The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

North Korea:
The Power Games of the Imperialist “Nuclear Gang”

Nov 6, 2006

The following article is excerpted from Class Struggle magazine, Number 70, November/December 2006, published by Workers’ Fight, a revolutionary Trotskyist group in Great Britain.

On October 9th, western newspaper headlines screamed of “nuclear provocation” by North Korea. The U.S. Geological Services and South Korea’s Intelligence announced that, according to seismic measurements, North Korea had just carried out an underground nuclear test.

In fact, to date no one is absolutely sure that such a test actually took place. A week after the event, on October 16th, the South Korean Office of National Intelligence claimed that analysis of air samples had confirmed that a nuclear test had indeed taken place. But it added that “the explosion’s yield was less than a kiloton.” A closer look at the various measures led the U.S.-based Bulletin of Atomic Scientists to estimate that the explosion yield, if it was really a nuclear test, was probably about half a kiloton, or less than 5% of the explosive power of the bomb dropped by the U.S. on Hiroshima in 1945. On the basis of the same figures, various scientists speculated that either it was a failed nuclear test, or else it was a hoax involving the use of large quantities of conventional explosives in order to look like a nuclear test.

By October 27th, 18 days after the event, an official spokesman for the Japanese government was still very cautious. He declared to the Associated Press agency that “we reached the conclusion that the probability that North Korea conducted a nuclear test is extremely high.” He then pointed out that Japanese aircraft had yet to detect the radioactive material that the U.S. and South Korea said they had found, and which, they claimed, confirmed the reality of the North Korean nuclear test.

However, the governments of the imperialist “nuclear gang,” whose representatives make up the U.N. Security Council, did not wait for further confirmation before reacting. Within hours of the alleged nuclear test, Bush was embarking on a vociferous denunciation of Pyongyang and calling for an emergency meeting of the Security Council. Within five days, on October 14th, U.N. Resolution 1718 was adopted unanimously, imposing trade and financial sanctions on North Korea.

That there was an element of politicking in Bush blowing up the nuclear test issue out of all proportion was obvious. With the U.S. mid-term election threatening to turn into a disaster for the ruling Republican Party, the Bush administration was unlikely to miss such an opportunity to bring the “war on terror” to the front of the political scene!

However, the resolution adopted by the Security Council has nothing to do with the almost hysterical tone adopted by the media and many politicians. Its measured wording and largely symbolic sanctions indicate a carefully calculated response by imperialism determined by objectives far more fundamental than Bush’s electoral predicament—objectives which have to do, primarily, with the unsteady balance of the imperialist order as it stands today.

The “Nuclear Gang” and the Imperialist Order

When it came into force in 1970, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), was supposed to limit the dissemination of military nuclear technology, stop the transfer of nuclear weapons between countries and, ultimately, aim at nuclear disarmament. Initially, only three of the five existing nuclear powers signed it—the U.S., Britain and the Soviet Union—together with 59 other non-nuclear countries.

Of course, all the talk about disarmament and non-proliferation involved in this treaty was merely a thin cover for the determination of the world’s major powers to retain a monopoly over nuclear weapons.

Despite their containment policy toward the Soviet Union, the main imperialist powers, especially the U.S., had no option but to get the USSR on board, since it was the world’s second largest player in the game. And the leaders of the Soviet bureaucracy were only too willing to accept this breach in their political isolation. Both sides shared the same interest, to ensure that the military power associated with nuclear weapons remained in the hands of a chosen few, in their respective spheres of influence.

Among the states which came out of the collapse of the USSR, Russia was the only one to retain nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, in 1992, the other two remaining known nuclear powers—China and France—signed the NPT, while the total number of non-nuclear countries in the NPT rose to 183.

From then onward, the focus of the NPT, with the assistance of various related agencies such as the U.N.-based International Atomic Energy Agency, was increasingly extended to include any form of non-conventional weapons—like the infamous “WMDs” of the last decade—as well as ballistic missiles and the like. And under the pretext that the technological frontier between a civilian nuclear program and a military one was virtually impossible to define, it was also extended to cover civilian nuclear programs.

