The Korean Crisis

In October 2002 US imperialism provoked a confrontation with the isolated and floundering Stalinist regime of North Korea. Revealing publicly the news (known to the US administration for some time) that Kim Jong-il’s regime had resumed its nuclear weapons program in violation of the 1994 ‘agreed framework’, the Bush administration ignored the fact that the US had consistently reneged on its own 1994 promises.

Leaning on South Korea and Japan, the US cut off the oil supplies being delivered to North Korea under the 1994 agreement. There would be no talks or further economic assistance, proclaimed the US, until North Korea unconditionally abandoned its nuclear weapons program. The White House hawks were evidently sure that Kim Jong-il would back down – but that was a serious miscalculation. North Korea defiantly announced that it would continue its nuclear program until the US entered serious talks to normalize relations between North Korea, South Korea, and the US. Moreover, the North would retaliate in the event of any military attack by the US – which appeared to be threatened in Bush’s ‘axis of evil’ speech and recent US actions.

Despite its commitment to pre-emptive military action against any state developing weapons of mass destruction, US imperialism was forced to retreat. While continuing hard-line threats against North Korea, the US began to reassure the world that it would seek a ‘diplomatic solution’ to the crisis. Colin Powell and other US representatives began to speak, in somewhat coded language, about new talks and economic concessions. In reality, the hawk administration had been forced to confront the limits of US military power. “In private”, reported the New York Times, “some of the president’s aides… said that North Korea’s existing nuclear capacity, and its ability to wreak enormous damage on Seoul with its conventional weapons, had led them to conclude that the US had no viable military options in dealing with the North, at least without risking the rekindling of the Korean war”. (2 January)

Moreover, despite Rumsfeld’s public claims that it was perfectly possible for the US to conduct two regional wars simultaneously, the US strategists were forced to recognize that, in reality, two wars would put massive strains on the US’s strategic capabilities. The diplomatic and political overheads of preparing for a second war would seriously distract from US efforts to mobilize support for an attack on Iraq.

Powell and others worked hard to play down the consequences of the US’s confrontational policy. There is no ‘crisis’, said Powell, only a ‘serious situation’. There would be no ‘negotiations’ but there would be ‘talks’. The glaring contradiction, however, between the US policy on Iraq, on the one side, and North Korea, on the other, destroys the legitimacy claimed for an attack on Iraq. This devastating exposure of US hypocrisy is a serious blow to the superpower’s prestige.

Anatomy of a Crisis

As in 1993-94, North Korea is using the threat of nuclear weapons (whether actual or potential) and its formidable conventional arsenal to force the US superpower into negotiations. Kim Jong-il’s regime needs economic concessions to avoid collapse, and just as crucially needs an end to the strategic siege imposed by the US since the end of the Korean war (1950-53). Pyongyang’s nuclear brinkmanship, though potentially dangerous, is driven by fear rather than by militaristic ambition. The rotten Stalinist dictatorship faces the prospect of an implosion. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, which deprived North Korea of vital economic support, the regime has consistently attempted to secure from the US a non-aggression pact, recognition of its sovereignty, and economic assistance. The US’s equally consistent refusal to enter into direct negotiations with North Korea, effectively ruling out a peace treaty to formally close the 1950-53 Korean war, has encouraged the regime to resort to nuclear blackmail.

The 1994 ‘agreed framework’ provided an opportunity for defusing the Korean conflict. The US, however, never fulfilled its promises, leading North Korea to secretly renew its nuclear weapons policies. The aggressive, reckless policy of the Bush administration has been the primary cause of a renewed confrontation, once again raising the specter of war and nuclear conflict.

