North Korea stand-off: Obama raises the stakes

US provocation in the Korean peninsula has the potential to destabilise the entire region, argues Eddie Ford

Over the last week there has been a considerable escalation of tensions between North and South Korea. To some degree, of course, this is ‘business as usual’ rhetoric, eg, Pyongyang on March 31 declared that it was in a “state of war” with Seoul (actually that has been the case since the 1953 armistice). But there is more going on than heightened rhetoric - though so far, thankfully, not a single missile has been fired.

Now, I am no admirer of the North Korean regime. It is a brutal and very odd Stalinist dictatorship, which quite literally deifies its leaders - whether the current tyrant, the Great Successor, Kim Jong-un, or his grandfather and Great Leader, Kim Il-sung, the “eternal president” who died in 1994 and presumably still guides the nation, albeit in his new, other-worldly form. To think that such a repressive system could be a workers’ state of any kind, deformed or otherwise, is a grotesque abnegation of genuine socialist politics. As for the official state ideology of juche - based on the three core notions of “political independence”, economic “self-sustenance” and “self-reliance” in defence - it is a delusional, nationalist fantasy that has absolutely nothing in common with Marxism. I think it is safe to say that the Pyongyang regime would have revolted Marx and Engels.

But, having said that, there seems little doubt that the current crisis is predominantly the result of United States provocation. Just because Pyongyang says something it does not automatically mean that it is crazy. The facts surely speak for themselves. Since the beginning of March, the US has been engaged in joint military exercises with South Korea scheduled to last two months. This has involved nuclear-capable B-52 bombers buzzing around the Korean peninsula - not to mention long-range B-2 stealth bombers and F-22 stealth fighters, out to prove (if proof was needed) that US imperialism is capable of conducting “long-range, precision strikes quickly and at will”, dropping dummy munitions on a South Korean-claimed island very close to North Korean territory. If that were not enough, the USS John McCain, an Aegis-class destroyer capable of intercepting missiles, has been positioned off the Korean peninsula and a second destroyer - the USS Decatur - has been sent to the region. It is an open secret that these exercises simulate an invasion and occupation of North Korea.

Talk about being in your face. Just because you’re paranoid, which Pyongyang certainly is, about almost everything, it doesn’t mean that they’re not out to get you - or to at least seriously rattle your cage. Nor should it be forgotten that the whole of Korea was flattened by US imperialism during the 1950-53 war, which left millions, the majority of them civilians, dead. That would make anyone twitchy.


Anyway, the US got exactly the response it wanted from North Korea - blood-curdling and bombastic threats that under any other circumstances would be near comical. Dead on cue, therefore, Kim Jong-un warned about a “pre-emptive nuclear strike” on the US itself, the “headquarters of the aggressor”. Time has come, the Supreme Commander promised, to “settle accounts” with US imperialism. Of course, North Korea has absolutely no capability of hitting the US mainland with anything - except maybe through cyberspace. Kim also declared, perhaps a bit more realistically, that deadly rockets were ready to be fired at a moment’s notice against various American bases in the Pacific (though military experts are sceptical about Pyongyang’s ability to deliver such a strike).

In a further volley of purple rhetoric, the official North Korean news agency, KCNA, stated that Pyongyang and Washington could only settle their differences by “physical means”. The agency also released pictures of Kim and his senior generals huddled around a map showing strike possibilities on both US coasts. On March 29 a 90-minute rally was held in Pyongyang’s main square, tens of thousands vowing undying support for Kim and his call to arms. Men and women, most of them in the standard-issue drab olive uniform, raised their fists chanting: “Death to the US imperialists”. Placards in the plaza bore harsh words too about South Korea: “Let’s rip the puppet traitors to death!”

North Korea’s most widely-read newspaper, Rodong Sinmun (Newspaper of the workers) reported that the 1953 armistice was “nullified” as from April 1 - a peace treaty has never been formally signed between the two countries. However, a United Nations spokesman insisted that the armistice is “still valid” because the agreement had been adopted by the UN general assembly and hence neither North nor South Korea could dissolve it “unilaterally”.

Upping the ante, in a move that surprised some Pyongyangologists, the north has blocked the entry of South Korean workers into the Kaesong joint industrial zone located about 16 kilometres north of the demilitarised zone. The complex is a vital money-maker for the north - so much for juche - and is traditionally seen as a key barometer of inter-Korean relations. Pyongyang generates an estimated $100 million of annual revenue from the joint business project that has produced a total of over $2 billion of goods since its opening in 2005. More than 120 South Korean companies hire about 53,000 North Korean workers at the complex - lots of very cheap labour to exploit - so there are some things that the rulers of both Koreas can happily agree on, even if that is not a particularly comforting thought.

Ratcheting up the tension even more, South Korean president Park Geun-hye made a great show of telling her military to retaliate massively to any attack or incursion from the north. Speaking to defence officials on April 1, she took the recent series of threats from Pyongyang “very seriously” - though what that means is hard to discern - and offered the slightly cryptic opinion that there should be a “strong response in initial combat without any political considerations”. Perhaps rather ironically, Park had been elected president in December after promising to improve relations with the north, which suffered quite considerably under her predecessor, Lee Myung-bak.

