From Class Struggle 48 November 2002/January 2003

The Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea, better known in the West as ‘North Korea’, is much in the news lately. It has pulled out of the Nuclear non-proliferation Treaty and is taking a tough stand against US attempts to bully it into submission. The latest attempt by the US to conciliate the DPRK with food in exchange for nuclear disarmament was met by a firm rejction. The US offer of food was likened to “wheat pie in the sky”.

Is the US right to label the DPRK a ‘pariah’ or ‘terrorist’ state? Whatever the North is, it is the result of a century of imperialist invasion, occupation and partition of Korea, first by Japan who ruled Korea as a colony from 1910 to 1945, then by the US, which fought a war in 1950 to force the partition and isolation of the North.

Today the U.S. continues to occupy South Korea, keeping 37,000 troops in a network of bases across the country.

What is the DPRK, if it is not a ‘pariah’ or ‘terrorist’ state? Trotskyists call the DPRK a degenerated workers’ state because property has been socialised and the law of the market has been ditched in favour of a planned economy, but a caste of bureaucrats have political power that should belong to the workers. These bureaucrats use their control to strike deals with imperialist countries like the U.S. and Japan. They are like the union bureaucrats who use their control of rank and file unionists to make deals with bosses.

Trotskyists want to get rid of union bureaucrats, but not at the expense of the unions that the bureaucrats have captured. In the same way, we want to get rid of Kim Jong Il and his regime, but we don’t want to see the privatisation of state assets and restoration of the market that U.S. intervention is aimed at bringing to the North. Deciding the future of the DPRK is a job for the workers of all Korea, not George Bush jnr.

Who Needs Nukes?

What about the North’s nuke programme? If the North has nukes, does that justify a U.S. invasion, or at least U.N. sanctions? Nobody should be surprised that the North has tried to develop nuclear weapons, because it has had to live its entire existence in the shadow of the threat of nuclear annihilation at the hands of the U.S. During the ‘Korean’ War General McArthur, leader of the U.S. forces, lobbied Washington for permission to drop ’30 to 50’ nuclear bombs across the middle of the Korean peninsula. Several times during the war the U.S. came close to using a nuclear bomb. In 1951 the US flew a lone B 52 bomber over the Northern capital Pyongyang in a successful attempt to create panic about a Hiroshima-style strike. From 1957 to 1991 the U.S. kept an arsenal of nuclear weapons on the southern edge of the demilitarised zone that divides North and South. To this day, the U.S rehearses for a nuclear bombing strike on the North.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that the DPRK bureaucrats feel the need to get some nukes of their own, so that the U.S. will think twice before attacking them. Nobody seriously suggests that the DPRK has more than a handful of nukes, and the North’s leadership knows that using them pre-emptively would mean certain destruction. The U.S. on the other hand is the only country ever to use nuclear weapons in war, has publicly signalled its willingness to use them pre-emptively if its interests are threatened, and today has 9,000 of the things, including bombs, missiles, torpedoes, and mortar shells. We suggest that the middle class peaceniks who have joined Bush in condemning the North’s nuclear programme get their priorities right.

Korea's secret weapon

Because they are bureaucrats not socialists, the leaders of the North can’t see that it is not nukes but workers who are the best defence against U.S. imperialism. Hatred of the U.S. and its continued military occupation of the South is common to Koreans on both sides of the border. Even right-wing South Koreans hate U.S. occupation more than the ‘communist’ state to their north. Young South Korean men especially hate the two years’ compulsory military service which forces them to act as dogs bodies on U.S. bases.

In New Zealand alone, scores of them live in exile rather than serve the U.S. It was mass protests by workers and students that helped force the U.S. to pull its nukes out of the South twelve years ago, and in recent months regular protests by tens of thousands have followed the unpunished killing of two Korean teenagers by U.S. troops. Unionists have marched in huge contingents, chanting anti-U.S. slogans, and squads of students have attacked and sabotagued U.S. bases around the South Korean capital of Seoul.

Protests like these point toward a solution to occupation in the South and bureaucratisation in the North. This solution is the reunification of the peninsula on a socialist basis. In the South the new President, Roh Moo Hyun, is pushing ahead for re-unification, but on the terms of global capitalism that will see the North remain an underdeveloped region in a US client state. The North is also moving in this direction, with Kim Jong Il and his mates looking to follow the ‘Chinese model’ and convert themselves from bureaucrats to capitalists.

But in the decades since the division of their country many Korean workers, students, and peasants have been inspired by a very different vision of reunification. In the late 40s and early 50s, for instance, workers and peasants inspired by the abolition of capitalism in the North staged a series of insurrections against the U.S.’s puppet regime in the South. In Cheju, the southernmost province of South Korea, a revolutionary government survived for two years before being betrayed by the bureaucratic leaders of the North and crushed by Southern troops in 1949.

Today left-wing workers and students in the South are again taking up the cause of re-unification within an anti-imperialist framework. By protesting the U.S. occupation in the South and the North’s refusal to demand that Japan pay reparations for its occupation they challenge both imperialism and Stalinism. Challenges like these can succeed, if they are backed by the anti-imperialist strike action of workers in the North and South, and by the solidarity of workers in Japan, the U.S., and U.S. allies like New Zealand. Predictably, the Clark government is already trying to earn brownie points with the U.S. by sounding off about the ‘danger’ presented by the DPRK. Kiwi workers should beware any attempt by Clark and co. to follow Bush into a confrontation with the DPRK.

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