During 1993-94 the CIA discovered that, despite signing the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1985, North Korea was developing a nuclear weapons program based on its plutonium-producing reactor at Yongbyon. Whether they actually produced weapons (or now possess usable weapons) is not certain, though North Korea has not carried out the kind of nuclear tests considered essential to producing a viable weapon. Nevertheless, Clinton has recently admitted that “we actually drew up plans to attack North Korea and to destroy their reactors, and we told them we would attack unless they ended their nuclear program”. US imperialism’s own military assessment, however, concluded that the cost of an offensive against North Korea would be too high. Full-scale war on the peninsula would claim up to one million dead, including up to 100,000 Americans. The immediate cost to the US would exceed $100bn, while the cost of destruction and economic dislocation would be over $1 trillion. This was apart from the horrendous consequences of a nuclear conflict.

Instead, the US (through mediation by former president Carter) negotiated the agreed framework. In return for North Korea suspending its nuclear weapons program, the US would provide economic assistance in the form of oil, food and the construction of two (non-plutonium-producing) ‘light water’ reactors for electricity generation. Just as important for the North, however, was the US promise to move towards “full normalization of political and economic relations”.

Apart from providing oil, however, the US did not proceed to fulfill its promises. Construction of the two nuclear power stations was repeatedly postponed, and there were no serious talks on the normalization of relations. Clinton was undoubtedly under pressure from the Republican-dominated Congress not to end economic sanctions or honor US promises. At the same time, Clinton’s administration believed that the North was on the verge of collapse: they calculated that economic problems would force the regime into unilateral military concessions, even if the US did not deliver.

In 1998, North Korea resumed missile testing, firing some missiles over Japan. This was partly to promote its missile sales (estimated to be $50-100m a year to states such as Pakistan, Syria, Iran, Iraq, and Yemen) and partly to put pressure on the US to resume negotiations.

In June 2000 there was a summit meeting between Kim Jong-il and the South Korean president, Kim Dae-jung. A big section of the capitalist class in the South is strongly in favor of reaching agreement with the North, to prevent a collapse and avoid the devastating consequences of a mass exodus. Japanese capitalism also wants a rapprochement with North Korea, though negotiations were delayed by the shocked reaction in Japan to North Korea’s admission that the regime had abducted over a dozen Japanese citizens during the 1970s and 1980s. This confession and apology was apparently intended to placate Japan but had the opposite effect (despite Kim also renouncing North Korea’s demand for wartime reparations).

The takeover in Washington by Bush and his foreign policy hawks, however, cut across the process of détente developing among the North-East Asian states. Bush broke off talks with North Korea and adopted a confrontational approach. In his State of the Union Speech (January 2002) Bush declared North Korea to be part of an ‘axis of evil’, in language that was tantamount to a declaration of war. Later, the US National Security Statement authorized a policy of pre-emptive military strikes against any state acquiring weapons of mass destruction.

In June 2002 the CIA produced a secret intelligence report that since 1998 North Korea had restarted its nuclear weapons program, this time on the basis of the uranium-enrichment process (as an alternative to reactor-produced plutonium). An assistant secretary of state, James Kelly, was sent to Pyongyang to deliver an ultimatum to Kim Jong-il – drop your nuclear program or face the consequences. Bush and his hawks evidently believed that Kim would back down. Instead, the regime admitted they had restarted their nuclear program, and threatened to accelerate the development of nuclear weapons unless the US fulfilled its framework agreement promises and entered into serious negotiations to normalize relations.

After Kelly’s visit the US publicly announced the existence of North Korea’s new nuclear program, clearly with the intention of gearing up another confrontation with North Korea. Very little publicity, however, was given to a key element of the CIA’s report – evidence that the technology for uranium enrichment had been supplied to North Korea by Pakistan’s Musharraf regime. Pakistan has a nuclear arsenal but needs the missiles necessary to deploy them operationally. Facing acute economic crisis in 1997, the Pakistan regime supplied North Korea with uranium-processing equipment in exchange for their latest ballistic missiles. Another glaring contradiction. The US’s key ally in the war against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan was actively collaborating in a nuclear weapons program with a ‘rogue’ state, part of Bush’s ‘axis of evil’.

