletariat in East Asia is not willing to sacrifice its life in the deadly spiral of capitalism. Only the working class can save humanity from sinking into an ever deeper barbarism. In order to do so the working class must reject patriotism and the spiral of militarism.

 No to a “united front with the government”! The only solution for the working class is to resolutely fight against their own bourgeoisies – in the North as well as in the South.  For revolutionaries today this means we must continue to defend the internationalist tradition of Lenin, Luxemburg, and Liebknecht during World War 1, of the Communist Left during World War 2 and during the Korean War –a tradition that was defended again in the 2006 internationalist statement on the threat of war in 2006.   

ICC, 8.4.2013




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Imperialism: Far East