This year has seen exceptional tension between the USA and North Korea. A recent North Korean missile test on Aug 29th saw a rocket fly through Japanese airspace for the first time ever, before it exploded in an unknown location. This follows months of hostilities, with the US administration repeatedly making threats against the country.
For decades the United States and South Korean armed forces have carried out twice annual military drills which are clearly aimed against North Korea and asserting US military might in the Yellow and East Seas. For decades the response of North Korea has been to either carry out tests and displays of its own nuclear capabilities, or to make aggressive comments as to the consequences of a potential American attack.
This year however, this delicate balancing act was perturbed by Donald Trump who promised “fire and fury like the world has never seen” if the Pyongyang regime made further threats against the US. Until today, US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, has repeatedly reiterated that “all options” are still on the table when dealing with the Koreans.
For this US administration, and those coming before it, the right of issuing threats has always been preserved as a privilege of the US alone. North Korea has never invaded any other country or dropped nuclear bombs on anyone. US imperialism however has a dark record of invading countries and overthrowing regimes which do not follow its dictates.
The US has around 25,000 troops stationed in South Korea to which it also donates tons of military equipment each year. Twice a year it performs war games which simulate an offensive against North Korea. If not to pursue the aggressive policy of US imperialism, what other justification might there be to this?
Only a few years ago, George W. Bush embarked on the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, North Korea was on the same “Axis of Evil” list along with countries such as Syria and Libya. The only reason North Korea has not been attacked by the US has been its acquisition of nuclear capabilities, which were first demonstrated in 2006.
The current war of words erupted after months of escalating tensions in which the international mass media has seen no shortage of “concern” about a supposed “danger of World War III”. Following a North Korean missile test on 4th April, Mr Trump ordered the first use ever of the USA’s biggest non-nuclear weapon, known as the “Mother of All Bombs”, against an ISIS affiliate in Afghanistan.
This was a clear threat aimed at North Korea and other states who challenge US imperialism, especially since such a bomb is very inefficient against Islamist guerilla forces. Hence it was not surprising that the Stalinist regime answered this provocation with a further missile test on 15th April, two days later.
This was followed by avalanches of ever harsher and more “serious” threats from both sides, in which they both basically guaranteed the other side’s complete annihilation, however the balance of forces are entirely different. It is not the same when North Korea, a small and poor nation, makes threats against US aggressions - as compared to when the US, the mightiest military power on the planet, with a powerful navy and military bases surrounding North Korea, as well as previous history of invading and (nuclear) bombing other countries, makes the same threat.
In the following period, North Korea conducted at least nine missile tests, with the first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test on 4th July, US Independence Day. In theory this missile could reach the US, although the North Korean regime was very careful to conduct the tests in ways that could not possibly be interpreted as directly threatening; either directly to the United States or to its regional allies, South Korea and Japan. They instead choose to fire them into the sea, in places far away from any potential victims.
The North Korean regime tried to curb the escalation and on 14 August Kim Jong Un announced a decision to indefinitely delay a plan, in which the regime was claiming would “engulf” the US territory of Guam in missile fire. For now, he claimed he is going to “watch the foolish and stupid conduct of the Yankees”, referring to the Ulchi-Freedom Guardian military drill, which began on August 21. This, was in essence an invitation for negotiations with the US.
Obviously relieved, Trump immediately applauded the “wise decision” on Twitter, but his administration has done nothing to de-escalate the situation and has reiterated that “all options are on the table”. This is the reason for the recent North Korean missile test above Japanese airspace, which from their point of view not only underlines what they are capable of, but also continues to shake the confidence of the Japanese and South Korean ruling classes in the USA’s ability to suppress them.
So, was the world really just pushed to the brink of a world or nuclear war, as was claimed by all sides? There is no reason to believe this. In spite of all the bravado by Donald Trump, the US has very few, if any military options in dealing with North Korea. In fact besides tweeting and posturing in press conferences, Donald Trump has done nothing to imply that he is willing to attack North Korea. No troop deployments or any other kind of practical steps, which would be required in such a situation, have been carried out. In the final analysis, the US has very little option but to reach some sort of a deal with North Korea.