The US put pressure on South Korea and Japan to halt the oil supplies to the North. In retaliation, North Korea restarted its Yongbyon reactor, removed UN monitoring equipment and ordered International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors to leave the country. On 10 January this year, North Korea formally withdrew from the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The unanticipated consequences of Bush’ provocative policy towards North Korea have again revealed the deep split within the Bush administration between hawks, who want to pursue confrontation, and the doves, who advocate ‘engagement’ and negotiations. ” I have never seen a more divided group in my 30 years of involvement in foreign policy”, commented a veteran of the Republican foreign policy establishment (New York Times, 13 January). They appear to be lurching between wielding the big stick and dangling fresh carrots. Bush is insisting on referring North Korea to the UN Security Council for breach of the Non Proliferation Treaty, a step towards new sanctions. At the same time, Powell and others are raising the possibility of further economic assistance. Both Russia and South Korea have opened talks to try to reach a negotiated settlement of the conflict. For the time being, the diplomatic approach prevails in Washington, mainly because Iraq takes priority. There is little doubt, however, that the hawks see North Korea as the next target, once they have dealt with Iraq.

The North Korean Regime

Under Pressure of a deep internal crisis, the Kim Sung-il regime has, since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the other Stalinist states after 1990, desperately sought to break out of its extreme isolation. Using its capacity to develop nuclear weapons as a bargaining counter, North Korea has attempted to open up economic relations with its neighbors and the rest of the world and at the same time negotiate a ‘non-aggression pact’ with the US. While the country’s economic crisis is profound, with even the possibility of a collapse, the North Korean regime is not willing to bargain away its potential nuclear capacity solely in return for economic assistance – survival of the regime, Kim’s primary aim, depends on a strategic détente with US imperialism.

In 1994, under the framework agreement, North Korea agreed to suspend its nuclear weapons development, but fearing that the Clinton administration was reneging on its promises, the regime secretly renewed its nuclear program. Rather than preparing for war, however, which would undoubtedly result in the total destruction of Korea, the regime’s main aim is to use the threat of nuclear weapons to pressure the US into ‘talks’ (negotiations) on a non-aggression ‘agreement’ (effectively, a tripartite North Korea-South Korea-US treaty) formally concluding the 1950-53 Korean war and recognizing North Korea’s right to exist. North Korea’s real motive is recognized by former US president Carter, who said recently “they are using these fiery and public statements [about preparing for war] in order to accomplish their long-standing goal of negotiating a permanent and positive relationship with the US”. (New York Times, 17 January)

North Korea is a fossilized form of Stalinism, a grotesque distortion of the idea of socialism, modeled on the bureaucratically planned economies of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Hardened by the Korean war and the prolonged US military threat during the cold war, North Korea has been far more isolated, monolithic and rigid than other variants of Stalinism. Kim Jong-il is a hereditary dictator, taking over from his father, Kim Il-sung, in 1994. He has continued the cult of personality around the ‘Great Leader’, and the ideology of ‘Juche’ (self-sufficiency), linked to a xenophobic attitude to all foreigners. Kim Jong-il, however, has reportedly strengthened the role of the tops of the army and security apparatus in the regime, trying to counter the weight of the ‘old guard’ leadership of the ruling Korean Workers’ Party, who oppose his move towards economic reform and détente with imperialism.

The regime is ideologically monolithic and rules by totalitarian methods. There are thought to be over 200,000 political prisoners, mostly in labor camps. The military apparatus dominates the state. There are around a million troops, most of them stationed just north of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) and only about 30 miles north of Seoul. North Korea has a massive array of conventional weaponry: tanks, heavy artillery, missiles, military aircraft and warships, though most is now technologically outmoded. This is a massive burden on the economy.

