What is behind the nuclear standoff between the US and North Korea

The North Korean standoff is the most dangerous crisis of the 21st century so far with millions facing annihilation if a nuclear war occurred. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has blithely pledged that a clash between the US and North Korea would be a “casus belli” (a cause for war) for Australia.

North Korea has become a nuclear power to save itself from the fate of non-nuclear dictatorships who have come up against might of US imperialism. As the Melbourne Age put it: “no-one messes with countries that can wipe out millions with the press of a button”.

While trying to extract itself from the Middle East and Afghanistan, the US is undertaking a military ‘pivot’ towards East Asia. It’s a policy aimed at China, the main economic threat to US dominance in East Asia that has lasted since 1945.

China has its own arms build-up to protect shipping lanes in the region and to lord over what it sees as its national interest. The regime presides over a unique from of state capitalism with still huge state influence from the days of the nationalised economy presided over by the Communist Party. The pressure from its world-sized economy, hemmed in by its national boundaries, is partially overcome by China expanding its interests throughout the region and worldwide and the US can do little about it.

Beijing will also use nationalism as a tool to generate support from its population, which is wracked by growing inequality. The mortal fear of the Chinese regime is a repeat of the 1989 Tiananmen Square movement, especially if its massive working class was to get involved.

Nevertheless, it is the US that must take responsibility for most of the aggression and arms build-up in the region. China’s US$200 billion defense budget is only a third that of the US. Top US Navy Admiral Greenart recently declared that a there are plans to expand American naval presence in the Pacific with new ships and hi-tech weaponry will go ahead despite budget cuts.
The US wants to hem in China and one way of doing this involves greater aggression towards North Korea. Since the 1990s, the US has slashed its aid to Pyongyang, knocked back multiple offers of direct negotiations, and stepped up its aggressive rhetoric and military build-up.

China fears a collapse of the north would lead to an influx of refugees across its border. They have made it clear that US troops on the Chinese border of a united Korea is a red line they won’t accept. North Korea, despite its pesky behaviour in the eyes of Beijing, is considered a necessary buffer.

Establishment of a North Korean dictatorship: A historical perspective

The Korean peninsula was an exploited colony of Japanese Imperialism until its defeat by the US and Red Army in 1945. Korea was split North and South along the 38th parallel, the north to be in Moscow’s camp, the south to be capitalist and pro-American.

Soviet foreign policy in 1945 was very different to that of its early days of 1917-24. USSR dictator Joseph Stalin’s internal political counter-revolution in the USSR in the 1920s and 1930s pushed aside workers’ democracy. Defending the interests of the bureaucracy rather than spreading genuine democratic socialist change motivated Stalin’s foreign policy.

Initially the North Korean economy was stronger than that in the south as it was the traditional industrial base of the peninsula. The Soviets, and the Kim Il-Sung regime it installed, forced through radical land reform. Until then 77.5% of households were tenant farmers struggling to eat as their average rent made up a whopping 55-60% of the value of the food they produced. This land tenure system stymied any increase in agricultural production and productivity. The ability of the country to feed the cities – an essential prerequisite for capitalist development, let alone socialist development – was missing.

In South Korea, the early post-war years saw struggles of workers and peasants against US occupying forces and its puppet right wing dictatorship. Such was the instability in the South, Stalin broke with his normal cagey approach and gave permission to the North to invade the South in 1950, thinking it would be a short war that would bring the whole peninsula into the Soviet sphere of influence.

Initially South Korean forces collapsed in the face of the North Koreas army and a re-invasion was rapidly organised by the US and its allies including Australia (badged as a UN intervention). US-led forces quickly pushed the North Koreans out of the South and then stormed past the 38th parallel and upwards towards the Chinese border. In doing this they overplayed their hand and forced China to intervene. The Chinese army, battle-hardened from recent victory in their own civil war, pushed back the Americans until a deadlock was reached on the current border in 1953.

US military tactics had included carpet-bombing to a degree not seen in warfare before. Out of a combined population of 20 million at the time, the war left 5 million people dead, wounded or missing. The North, with a much smaller population, suffered twice the causalities of the South.

