The shelling of the Yeonpyeong islands on November 23 by North Korea, killing two soldiers and two civilians, has brought tensions on the Korean Peninsula to a new height, with increasing worry throughout the world that the situation will develop into an explosive confrontation. Despite all the public displays of caution and concern for stabilizing the region, both the US and China have been playing a dangerous game of confrontations throughout East Asia over the past year, and each side is seeking to exploit the situation for the advancement of its own imperialist aims. The fact that North Korea, an isolated anachronistic state, is able to enrich uranium while the majority of its population is devastated by famines and droughts speaks to its strategic importance to China as a buffer against the South, where US troops have been stationed for almost 60 years. It is in this broader context that the conflict between North and South Korea must be understood.
After the shelling, the US accelerated plans to send the nuclear-armed USS George Washington aircraft carrier with 5 other warships to the Yellow Sea for joint naval exercises with South Korea. Beijing called for a renewal of the six-party disarmament talks with the US, China, Russia, Japan, and North and South Korea, and refuses to condemn North Korea for the shelling of Yeonpyeong, despite pressure from Washington.
In the South, defense officials have been forced to resign, and the defense policy has been changed from “responding in kind” to allowing aerial bombing of North Korea should there be another attack.
On December 20, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson announced that he had reached an agreement with Pyongyang to allow UN nuclear inspectors back into the country only days before South Korea’s scheduled live-fire land drill, to which North Korea had threatened a response even more dramatic than the shelling of Yeonpyeong. After a weather delay, South Korea’s planned largest-ever live-fire military drills brought tanks, helicopters, fighter planes and hundreds of troops only 12 miles from the border. Despite prior threats of a massive response, Pyongyang was largely silent during the first two days the drills were being conducted and tried to play the role of the restrained, rational state. “The revolutionary armed forces of the DPRK did not feel any need to retaliate against every despicable military provocation,” said the KCNA official news agency. Yet on the third day of drills, North Korea’s minister of armed forces publicly said that his military is ready to wage “holy war,” including the use of the nuclear deterrent, against the South’s attempts to initiate conflict which he characterized as invasion preparations.
Without the North Korea buffer, US troops would be directly on the Chinese border, and the US is seeking to further inject itself into disputes in the region as a counterpoint to its rapidly rising economic rival. Furthermore, China already paid a heavy price during the 2008 financial meltdown for anchoring its economic growth so firmly to the United States, and has been increasingly seeking to ‘diversify’ its imperialist portfolio, so to speak, in the form of a massive naval buildup, increased military involvement in Africa and Latin America, and the pursuit of trade and monetary policies independent of Washington’s interests.
A year of mounting tensions
Almost a year ago, the US permitted weapons manufacturers to sell $6.4 billion in weapons to Taiwan – including Black Hawk helicopters and Patriot Missiles, leading to the suspension of all military-to-military discussions between Beijing and Washington. In response to the North’s sinking of the Cheonan warship, Washington carried out joint US-South Korean military exercises (originally said to take place in the Yellow Sea) in the Sea of Japan. In July, at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum in Vietnam, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s offer to mediate the conflict between China, Vietnam, and Taiwan over disputed islands in the South China Sea was called “virtually an attack on China” by Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jichi.
At another ASEAN forum in October, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates stressed the United States’ interest in “freedom of navigation” in the South China Sea. The Financial Times summed up aims of the US in the region well, saying “At a time when governments in the region and beyond are expressing concerns about China’s ambitious naval buildup, the forum gives the US an opportunity to present itself as a natural counterpoint to a rising China.
China, for its part, has finally publicly announced its long-rumored plans for building an aircraft carrier, and anti-ship ballistic “carrier-killer” missiles. The State Oceanic Administration’s May 2010 China’s Ocean Development Report
praised the carrier plans, saying, “This shows that China has started entering a new historic era of comprehensively building itself into a great naval power. [This] is China’s historic task for the entire 21st century
Monetarily, Beijing and Washington squabbled about the revaluation of the renminbi throughout the year, and the very day after the shelling of the Yeonpyeong Island, a Russian exchange announced that it would begin doing business directly from rubles to renminbi, rather than in dollars.
