Who wants war in Korea?

June 13, 2013

The U.S. media and political elite have demonized North Korea as the aggressor in growing tensions on the peninsula, but a closer look reveals a different picture. Young-ik Kim, a member of the socialist group Workers Solidarity All Together, discussed this and other issues in an interview with Loren Balhorn that was conducted for the German socialist magazine Marx21. The interview was translated from Korean into English by Chris Kim, and will appear soon in German in Marx21.

FOR THE last few months, the North Korean state has been threatening nuclear war against South Korea, the U.S. and Japan. How do you view these threats?

THOUGH THE Western media depict North Korea as a lunatic that's about to start a war soon, it's actually U.S. leaders who are the true lunatics in the eyes of socialists.

We obviously don't support North Korea's bellicose behavior, including its nuclear test. However, it should be remembered that North Korea's behavior is actually a response to tremendous military pressure initiated by the U.S. and its allies. Therefore, we need to consider the threat of the U.S. making a preemptive nuclear strike against North Korea.

THE INTERNATIONAL media seems to have no idea what to say about North Korea. Sometimes it's described as "socialist," sometimes "Stalinist," and other times, it's treated as a feudal Confucian kingdom. The German media have been particularly racist in their portrayals, calling Kim Jong-un "Kim Jong-boom." Could you give us a picture of how the North Korean state actually functions?

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un

THERE ARE two major reasons why the Western media say that.

One is their attempt to justify all the wrongdoings of U.S. and its allies by describing North Korea as a so-called "rogue state." Two is to spread the notion that there is no alternative to the capitalist system by showing what a hideous society North Korea is. But in the same way as there were neither "workers" nor "socialists" in the Nazi Germany's "National Socialist German Workers Party," North Korea also has no relation to genuine socialism.

Karl Marx defined socialism as "self-emancipation of working class." But the working class was not able to play any role in the process of the North Korea's establishment after the defeat of Japanese imperialism in 1945. It was the Soviet Army that built the North Korean state. And while the state owns and manages industry, the North Korean working class does not control the state.

Not only does the working class not have any power in North Korea, they don't have basic democratic rights. North Korea is a bureaucratic state capitalist regime, where a small minority of rulers control state power and manage the means of production. This isn't essentially different from market capitalism of the West.

North Korean bureaucrats have coped with the pressures of competition forced on it by global capitalism in last 60 years by oppressing workers and restricting democracy. In other words, it is the pressures coming from global capitalism and imperialism that contributed North Korea's "bizarre appearance," such as the hereditary succession of three generations of dictators, the public persecutions and so on.

One can't clearly explain the mechanism of the North Korean regime and its internal contradiction by viewing it as either a socialist or a feudal state.

THE NORTH Korean state calls its official ideology "Juche." Could you briefly tell us what this is and whether it has any real meaning for the country?

THE IDEOLOGY of "juche" is North Korea's version of Stalinism.

The North Korean ruling class attempted to prepare for an independent infrastructure of capital accumulation. But this contradicted with the USSR, whose intention was to turn North Korea into its satellite. In this context, North Korea's first leader Kim Il-sung introduced and emphasized "juche" (which means "self-reliance") in the later 1950s. He therefore emphasized building "socialism in our way," independent of the methods of the Soviet Union or China.

The ideology of juche also emphasizes the "will" of the people--claiming, for example, that the people's "will" should be exerted to succeed with economic construction, regardless how harsh the conditions are. Juche's theory of a prime leader (or "soo-ryung" as it's called in North Korea) also played the role of establishing a one-person dictatorship in North Korea.

In short, juche is the ruling ideology of the North Korean bureaucrats. It has no relationship with Marxism or Leninism.

But just as there were differences between ruling bureaucrats of East Germany and the Stalinist activists in West Germany, a distinction must be made between North Korean bureaucrats and South Korean jucheist activists. Despite the fact that South Korean jucheists share similar political problems as Third World Stalinists, we still defend them against their repression by the state.

WHEN KIM Jong-un came to power after his father's death, a lot of media initially speculated that because he went to school in Switzerland and was more familiar with the West, he would begin to open up and reform the country. There were a few moves in this direction at first, but now, all of a sudden, there's the nuclear crisis. Can you estimate what the North Korean ruling class' calculations are at this point?