The regime’s apparent paranoia – or permanent siege mentality – is not without historical causes. After a long and bitter guerrilla struggle against the occupation of the Korean peninsula by Japanese imperialism, the leadership of the Korean Communist Party then faced an intervention by US imperialism to prevent the reunification of Korea after the second world war. During the Korean war (1950-53) the US military commander, General McArthur, advocated dropping 20 or 30 nuclear bombs on the North – this was only five years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The conventional bombardment of the North, previously the most industrialized region of Korea, caused enormous casualties and massive destruction of the country’s infrastructure. After the war (never formally ended with a peace treaty), the US backed an extremely repressive dictatorship in the South and maintained a nuclear arsenal in South Korea from 1957 until 1991. Hiding behind the fiction that the US was not directly a party to the hostilities, merely a participant in a UN force, Washington has consistently refused to negotiate a peace treaty with North Korea. In the light of this history, it is hardly surprising that the North Korean regime feels itself to be under threat from US imperialism.

North Korea is predominantly an urbanized, industrialized country, not like China, Vietnam, etc, which still have a predominant peasantry. Most of the industrial plant, however, is obsolete, and the bureaucratic planning apparatus is suffering from the kind of organic sclerosis that undermined the former Soviet Union. Output has undoubtedly been steadily falling (though it is impossible to confirm some Western claims of a 50% fall over recent years). Debts to European and Japanese banks total around $3.2bn, and the default on many of the debts is a barrier to potential investment from abroad. The economy was hit very hard by the collapse of the Soviet Union after 1990, which deprived North Korea of cheap imports of oil, fertilizers, and machinery. Serious flooding in 1995-96, which particularly affected the ‘bread basket’ areas of the south, led to a serious famine and has left a legacy of malnourishment amongst children. There are estimates that between one and two million died of starvation, and many thousands of refugees fled to North-East China (with a predominantly ethnic Korean population).

The famine forced the Kim Jong-il leadership to tolerate the growth of private farmers’ markets, charging higher prices for food products. Early in 2001 the regime began to implement limited Chinese-style reforms, raising agricultural prices and some consumer prices. However, this will not automatically have the same effect as in China in the 1980s, where higher prices for farmers stimulated the rapid growth of rural industries. North Korea has a very different social structure from China, Vietnam, etc, where rural-sector growth had a much bigger impact on the economy than it could in North Korea.

In the summer of 2002, the regime announced the development of two SEZs, special economic zones (Kaesong just north of the DMZ and Sinuiju, near the border with China). There is no shortage of capitalists throughout East Asia eager to exploit North Korea’s cheap labor. South Korean capitalists in particular, view investments in the North as a way of opening up the economy, avoiding a precipitous collapse of the North, and achieving a ‘soft landing’ for the disintegrating Stalinist regime. The economic development of the North, however, will not automatically follow from overseas investment. In any case, growth throughout East Asia is likely to be undermined by the developing world downturn. A ‘soft landing’ for the North, moreover, depends on a peaceful resolution of the peninsula’s cold-war era divisions, which is far from being guaranteed.

North Korea is a grotesque regime. But its development has been heavily conditioned by the unrelenting military-strategic threat from US imperialism. Neither US diplomacy nor military aggression (which would in fact be catastrophic) can resolve the Korean crisis. Only the working class, applying socialist solutions, can find an exit route from the dangerous dead-end created by Stalinism and imperialism.

South Korea and the US

“‘In some ways, the problem in South Korea has become harder to handle than that of North Korea’, said a Korea specialist with ties to many members of Bush’s foreign policy team”. (New York Times, 2 January) South Korea is now as much a problem for the US as the North. Roh Moo-hyun, candidate of the Millennium Democratic Party (MDP), won the presidential elections (19 December) on a wave of anti-American feeling. Viewed by the Bush regime as a dangerous populist and nationalist, Roh supports the continuation of the ‘sunshine’ policy – as does a big section of the South Korean ruling class – and is strongly opposed to the US policy of aggressive confrontation with the North Korean regime. Although Roh, now a liberal bourgeois politician, has toned down his anti-American rhetoric, political changes in the South will unavoidably pose a challenge to the continued presence of US imperialism in South Korea, one of its main bases in East Asia.