Tensions on the Peninsula
This is not to say that the conflict on the Korean Peninsula doesn’t involve real tensions and ambitions of North and South Korea. On the contrary, it is because of the internal tensions in both governments that both the US and China and other allied imperialisms are keenly interested in the Korean situation. After Kim Jong-Il’s 2008 stroke, speculation about his chosen successor has filled the press and only this year did his choice of his youngest son, the 27-year-old Kim Jong-Un, become clear. Analysts in the bourgeois media have repeatedly cited this transition as a primary reason for China’s caution in condemning too sharply the shelling of Yeonpyeong. Various analysts have speculated about the popularity of this appointment with the North Korean bourgeoisie at large, with Kim Jong-Un lacking any real military experience, yet being promoted to the rank of four-star general and vice-chairman of the central military commission. A number of analysts have speculated that the Yeonpyeong shelling may have been a reflection of tensions between the military and the party hierarchy, or that the appointment of Jong-Un necessitated providing him with military “experience” as the population seems to doubt his credentials and has been increasingly dissatisfied with Kim Jong-Il throughout the year as well.
The “Dear Leader’s” chosen successor is not the only issue threatening the stability of the North Korean regime. Early last year Pyongyang executed Chief Finance Minister, Pak Nam-gi over an attempted currency devaluation in November 2009, intended to deal with runaway inflation, which had to be almost immediately reversed after provoking food shortages and raising the price of rice almost 70-fold. All this was an attempt to make good on Kim Jong Il’s promise to revitalize the North Korean economy by 2012, when his youngest son is slated to take over. Thus the shaky transition from father to son, coupled with the economic woes of North Korea, both necessitate the DPRK’s acting out to secure concessions in economic relief and create ample opportunities for the US to try to curb the defiance of the Pyongyang regime if not squeeze it into collapse.
In the South, despite a long history of close relations, the United States has had a contentious relationship with the Seoul government in recent years, involving a number of sharp trade feuds about importing US beef after an outbreak of Mad Cow disease in 2003, and the month-long failure of the Obama administration to secure favorable market access conditions for beef and automobiles last November. South Korea and the United States only reached their trade agreement, which Obama called a “victory” for autoworkers and the environment, after the Yeonpyeong shelling.
In fact what we’ve seen since the collapse of the East-West bloc system which left the US as the sole superpower has been a situation in which individual states try to challenge US hegemony, yet no group of states has been able form a lasting community of interests to do this. Each nation tends to play one of their rivals off the other, creating an increasingly chaotic global situation. Japan had also seemed poised to take steps to pursue ambitions outside the purview of US approval, with a bill passed in late 2006 changing laws regarding its Self-Defense Forces to create for the first time since World War II a real army, and the most recent Prime Minister, Yukio Hatoyama running on a campaign promise to relocate the US military bases in Okinawa. Hatoyama had to resign this year, after pledging to Obama that Japan would honor its commitment to keeping the US base, and Tokyo hoped to cut funding for the bases this year but was pressured by Washington to maintain the funding level, putting Japan’s own imperialist ambitions on hold to remain in the good graces of the United States.
This seems to be what the US is hoping for throughout the region – to present itself as the sole power capable of “leading” the rest of East Asia against a rising China and increasingly aggressive North Korea, even attempting to secure a lasting alliance between South Korea and Japan under US tutelage.
All of this gives the lie to the myth that any of the states involved are genuinely concerned with either protecting “democracy” or with the wellbeing of their inhabitants or the human species as a whole. The Korean question is expected to be at the top of the agenda for (Nobel Peace Prize winning) President Obama and Hu Jintao’s January 19 meeting, and restraint seems to be the watchword for the Koreas coming from both Washington and Beijing for the short term, while each side readies its weapons and brandishes its military might in plain view of the other. The challenge, for all imperialisms involved, is to continue with shows of force to pressure their rivals, without losing control of the already explosive situation. Yet in the end, imperialism is not about frightening the rival nation-states into “rethinking” their own aims, conceding strategic territories, and accepting unfavorable trade agreements with mere warning shots and drill. In the age of imperialism, every national bourgeoisie must pursue its own economic, military, and territorial expansion, or risk stagnation and total defeat in the economic war of “each against all,” despite plunging humanity further into the abyss.
.- China co-wrote and re-wrote a UN Security Council resolution together with Russia, which condemned the attacks but didn’t name North Korea and was rejected by the US, France, and Japan.
.- Hille, Katherine & Mure Dickie. “China reveals aircraft carrier plans.” The Financial Times, 17 December 2010.