Not that this prevented numerous breaches of the NPT rules. But most of these breaches, and certainly the most serious ones, were not due to the “rogue states” of Bush’s so-called “axis of evil,” in which North Korea has long been included. It was first and foremost the U.S. itself, for its continuous development of new nuclear weapons—strictly forbidden under NPT rules—the latest being the (already used) so-called “bunker-busting” bombs designed to destroy anti-nuclear shelters buried deep underground. Another major, long-standing breach has been the transfer of nuclear weapons and carriers, from the U.S. to Britain, such as the Polaris/Trident missile system—again, explicitly illegal under NPT rules, but nevertheless on-going under the fallacious pretext that it is based on a U.S.-British bilateral cooperation agreement, which dates back to 1958, before the NPT came into force.

The real problem for imperialism, of course, is not to make the world a safer place. It is to ensure the stability of its order over the planet and, in particular, to maintain its stranglehold over the world’s poor countries. But imperialism does not care about the proliferation of nuclear or other forms of “WMDs” so long as the states which control these weapons are “reliable” from its point of view, i.e. respectful of and committed to its world order.

The fact that Israel has developed a nuclear program has been an open secret for many years. Yet has anyone ever seen the U.S. or British representatives at the United Nations banging their fists on the table and demanding that international sanctions should be taken against Tel Aviv? No, of course not. Yet what would it take for the U.S. to twist Israel’s arm into dropping its nuclear ambitions? Not more than threatening to cut its massive military and financial aid to Tel Aviv. But Washington will not do this, precisely because Israel is one of its client states on which hinges the imperialist order in the Middle East.

No Independence from Imperialism

When it comes to Third World countries attempting to develop any form of independent nuclear energy, let alone nuclear weapons, the attitude of imperialism has always been outright opposition.

Poor countries do not develop nuclear weapons in order to launch an attack on their neighbors—let alone on western countries. They know full well that within hours, they would be reduced to ashes by the enormous military machine of imperialism. Nuclear energy, however, may be a means for them to overcome a lack of natural energy resources and the high cost of imports, while they can see nuclear weapons as a deterrent against unstable neighbors or, even, against a possible imperialist aggression—quite a reasonable concern in view of the present western-led wars in the Middle East.

After all, hasn’t every British government for decades justified spending billions of pounds on nuclear weapons by the need for a deterrent? Why wouldn’t poor countries face the same needs? And on what grounds do the members of the “nuclear gang,” with their stockpiles of nuclear warheads and missiles, dare to deny these countries such a right?

Again, contrary to what the leaders of the “nuclear gang” claim, their systematic opposition has nothing to do with “protecting world peace.”

By developing nuclear weapons, poor countries can acquire a certain degree of political independence—if only because it gives them the means to deter imperialism’s regional client states from attacking them. Also it gives them a bargaining chip in their relationship with imperialism. It is precisely this kind of independence to which imperialism objects. Just as it objects, on behalf of imperialist capital, to the development of homegrown nuclear industries in the poor countries, which gives them a degree of independence from the world monopoly of western energy multinationals.

So far, only two Third World countries have managed, to some extent, to bypass the opposition of the “nuclear gang”—Pakistan and India, which both refused to join the NPT when it was launched, and began to develop experimental nuclear weapons in the early 1970s. But this was largely due to their specific strategic position in U.S. regional power games.

Despite regular remonstrations from Washington, Pakistan continued to benefit from a regular flow of U.S. aid, including military aid, particularly after the occupation of Afghanistan by Soviet troops. The Pakistani army and secret service became the go-between for U.S. funding and arms supplies to the Afghan fundamentalist warlords. During the same period, India was subjected to limited sanctions by the U.S., but these were more or less offset by India’s closer relationship with the Soviet Union.

However, by the second part of the 1990s, after the collapse of the USSR, both countries resumed nuclear and missile testing. This time the U.S. response was harsher. Some financial sanctions were taken against both countries—somewhat offset by the fact that they had more ties with British banks than U.S. ones—and a new embargo on military and nuclear-related trade was declared after both countries carried out a spectacular series of nuclear tests in 1998.

The embargoes did not last long. Three years later, in 2001, Bush traded Pakistan’s cooperation during the invasion of Afghanistan for the lifting of most sanctions, the resumption of U.S. military supplies and a three-billion-dollar aid package. In India, changes may have been slower, but at the end of last year, the U.S. administration announced an unprecedented move: a comprehensive package aimed at helping India develop an extensive independent civilian nuclear program. How “independent,” of course, remains to be seen, judging from the way in which, for instance, U.S. multinationals have now turned India’s coastal areas into their own private chemical backyard. But in any case, there is no longer any question of sanctions and the issue of nuclear weapons seems to have been put on the back burner.

