Korea: playing with fire around a barrel of gunpowder

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On 26 March this year, 46 South Korean sailors were killed when their war ship was hit by a torpedo - almost certainly fired from a North Korean submarine, although Pyongyang denies this. At the end of May, South Korea carried out large-scale naval manoeuvres close to the maritime frontier with North Korea. In response, the North Korean government accused Seoul of engaging in a deliberate provocation, aimed at sparking off a new military conflict. It threatened to put in place the military measures needed to defend its territorial waters, and the South would be held responsible for the consequences.

Military tensions between the two enemy sisters of the Korean peninsula go back a long way.  In the wake of the Second World War and the Yalta agreements that established their spheres of influence, the USA and the USSR decided in 1948 to partition Korea along the line of the 38th parallel. But under the pretext of ‘liberating' Korea from the Japanese yoke, the two bloc leaders began to push forward their imperialist interests in the region, and the country became a focal point for their efforts to win control of South East Asia. This soon led to a direct, murderous conflict between the pro-Russian North and the pro-American South.  

The Korean war, a dark pre-figuration of the Vietnam war, showed what it meant to be under the ‘protection' of the US and Russian blocs. From 1950 to 1953, the US rained nearly 13,000 tons of bombs every month on the North, four times more than the amounts it had dropped on Japan. Meanwhile, the Russian and Chinese armies engaged in this war on a massive scale. After three years of destruction, the frontiers between the North and South had not changed by a flea-hop, but the US had affirmed its military superiority and its will to control Japan.

All this came at the cost of 2 million dead, three quarters of them in North Korea.  Korea's entry into post-war history showed the place it now occupied on the global chess board and would do for the next 50 years. Well before the collapse of the Russian bloc, China, which had started off under Moscow's wing, had moved away from it in the 60s, and following the Nixon-Mao accords in 1972, toward the end of the Vietnam war in 1975, China took significant steps towards integration into the American bloc.  Beijing then increasingly succeeded Moscow as North Korea's patron but this didn't really turn out to America's advantage, since the Chinese now used North Korea as a means to put pressure on the US, particularly after the American bloc had ceased to have any real existence. Thus, Washington's identification of North Korea as a rogue state from the 90s onwards was a means of exerting its own pressure on China. After 2001, North Korea was ‘promoted' to the "Axis of Evil" by the Bush administration.  

The recent clashes in this still-divided country are thus a new episode in the growing confrontation between the US and China. But neither China nor the US have an interest in the situation degenerating below a certain level. China does not have the means to wage a military offensive against an enemy which, in the last instance, is the USA. And despite the North's repeated threats against its ally in Seoul, the US has no interest in provoking a country linked to China, since this could result in an irreparable destabilisation of the region.  However, while the two main powers are seeking to keep the situation under control, the pressure they are exerting on each local government runs the risk of pushing the latter into an irrational flight into ‘every man for himself' and militarism. In particular the isolation of North Korea has resulted in threats to make use of its nuclear weapons. The current situation is thus intensifying the climate of terror hanging over the heads of all the populations in the region.

The balance of strategic forces in this region remains very fragile and precarious. This means that both North and South Korea continue to exist as more or less militarised societies where there is a constant and unbearable pressure on the proletariat, whose struggles are all the more courageous and exemplary for that. 

Mulan  8/6/10


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