The decline of US imperialism
This reveals the real state of US imperialism which is in a crisis and a state of relative decline. This is one of the most crucial factors in the global situation. By decline, we refer to the United States’ increasing difficulty to assert itself on the global stage. The cases of Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan all demonstrate the US imperialists’ inability to carry out their stated aims, or at the very least to decisively influence events in their favor. This results on the one hand from the war weariness of the US population, and from the deep crisis which still hangs over the head of the US economy. Any new major war would immediately lead to a deep economic and social crisis.
A war on North Korea, even a non-nuclear one, would immediately mean a devastating retaliatory attack on Seoul where US military experts believe at least 100,000 people, many of them Americans, would be killed within the first few days. Furthermore, to disarm or to topple the North Korean regime entirely, only a full-blown invasion would suffice. But if US imperialism has been thoroughly defeated in Iraq and Afghanistan, two failing states with an old outdated ams arsenal, an attack on a militarily well organised and nuclearly armed North Korea would be far worse. This is without even taking into account the almost certain devastating attacks upon US and Japanese soil which North Korea would answer with, and is well capable of inflicting.
Under the current conditions of global economic volatility and crisis, any further war by the US could lead to severe economic convulsions all over the world. The bourgeoisie of all countries do not want this, and it becomes doubly dangerous if South Korea is involved as they are one of the most important export oriented economies in the world. Any war on the Korean peninsula would have immediate and dire global consequences. One must only think of companies like Samsung, Hyundai and LG, three of the world’s most important industrial companies, and this becomes blinding obvious.
Furthermore, a direct attack on North Korea would immediately draw in China and Russia, who correctly see the stand-off with Pyongyang as an American show of force aimed towards them as well. A hypothetical defeat for North Korea would dramatically increase US presence on the land borders of China, and remove North Korea as a regional military and political buffer between the US and China.
The decline of US imperialism is not a one-sided process. Like nature, politics abhors a vacuum, and thus the decline of this great power has seen a relative strengthening of both Russia and China. This is seen both globally, yet especially in their neighbouring areas such as Eastern Europe and East Asia. The same applies to a whole host of rising powers on a more regional level, like Iran and India. Even the European Union now seems to be moving towards a more independent, more “responsible” position, which is not always aligned with that of the US.
A key objective of US imperialism under these conditions is to keep Russia and China in check. To this end, they are currently deploying a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea. This was justified with the “threat” from North Korea, but it is obvious that the system’s purpose is to track missiles launched from China and Russia. Deployment of this system was first announced by the Pentagon in May 2014, and began in earnest in March and April 2017.
Donald Trump came to power blaming Barack Obama for being weak, in particular in foreign policy. He promised to “make America great again”. That is why he has been “raising his voice” and making threats. The conflict with North Korea is a way to address what he believed Obama incapable of, namely to reassert US domination in East and SouthEast Asia. It was supposed to demonstrate to the US allies- Japan and South Korea, that the US is still a power to be relied on, in particular against rising Chinese influence. But far from asserting US supremacy in East Asia, Trump’s hollow threats have only served to expose US impotence and the relative decline of US imperialism.
The US has no military options to pursue in regards to North Korea. Instead, it is attempting to bring down the regime through economic pressure, by imposing sanctions. In case of an economic collapse of the regime, they hope they will be able to move their troops right to the Chinese border. Simultaneously, other “rogue states” like Iran would be warned that not even nuclear weapons can protect them from the wrath of the US.
The North Korean Stalinist regime
In fact, the North Korean Stalinist regime has its own reasons to be averse to any prospect of war. It was created after World War II, in the aftermath of Korea’s liberation from the Japanese imperialist occupation; under the leadership of Kim Il Sung, an anti-Japanese guerrilla fighter and Kim Jong Un’s grandfather, the “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” (DPRK) was proclaimed in 1948. Much like China or the deformed workers’ states in Eastern Europe, it began where the Soviet Union had ended: as a military-police dictatorship whose only revolutionary feature was the introduction of a nationalised, planned economy.