WHEN IT comes to analyzing the Kim Jong-un regime, it's better to start with the situation and contradictions that the North Korean ruling class is facing currently, rather than from his experiences of studying abroad.

Kim Jong-un came into power in much more difficult situation than when his father, Kim Jong-il, came into power. The North Korean economy is still in a stagnant condition. Its ruling class has been looking for extra help from the West for North Korea's economic reconstruction.

But U.S. response wasn't affirmative. It wants to turn North Korea into the East Asian equivalent of "Iraq," as part of its strategy to preserve U.S. hegemony over the region. It was U.S. military threats that North Korean bureaucrats had to cope with, which is why they rely on nuclear and missile development.

The Kim Jong-un regime also wants to use nuclear power and missiles as levers to pull the U.S. back to the negotiating table. But its true objectives--that is, Obama's strategy of the "pivot to Asia"--is to besiege China. North Korea's "threats" are just being used as a good pretext to carry out elements of Obama's strategy.

The U.S. has been carrying out frequent large-scale military exercises in the Korean peninsula, and there is talk of preemptive nuclear strikes against North Korea. This is why Kim Jong-un is emphasizing the "mutual advance" of the economy and the nuclear program--in response to such pressure.

But Kim Jong-un still wants to improve relation with U.S. As former NBA player Dennis Rodman said after visiting North Korea a couple of months ago, that Kim Jong-un "is waiting for Obama's phone call." But Obama has no desire to comply easily, and this is what troubles Kim Jong-un.

THERE SEEMS to be disagreement about who is actually at fault for the Korea crisis. North Korea has missiles and artillery trained on South Korean cities, ready to strike, but South Korea has 40,000 U.S. soldiers stationed in its country. North Korea claims that once the U.S. leaves, it will disarm--the U.S. says the same about writhdrawing its forces. Who is really the aggressor on the Korean peninsula? Does South Korea really need the U.S. Army to protect itself?

IT IS the bellicosity of South Korean and U.S. leaders that is the essential problem. North Korea's military force are completely outmatched by the military forces of South Korea and U.S.--since the U.S. spend approximately 40 percent of all of global military spending each year, while South Korea spends more on its military annually than North Korea's entire gross domestic product.

On the contrary, North Korea is the least developed country in the East Asia. While the size of North Korea's conventional military forces and the number of its soldiers, relative to the total population, may be great, the level of its weaponry and equipment is very low. Although North Korea may have developed some nuclear and missile technology, it isn't at the level of actually threatening the U.S.

Therefore, North Korea's military threats must be viewed as the result, not the cause, of crisis. The origin of the crisis on the Korean peninsula is the bellicosity of U.S. imperialism. The U.S. has been threatening a non-nuclear North Korea since the Korean War in 1950. North Korean leaders began to feel the severity of the threats, especially after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Meanwhile, though South Korea's military spending is increasing at one of the highest rates in the world, this isn't simply because of North Korea. It is also to back up their capitalist class, which is competing in an increasingly unstable world market. This is also the reason why South Korea dispatched troops to Afghanistan and Iraq.

The leaders of both the U.S. and South Korea refer to their relationship as a "global strategic alliance"--which shows that South Korean leaders are cooperating with U.S. strategy on the global level, not just in the Korean peninsula. The U.S. is trying to maintain its troop presence in the Korean peninsula and strengthen the U.S.-South Korea alliance to preserve its hegemony in the East Asia and rest of the world.

TELL US about the political situation in South Korea. A conservative candidate was recently elected South Korean president. Is this related to the crisis with North Korea?

PARK GEUN-HYE, who was elected early this year, is the daughter of the late military dictator Park Chung-hee, who ruled South Korea for 18 years, from 1961 to 1979. Park Geun-hye once referred to Margaret Thatcher of Britain and Angela Merkel of Germany as her role models.

Right-wingers, various multinational business conglomerates known as the "chaebols," the conservative media and the police apparatus all united for Park. This coalition of conservative forces was tied tighter together by the ongoing global economic crisis and deepening geopolitical tensions in the East Asia. The ruling class believes a government of right-wing hardliners can help it overcome the crisis by attacking workers and strengthening the U.S.-South Korea alliance.