In the South, the dictatorship used the war years to undertake massacres of trade unionists and socialists. The worst was the Bodo League massacre where up to 200,000 activists were placed in freshly dug mass graves and shot.

This trauma and memory of war on ordinary people has been skillfully exploited by the North Korean regime. The regime balanced between China and the Soviet Union and created its own unique form of Stalinism – the Juche ideology of self-reliance, a form of Stalinist autocracy mixed with Confucian state worship. This was entwined with an extreme cult of the personality and hereditary power – its three leaders since 1945 are Father, son and grandson (Kim Il-Sung; Kim Jong-il; Kim Jong-un). The regime maintained power with a repressive and expensive state machine, with the 4th largest active duty army in the world.

North Korea, like all Stalinist regimes, abolished capitalist economic relations and operated a centralised planned economy run by an unelected bureaucratic elite. The bureaucracy was not checked by either the control of the masses or even by the looser check of the market.

Over time the benefits of land reform, a central economic plan, and production for need not profit were whittled away by the parasitic bureaucracy.
This economy decay was made worse when Russian aid ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. This was followed by flooding in the mid-1990s leading to famine. Up to a million people starved, living standards fell by 50% and average real GDP growth rate in the 1990s slumped to -4%. The regime had to accept UN food aid, which was a blow to its prestige.

Today South Korea’s economy is 50 times larger than the North.
The North Korean economy has improved somewhat since the crisis of the 1990s, mainly due to exports to China. Until the recent sanctions, North Korea state-owned enterprises raised foreign exchange by sending 50,000 workers to toil on slave pay in 40 countries in Africa and Asia. Wages are sent straight to the regime, who pass on a pittance to the workers.

Imperialism broke its own rules in Korea

Marxists have explained that western imperialism normally has no interest in developing “3rd world” countries into economic giants and potential rivals. The West uses Asia, Africa and Latin America as sources of their raw materials, cheap labour, as well as being recipients of excess product from the West. If left to their own devices, and not checked by the masses, the local capitalist elite in these countries act as agents of the main powers in this super-exploitation, satisfied in the main in ensuring they get their cut via corruption and using brutal methods to keep the masses in check.

History has shown that it has been the oppressed majority, in particular the urban working class, who have been the most consistent force in opposing imperialist domination and supporting land reform. A working class-led revolution would implement these policies as part of a socialist transformation.

In fact, such is the weakness of the local capitalists in the 3rd world, sometimes even a military coup (Ethiopia) or peasant-based guerrilla army (Cuba) has come to power on a non-socialist programme but nevertheless forced to introduce land reform and take over/nationalise the economy because the elite had fled and literally left the economy in their hands.

In South Korea in the late 1940s and 1950s, the US were more worried about an internal revolution from workers and poor peasants than they were about their normal policy of keeping their 3rd world economic colonies in chains. Therefore they forced through the type of change in South Korea that they normally blocked in the 3rd world.

As the New Internationalist put it: “The occupying American army removed the economic power-base of a (South Korean) ruling class and transferred land to a new class of peasant farmers. Few (3rd world) governments have the political means or will to undertake such a complete transfer of property and power”.

Today, both China and the South Korean regime fear the economic and political consequences of reunification. The only peaceful way to achieve unity is through a democratic and socialist regime under the control of ordinary people. This could only happen if the monopolies of the south and the resources of the north were integrated into a national investment plan. “The capitalist regimes of the south and the cultist dictatorship of the north would have to go before that”, as Marxist economist Michael Roberts put it.

The current North Korean crisis is the most serious of the disputes in the East Asian region between China and US. Despite the threats of the bumbling Trump administration, no serious player wants war and there will probably be a lull in tensions for a while.

What will not stop however is a growing trade war between China and US and a continuation of the arms race in East Asia, wasting resources that in a socialist world could be used to eradicate poverty.

There will be mass struggles and revolutionary waves in the upcoming period in our region. However if these opportunities are wasted, the working class and its organisations – the main force for sanity and a check on war – will be sidelined and more Trumps and Durantes will come to power. In these circumstances, the possibilities of war and nuclear war will be greater.

The long-term future is one of either socialism or nuclear war.

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