Of course, the U.S. is pursuing its own regional strategic plan. In the case of Pakistan, in addition to the issue of the far-from-settled war in Afghanistan, the U.S. has now regained the influence acquired by China during the sanction period. And in the case of India, that country is the only credible counterweight to China in Southeast Asia. Although China is now supposed to be a ‘partner’ of the U.S., building a strong foothold in India is probably seen by Washington as an advantage in its future relationship with China.

So, India and Pakistan have, de facto, been allowed to develop nuclear weapons. And it seems as though they may be allowed at some point to join the NPT without having to give up their nuclear and ballistic arsenal. But only because it serves the regional designs of U.S. imperialism.

North Korea on the Imperialist Checker Board

North Korea has not been as fortunate as India and Pakistan. This is neither because it is a “rogue” or “terrorist” state, nor because of its human rights record—which is probably no worse than that of Myanmar, the former Burma, with which the Bush has no quarrel. Nor is it because of its past links with the Soviet Union. No, it is because, despite its small size, North Korea is threatening the regional status quo on which the imperialist order in general, and U.S. interests in particular, have been based in Eastern Asia since World War II.

Ever since the partition of Korea in 1945 and the subsequent Korean war, the existence of North Korea has given Washington a pretext to maintain large military forces in South Korea—currently almost 40,000 troops—under the guise of protecting the country from potential aggression from the North. Even today, the relations between the U.S. and South Korean military are so close that, officially, responsibility for the security of South Korea remains in the hands of a joint U.S.-Korean chain of command.

It is ironic that U.S. imperialism, whose representatives scream so loudly today over North Korea’s alleged nuclear test, maintained several bases equipped with nuclear tactical weapons in South Korea for decades, until they were finally dismantled by Bush senior in 1991. Just as ironic is Bush junior’s call at the UN for the “denuclearization” of the Korean peninsula, when the 38th Security Consultative Meeting held at the same time between the U.S. and South Korea issued a joint statement reaffirming “the continuation of the extended deterrent offered by the U.S. nuclear umbrella” to South Korea! If anything, this shows that North Korea has good reason to be worried about its security.

In addition to these privileged links with the South Korean military, U.S. capital enjoyed privileged economic relations with South Korea, heavily subsidized by the U.S. administration, right from the days of the military dictatorships which followed the Korean war. As a result, today South Korea is the only important economy dominated by U.S. multinationals in a region largely occupied by Japanese capital.

Japan, for its part, has its own interests to defend in the region and, although an ally of U.S. imperialism, it is pursuing its own agenda regarding Korea. So, between 2000 and 2002, the Japanese government implemented a policy of rapprochement with North Korea, offering humanitarian aid and technical assistance at a time when the country was facing a catastrophic famine. This led eventually, in September 2002, to the first visit of a Japanese prime minister to Pyongyang, at which time the Japanese government made numerous political gestures and offers of cooperation.

At the same time the Japanese leaders made no secret of their ambition to act as a bridge between the North and the South and facilitate the so-called “Sunshine Policy” toward the North, initiated by South Korean President Kim Dae-jung.

In Washington, this was seen as a direct Japanese infringement on U.S. influence over the Korean peninsula. After all, significant progress in the “Sunshine Policy” under the auspices of Japan could only compromise the U.S. military presence in the South, as well as its political and economic influence.

Within weeks, the propaganda machine of the U.S. administration had produced new “proof” of North-Korea’s “secret nuclear program.” Under this pretext, the vital supply of heavy fuel which had been guaranteed to North Korea as part of a 1994 agreement, in return for the moth-balling of its old nuclear power plants, was suspended. This left North Korea with only one alternative: either face a dramatic shortage of energy or reactivate the old nuclear plants. Unsurprisingly, it chose the latter solution, which then prompted a violent campaign in the western media.

That this hysteria coincided also with the 2002 South Korean presidential campaign was, of course, no coincidence. The candidate of the red-baiting “Grand National Party,” who opposed the “Sunshine Policy,” got as much political capital as possible out of the “North Korean nuclear crisis.” To no avail, however. The victor was Roh Moo-hyun, of the Uri party, who had campaigned in favor of Kim Dae-jung’s policy.

Today’s North Korean “Crisis”

Since the “crisis” with North Korea in late 2002, and the subsequent withdrawal of North Korea from the NPT, not much has changed.