Shortly before the elections mass demonstrations and candlelit vigils were triggered by the announcement that a US military court-martial had acquitted two US soldiers on charges of negligent homicide after their armored vehicle had crushed two 14-year-old schoolgirls in June. Demonstrations continued for weeks, particularly involving young people but also drawing in broader layers of workers, white-collar workers, housewives, and shopkeepers. The movement reflected deep resentment at the continued presence of 37,000 US troops in the country (which costs South Korea $3bn to $4bn a year). For several decades after the Korean war (1950-53), the US supported a viciously repressive dictatorship in the South, which was only cleared out by the massive movement of the working class in the late 1980s. Moreover, there is growing support for the idea of reunification of the Korean peninsula and opposition to US policies which many fear could lead to another devastating war. There is an overwhelming feeling that South Korea should be treated as an equal by the US, not merely as a convenient military base. Even the presidential candidate of the ultra-conservative Grand National Party (GNP), Lee Hoi-chang, opportunistically joined the candlelit vigil outside the US embassy in Seoul. Ironically, it was Roh Moo-hyun, trying to establish ‘moderate’ credentials with Washington, who urged the protesters to tone down their demands.

The rising tide of opposition to the role of US imperialism in Korea was the key factor in Roh’s narrow victory (48.9% against 46.6% for Lee Hoi-chang). Support for Roh’s MDP has been undermined over the last few years, because of president Kim Dae-jung’s economic policies, especially industrial restructuring and the imposition of new labor laws ending lifetime job security. These are seen as US-dictated IMF policies, the economic facet of US domination. There have been massive job losses (about a quarter of 15 to 29-year-olds are estimated to be unemployed). Two years ago president Kim Dae-jung deployed the riot police against Daewoo workers protesting against redundancies. Disillusionment with the MDP government, which harvested the political gains of the mass workers’ movement that forced through the democratization of South Korea in the late 1980s, led to a 10% fall in the turnout compared to the 1997 election (down to 70.2%). Disillusionment with the MDP was also reflected in the increased vote for the Democratic Labor Party candidate, Kwon Young-ghil, leader of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), who won nearly 4% of the vote, up from 1.2% in 1997.

The ominous standoff between the US and the North did not strengthen the conservative Lee, a former supreme court judge, previously linked to the US-backed dictatorship. This indicates a big change from the cold war political alignments. At the time of Bush’s axis of evil speech (January 2002), even a section of the GNP’s parliamentary representatives joined with the MDP in condemning Bush’s provocative policy towards the North Korean regime. This indicates supports for the sunshine policy within the South Korean ruling class. They fear that a US policy of isolating the North Korean regime, and threatening a military strike, could lead to a catastrophic nuclear war. But they also fear an implosion of Kim Sung-il’s regime, whether from internal weakness or intensified economic pressure in the form of US-enforced sanctions.

A sudden collapse could lead to a massive migration from the North to the South, which would have a devastating impact on the already strained South Korean economy. The majority of South Korean capitalists want the reunification of the country, but they want it over a period of 20 to 30 years, beginning with some kind of loose federation and moving gradually towards integration on the basis of capitalism. A rapid unification on the lines of Germany in 1990-91 would, in their view, destroy the South Korean economic ‘miracle’.

One estimate (Financial Times, 8 November 2002) puts the cost of rapid unification at $3,200bn, a phenomenal sum for South Korea. The high cost arises from the enormous disparity in wealth between the two countries: the South with a population of 50 million has a GDP of nearly $500bn, while the North, with a population of about 23 million, has a GDP estimated at only around $15bn. This disparity is about five times greater than the economic difference between West Germany and the East in 1990-91.