After the DPRK was established an extremely bloody proxy war soon ensued on the peninsula, in which the US essentially fought the USSR and China over control of Korea. US imperialism installed its own military dictatorship in the southern half, led by the anti-communist fanatic Syngman Rhee, who massacred tens of thousands of leftist activists and drowned in blood a mass uprising against his puppet regime. In this way, the US created a permanent military outpost right next to China.
During the Korean War, the US dropped more bombs than it had used during the entire Pacific campaign of World War II. Almost every substantial building in North Korea was destroyed and about twenty percent of Korea’s entire population fell victim to the bombing campaigns and indiscriminate mass shootings of civilians until a truce was declared in 1953. The joint military exercises were begun in the same year; in fact, the war is still technically ongoing. These military drills are a direct legacy of this exceptionally gruesome and brutal war of mass extermination. The North Korean regime does everything to remind its subjects of this, while the US regime and media do everything to ignore it.
Today, the regime is a monument to Stalinism’s boundless potential for barbarism. The cult of personality around the Kim family is as fanatical as the most zealous of religious sects. There are no signs whatsoever of any kind of political opposition in the country, whose citizens are subjected to constant barrage of the most intense ultra-nationalist propaganda. Their citizens are continuously intimidated by public executions, huge labour camps and permanent claims about the imminent resumption of armed conflict with the United States.
After the USSR collapsed in 1991, the country – which had, until then, enjoyed a higher living standard than South Korea – was thrown into abject poverty. In 1995, a famine erupted, to which about a million people fell victims. The regime was facing a dangerous situation and it reacted by intensifying its totalitarian propaganda, elevating Kim Jong Il and his father to the level of secular gods, and militarising the whole of society. Without any material comfort to offer their starving population, the regime based its legitimacy exclusively on its anti-imperialist tradition and narrative.
The famine in North Korea has long past, and the country has in fact been experiencing fairly decent economic growth over the last decade. But the Stalinist bureaucratic caste in North Korea is still, almost solely, motivated by self-preservation. The development of their nuclear missile capabilities serves this aim in two ways. Firstly, no matter how enraged the US imperialists claim to be, it objectively deters them from war, and hence their rage. Less war means more stability, and less probability for Kim to end up executed like Moammar Gaddafi or Saddam Hussein. Secondly, the aggressions of the US and its “defensive” maneuvers like the building of THAAD and the holding of military exercises, in turn allows Kim Jong-Un and his bureaucratic entourage to present themselves internally as the stable and necessary leadership in a just, anti-imperialist struggle, as the only force that will protect the Korean population from a resumption of the Korean War.
Hands off Korea!
Neither the livelihood nor the political freedom of working people in North Korea – or anywhere else, for that matter – will be improved by the actions of US imperialism. There must be no illusions about this, and it is sufficient to look at the results of all the US imperialist interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and Syria in order to understand this.
The only way forward for the masses on both sides of the peninsula is a combined workers' revolution, in which the Korean working class smash the regimes that oppress them on both sides of the border, in one sweep toppling both the capitalists and the Stalinist bureaucracy. The task must be to expropriate the giant capitalist monopolies in the South and bring them under workers’ control, along with a democratisation of the planned economy in the North. The Korean working class can only accomplish the task of national reunification by means of revolution.
The great German socialist leader Karl Liebknecht once proclaimed in relation to World War I: “The main enemy is at home!” This formula, which was called by Lenin “revolutionary defeatism”, sets out the tasks for socialists in imperialist countries such as the United States. It means that the fight against war begins at home: that is, that the working class must always put a priority on the struggle against “their own” imperialists, and try to thwart their expansionist plans.
The struggle against US imperialism in Korea and the struggle against capitalism and Stalinism - for a unified, socialist Korea -cannot be viewed in isolation from each other, but must be understood as inter-dependent. The working class and labour movement in Korea and the United States must fight together for US imperialism's withdrawal from the whole of the Korean peninsula.