Many workers voted for the liberal candidate of the major opposition party, the Democratic Party, in order to stop Park. But this party also pushed for neoliberal policies and dispatched South Korean troops to Iraq during its 10 years of power since 1998. Thus, it was difficult for the candidate of the Democratic Party to prevent Park's victory.

But now, the government of Park Geun-hye is facing its crisis--she entered office with the lowest approval ratings of any previous president. Her popularity is declining as the promises she made during the election are being reversed, while her domestic allies are embroiled in corruption scandals. And the labor movement is slowly regaining its spirits, as signs of major unions entering into struggles are becoming clearer.

WHAT ABOUT the South Korean left? What are the significant organizations, and what are their feelings toward North Korea?

SINCE 2000, the most significant group has been the Democratic Labor Party, which was built on the initiative of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, South Korea's left-wing union coalition and with the participation of major leftists, who played an influential role in the South Korean labor movement.

The major faction in the party was the Stalinist, or jucheist, tendency. But these elements tried to unite the party with liberal forces, and some social democrats supported them. This was part of a broader popular front strategy to construct a coalition government with the Democratic Party.

But the strategy has seriously backfired and led to fragmentation, causing the Democratic Labor Party to ultimately break up. Currently, South Korea's reformist forces, with the support of trade unions, are split among numerous mutually hostile parties. Stalinists are still a relatively large faction among them. They oppose U.S. pressure on North Korea while being uncritical toward the North Korean ruling class. They view North Korea as a socialist society and avoid criticism of North Korea's nuclear development.

On the other hand, the social democrats, who are relatively smaller faction, try to distance themselves from North Korea, in recognition of North Korea's declining credibility. But their problem is their naive attitude toward U.S. imperialism.

DO KOREANS still care about unification of the country? The country has been split for over 60 years now. Is the experience of German unification part of anyone's calculations?

MANY PEOPLE in South Korea still believe that the country must be reunited. The country was partitioned by imperialist nations. It's natural for people who have suffered from the disaster of the Korean War, from the presence of foreign military forces and from repression carried out on the pretext of the threat represented by North Korea, would desire national reunification.

Therefore, we believe the working people of both North and South Korea should have right to reunite on the basis that they feel is suitable. And even before any such reunification, we demand the abolition of various laws and institutions creased on the basis of Korea's division. We also argue that class reunification is a more important task than national reunification.

Inter-imperialist forces who are competing in East Asia today are concerned with the effects of political instability of North Korea. At the same time, they are trying to use that as an opportunity to increase their influence and power in the region.

The U.S. has actually planned for an invasion and occupation of North Korea in preparation for any sudden military move. And this has obviously caused concern for China. China doesn't want to directly face U.S. on its border with North Korea.

On the other hand, China has also considered the possibility of sending People's Liberation Army forces to North Korea to prevent a mass migration of North Korean refugees across the border of China in any emergency or crisis. Some people even predict that the U.S. and China could discuss a joint occupation of North Korea.

As German unification showed us, national reunification will not, in itself, solve the problems of imperialism and democracy. The key is class struggle.

Therefore, we advocate that the North and South Korean working class should unite and struggle for fundamental social transformation and against imperialist intervention in the process of, and even after, reunification.

IS THERE any possibility of the situation on the Korean peninsula resolving soon? It seems like things have been the way they are for so long that it will never change. What do you think the future holds?

EVEN IF negotiations are resumed between the U.S. and North Korea, they would eventually be stopped again on the strength of any excuse the U.S. comes up with, in order to up the pressure on North Korea once again. This was the pattern of relations between the U.S. and North Korea for the past 20 years.

Both the frequency and severity of the conflicts have increased in the Korean peninsula as a consequence of the U.S. "pivot to Asia." But it is very unlikely that the tension between the U.S. and China will lead to a direct conflict in any time soon. The U.S. has few military resources left to start a new war in the East Asia, as a result of the failure of its "war on terror" and the current economic crisis. The U.S. is in a situation of possibly having to cut military spending because of government deficit.

So the U.S. is trying to besiege China more firmly, using the pretext of the North Korea crisis to do so, rather than move toward starting a war. Nor is China in a position to directly challenge U.S. hegemony either. This is because it is still far behind the U.S. in both economic and military strength.

But even if the tensions decrease temporarily, they can always be turned up again at any time. The world's worst economic crisis since the 1930s is creating more military competition and tensions between countries around the world.

Further Reading

From the archives