Behind the ‘sunshine policy’ put forward by the previous president, Kim Dae-jung, and supported by Roh, is the strategy of step by step opening up of the North to southern-based capitalism. South Korea, now a member of the OECD, is no longer a cheap labor country, and has recently come under intensive pressure from China, with its huge reserves of extremely cheap labor and raw materials. Korean big business is relocating sections of its production (for instance in electronics and automobiles) in China, while a section is attempting to open up the North to exploit its cheap labor. For instance, one big South Korean capitalist, Kim Yoon-kyu, is beginning to build a $9bn, 49sq kilometer (19sq mile) industrial park and new town at Gaeseong just north of the demilitarized zone, only about 70 kilometers north of Seoul. When completed in 2010, this special economic zone will have 3,000 factories, 100,000 housing units, and over 1,000 hotel rooms. South Korean capitalists are also planning to open up rail and road links through North Korea to give the South access to energy, raw materials and markets in Siberia and China. Step by step economic colonization of the North is therefore an attractive prospect for the South Korean capitalists, whereas rapid reunification of the peninsula would be a disaster.

After his election, Roh (who takes up the presidency in February) attempted to play down his radical ‘populist’ reputation and reassure the Bush administration. He described George W as ‘cool’, and disavowed his alleged anti-Americanism (in the 1980s Roh called for the removal of US forces from South Korea).

Roh, however, will be forced to take account of the profound mood in favor of reunification and an end to US domination. “I don’t have any anti-American sentiment”, said Roh, “but I won’t kowtow to the Americans, either”. The mass protests over the killing of the two South Korean schoolgirls by a US military vehicle will ensure, at the very least, that the issue of revision of the ‘Status of Forces Agreement’, which effectively grants US personnel immunity from South Korean law, will be on the agenda.

Roh stresses the need for a “mature relationship with the United States”, clearly meaning that his incoming government, not the US, should take the lead in dealing with North Korea. There is strong resentment in the country, including among the ruling elite, that US policy towards the North (including Clinton’s maneuvers in 1994, which nearly came to armed conflict), were conducted over the head of the South Korean government. While attempting to appease the White House, Roh has spelled out his opposition to the Bush regime’s provocative and irresponsible policy.

“The US may benefit from a get-tough policy, but we will not”, says Roh. “We must have dialogue with the North and with the US”, said Roh on his election victory. “In this way, we must make sure that the North-US dispute does not escalate into a war. Now the Republic of Korea must take a central role. We cannot have a war”.

Clearly in any war, the South would be the first target, likely to be obliterated. Later, Roh said that he had been horrified to learn about US plans for a strike against North Korea’s nuclear facilities. “At the time of the elections”, said Roh, “some US officials, who held considerable responsibility in the administration, talked about the possibility of attacking North Korea. I then felt that no matter what differences I might face with the US, I would oppose an attack on North Korea”.

Roh Moo-hyun, who comes from a poor farming family, made his reputation as a human rights lawyer in the 1980s. The capitalist press has portrayed him as a populist who “mistrusts big business and favors redistribution of wealth”. (Financial Times, 20 December) In reality, there is no indication that Roh has an anti-capitalist policy that will defend the interests of the working class. In fact, on the issue of labor ‘flexibility’ (with big business leaders complaining that their ability to sack workers is still restricted, despite changes in the labor laws made by Kim Dae-jung) Roh said: “I think there remains some rigid factors in the labor market. I will try to remove any unreasonable hurdles”. The Korean Chamber of Commerce and Industry has already made it clear that they regard the new president’s top priority to be ‘strengthening industrial competitiveness and [the] economic rebound’. Despite the partial recovery from the 1997 crisis, however, South Korea, together with the rest of Asia, faces a period of economic turmoil and political upheavals. The working class that brought down the dictatorship in the 1980s will again move into mass action to defend working-class interest and struggle to chance society on socialist lines.

The US-North Korea crisis may, in the coming weeks, be diffused through diplomacy. But the effects will be far-reaching. Mass pressure for the withdrawal of the US military presence from South Korea and Japan will intensify. The cold-war framework will rapidly disintegrate, with intensified rivalry between Japan, China and other regional powers. North Korea’s use of its nuclear deterrent (actual or potential) to force the US to retreat will almost certainly lead to further ‘nuclear proliferation’, with Japan and other states drawing the conclusion that they can wield influence internationally only if they possess nuclear weapons. A new and more dangerous period of world relations has opened.

Socialism Today #72, February 2003