Outside of the White House, and maybe No10 Downing Street - which so far has said next to nothing about the crisis - it is quite difficult to find anyone who does not think that the US military manoeuvres in the Korean peninsula were a deliberate gesture guaranteed to antagonise the north and generally stir up a hornet’s nest. A report in Reuters, hardly known for its far-left views, begins by saying that Washington’s decision to fly B-52 and stealth bomber missions over Korea “risks pushing the north into staging an attack on the south, just as its threats may have been on the cusp of dying down” (March 29). The same article also notes that the new leaders in Seoul, Beijing and, most importantly, an “untested” Kim Jong-un, who has to prove he is capable of facing down threats from the US, have “raised the stakes” in a month-long stand-off that “risks flaring into a conflict”.

Reactor wars

Defiantly, North Korea said it would “reactivate” all facilities at its main Yongbyon nuclear complex to ease its electricity shortage and strengthen its nuclear capability. The reactor was shut down in 2007 as part of a disarmament-for-aid deal that has since stalled. Yongbyon offers the regime two ways of making nuclear bombs - a uranium enrichment facility, and a nuclear reactor, from which the spent fuel can be turned into plutonium.

This came one day after Pyongyang announced a “new strategic line” focusing on its nuclear programme and the economy. KCNA cited Kim Jong-un telling a meeting of the Korean Workers’ Party central committee at the weekend that nuclear weapons could “never be abandoned” as they were the “nation’s life” - its heart and soul. Indeed, the agency report added, “only when the nuclear shield for self-defence is held fast, will it be possible to shatter the US imperialists’ ambition for annexing the Korean Peninsula by force”. The UN, at the prompting of US-led imperialism, imposed sanctions upon Pyongyang after it conducted a series of nuclear tests in February.

On April 2 a White House spokesman, Jay Carney, said the decision to reopen the Yongbyon reactor was “another indication” of North Korea “violating its international obligations” - the US “will not accept” Pyongyang as a nuclear state. If and when the Yongbyon complex eventually becomes productive again, a process that would obviously take many months, then that would be an “extremely alarming” development, counselled Carney. Striking a slightly less confrontational note, Caitlin Hayden, a national security council spokeswoman, reminded journalists that North Korea has a “long history of bellicose rhetoric” and Kim’s recent threats “follows that familiar pattern”. But just in case, she added, the US has also strengthened its missile defence capabilities on its west coast - knowing damned well, of course, that an attack will only ever happen in bad Hollywood moves or unimaginative video games.

New and expanded sanctions against North Korea have been unanimously agreed by the UN security council after three weeks of negotiations between the US and China. From now on, at least in theory, the North Korean elite will not be allowed to import a whole list of luxury items - like yachts, racing cars, designer watches, certain types of jewellery, and so on. What a blow. In reality, as we all know, it will be the North Korean masses who will suffer most in the end - their already wretched lives made worse in a form of collective punishment.

Nevertheless, China’s ambassador to the UN, Li Baodong, said Beijing wanted to see “full implementation” of the new security council resolution. Ban Ki-Moon, the secretary-general of the UN - and a former South Korean foreign minister - was pleased as punch too, issuing a statement to the effect that North Korea has been sent an “unequivocal message” that the ‘international community’ will “not tolerate its pursuit of nuclear weapons”. In other words, the monopoly of nuclear weaponry enjoyed by the existing nuclear powers must be retained at all costs.

Quite correctly, the comrades from All Together - the Socialist Workers Party’s sister group in South Korea - write that North Korea’s nuclear test has “nothing to do with anti-imperialism or socialism”, pointing out that its nuclear programme is pursued at the “expense of its people’s livelihoods” and “will only increase tension in the region”.1 As socialists who “oppose any form of nuclear programme”, they therefore do not support North Korea’s nuclear test. However, they also argue, equally as true, that the US “demonisation” of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and rockets (its “monsters”) is part of its strategy to “maintain hegemony” in East Asia - the permanent North Korean “bogeyman” being a very handy way of keeping its allies on a “tight leash”. In that way, thinks comrade Kim Young-ik, “inter-imperialist rivalry in the region is likely to further destabilise the situation”.2

The US is playing a risky and hypocritical double-game. Barack Obama has staged the latest provocations in order to defuse criticism from the right, at least for now, about his alleged softness towards North Korea and other ‘rogue states’. He can walk and chew gum. In a perfect world, the US would love to see the back of this particular ‘rogue state’, of course, not least because it would surely be replaced by a united Korean client state - substantially increasing its influence in the region and beyond.

But, on the other hand, the US - like everybody else in the ‘international community’ - is scared about the possible consequences of the North Korean regime coming to a sudden end. A total collapse, just to name one possibility, would lead to a human tsunami of refugees from the north - and rebuilding the Korean economy, and society as a whole, could cost a fortune (far more costly, for sure, than supplying North Korea with food aid). Or the Korean population could just be left to rot, but how would that look on the international stage? Not really an option either for the US. Similarly, China has wearily propped up the Pyongyang regime for decades for fear of the alternative. Yet clearly Beijing would have no compunctions about dumping it if necessary and possible - forget notions of ‘anti-imperialist’ solidarity; that is purely for the ageing text books.

In that sense, the renewed tension in the Korean peninsula is in large part a reflection of the tension - or contradiction - within imperialism itself. The US is torn between wanting to maintain the status quo and getting rid of the Pyongyang regime once and for all. After all, this is supposed to be the goddamned new American century. Under such fraught conditions, with everyone playing a high-risk game, it is far from impossible that one or more of the players could make a grievous miscalculation that takes the brewing crisis in a nuclear-armed region to a different and more dangerous level.




1. Socialist Worker online February 23: www.socialistworker.co.uk/art.php?id=30654.

2. Socialist Worker April 6.