A long series of negotiations, beginning in early 2003, have taken place without the U.S. leaders fulfilling the promises they had made back in 1994. The two light-water refrigerated nuclear power plants promised by the U.S. administration at the time, to replace North Korea’s old graphite-based reactors, have yet to be built. North Korea’s energy supply has continued to deteriorate dramatically, despite the reactivation of its old nuclear reactors. The on-going sanctions prevent North Korea from exporting its minerals and importing most of the spare parts it needs for its machinery. And the consequences of repeated droughts have taken a terrible toll among the population, despite the humanitarian aid provided (very sparingly) through the World Food Program by China, Japan and the Europe Union, and directly by South Korea.

Meanwhile, the U.S.-led red-baiting campaign against North Korea continued with the support of all members of the “nuclear gang”—with the exception of China, probably due to its concern about the development of a humanitarian crisis along its borders. The themes have varied over time. North Korea has been accused of flooding the world with weapons, when its arms trade was estimated to be worth about 0.4% of U.S. arms sales. It was accused of having developed a long-range strategic missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead to the heart of the USA (the U.S. media even announced in 2003 that remnants of such a missile had been found in Alaska). However, the only time a multi-stage North Korean missile is known to have been tested, it was seen dropping into the sea shortly after its launch. North Korea was also accused of stockpiling bacteriological and chemical weapons. But as one commentator noted, while North Korea issued gas masks in the 1990s to its entire population, the South Korean government never bothered to do so, probably meaning that it never took the CIA’s propaganda seriously.

The features of today’s “crisis” are very similar to those of the 2002 crisis. It started in September 2005 during yet another round of talks in Beijing. The U.S. representatives refused, once again, to deliver on their promise concerning the light-water power plants. And to add insult to injury, it turned out that the U.S. administration had demanded and obtained the freezing of funds held for trade purposes by North Korea in a Macau bank. This led to a breakdown in the talks. By July this year, North Korea was said to have carried out several missile tests, which were followed in October by the announcement of its alleged nuclear test.

After having allowed the media furor and speculation to gather plenty of momentum, Pyongyang’s news agency eventually released an official statement confirming the test—although without giving any details. So, in a sense, whether the test was real or not, the fact that the imperialist powers insisted on taking it seriously seemed to suit North Korea’s agenda as a means of returning to the negotiating table.

In fact, the sanctions included in Resolution 1718 by the Security Council show that the “nuclear gang” does not take its own hysterical propaganda very seriously. Indeed, these sanctions concern mainly military supplies and any equipment which can be used in nuclear-related activities. But who sold such items to North Korea anyway? In addition, apparently to back up the imperialist propaganda according to which the North Korean leadership lives in luxury while the population starves, the resolution bans the import of luxury products to North Korea. And the financial sanctions included in the resolution were already part of previous sanctions.

However, what is similar to 2002 is the political context in South Korea. The political stage is being set for next year’s presidential election. Once again, the main contest will be between the Cold War Grand National Party, hostile to any form of reunification, and the Uri party, which favors a new stage in the “Sunshine Policy” involving the formation of a “loose federation” between the two countries, the disbanding of the joint command structures between the U.S. and South Korean army, and a staged departure of U.S. troops. Opinion polls show, according to press reports, that this issue may well prove to be the Uri party’s most effective political argument in the election, particularly among the large number of new young voters.

Just as the imperialist powers wage another red-baiting campaign against the North Korean “threat,” so does the South Korean secret service. In the aftermath of the nuclear test, a “spy scandal” suddenly broke out with the arrest of five left-wing activists or former activists, including the assistant general secretary of the Democratic Labor Party. This left-wing party is linked to the militant trade union confederation KCTU, born out of the social explosion that brought the military dictatorship down in the early 1990s. The arrests were made under the anti-communist National Security Law, inherited from the days of the dictatorship. Given that it has been some time since this law was used, and given the close ties between the National Intelligence Service, responsible for these arrests, and the U.S. special services, this is unlikely to be a coincidence.

So, the driving force in this “crisis” seems to be, once again, not North Korea’s policy, but the determination of U.S. imperialism to prevent a Korean reunification process that would reduce its sphere of influence in East Asia. How many among North Korea’s 23 million inhabitants are paying for this with their lives? Their living conditions have been reduced to those of the 19th century, due to lack of electricity and fuel. Wave after wave of North Koreans have to risk their lives by crossing over to the South or to China, not because they are political dissidents, but to avoid starvation.

But who cares about their fate? Certainly not the imperialist leaders—neither Bush, the mastermind, nor Blair who, once again, proves prepared to go along, all the way, with this criminal policy.