Oct 16, 2017
The escalation in the war of words between U.S. president Donald Trump and North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, has already produced many hysterical headlines about the threat of a nuclear war – and, even, of a new world war. And indeed, this is precisely what would appear to be the implication of Trump’s reactions to North Korea’s ostentatious missile launches and nuclear experiments, if his reactions were to be taken at face value – for instance, his promise to respond “with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” Especially so, as all rich countries’ governments have been unreservedly lining up behind Trump’s condemnations, including those which expressed some timid reservations about his bellicose threats.
But then, what seems to be a rather insane contest between the two leaders to raise the stakes with each other is one thing – but real world politics is quite another. So, while American U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley was dutifully upholding Trump’s line by accusing North Korea of “begging for war” and stating that “the time for talking is over,” Trump’s secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, was declaring to the media that the U.S. administration was in direct contact with North Korea through multiple channels. And although Tillerson’s statement was immediately disowned by Trump, tweeting that he was “wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man” and asking him to “save your energy, Rex, we’ll do what has to be done,” Tillerson’s admission was probably a more accurate reflection of what is really happening behind the scenes.
Indeed, whatever their rhetoric, neither Trump nor, of course, Kim Jong-un has any interest in triggering a war, which would be politically costly for the former and suicidal for the latter. Nor is the present standoff simply due to the “loose cannon” policy underpinned by Trump’s aggressive “tweets,” or Kim Jong-un’s alleged “paranoia.”
In the meantime, however, a raft of new U.N. sanctions have been slapped on North Korea, adding even more misery to the already dire conditions of its population.
That said, in and of itself, this standoff, and the verbal saber-rattling which goes with it, is nothing really new either. There have been many similar crises involving North Korea in the past. Today, Trump is merely continuing, in his own “style,” the policies of his predecessors who, for several decades, have all used the North Korean regime as a convenient scapegoat, in order to serve their imperialist agenda in the region.
There is, however, one difference between the present crisis and the previous ones – and it is a significant one. Today’s crisis is taking place against the backdrop of a deep, ongoing worldwide economic crisis, with no end in sight, which is increasing the bitterness of the competition between the rival imperialist capitalist classes and their multinationals for profits, natural resources and markets. And this could potentially result in some minor political crisis, like this one, having far more unpredictable consequences – as has already been the case, time and again, in the past history of capitalism.
In fact, it should be recalled that the existence of North Korea itself was the result of a political crisis which began to develop in the immediate aftermath of World War II, leading to what came to be known as the Cold War.
Once their victory in World War II looked certain, the leaders of the victorious imperialist bloc led by the U.S. decided that the time had come for them to end their wartime alliance of convenience with the Soviet Union and to prevent it from consolidating the sphere of influence it had built during the war. The imperialist leaders had never ceased to see the existence of the Soviet Union as a major threat to their world order: first, because, despite its bureaucratic degeneration under Stalinism, it remained the living proof of the capacity of the working class to overthrow the propertied classes and to take over the running of society; second, because the continuing existence of the Soviet regime prevented the imperialist multinationals from plundering the natural and human resources of the world’s largest country; third, the very existence of the USSR allowed many third-world countries to take advantage of the rivalries between the two blocs in order to loosen the grip of imperialism. Almost as soon as the war was over, the Soviet Union was returned to its past status of imperialism’s Enemy #1 and this was to shape Korea’s artificial division.
Korea had been a Japanese colony since 1905, and Japan dominated Korea ferociously all the way up through World War II. The 200,000 young Korean women and even young adolescents who were turned into sexual slaves by the Japanese regime to serve its army in that war are a terrible symbol of Japanese rule.
As the war was winding down, the future of Korea had been settled by the war-time allies at the February 1945 Yalta conference. To secure Stalin’s cooperation in the war effort against Japan and in the postwar restoration of the imperialist order, U.S. president Roosevelt had suggested that Korea should remain under the “joint trusteeship” of the U.S., Britain, the USSR and China for 20 to 30 years. However, on August 11, 1945, following Japan’s collapse, the U.S. unilaterally declared that Korea would be “temporarily” split into two occupation zones, along the 38th parallel. The Northern zone, with about one third of the population, would come under Soviet control and the Southern zone under U.S. control. To shore up its occupation, the U.S. employed every Korean they could find who had worked for the Japanese occupiers, including former Korean officers in the Japanese imperial army.
In September 1945, a conference of the Committees for the Preparation of Korea’s Independence (CPKI), which had been set up by the anti-Japanese Korean resistance, was held in Seoul. It proclaimed an independent Korean People’s Republic. But, despite the CPKI’s very moderate democratic program, the fact that they had the support of the Korean Communist Party was the pretext for the U.S. administration to refuse them the recognition they were asking for.
Instead, the U.S. leaders proceeded to prop up a puppet regime in the South, using large parts of the former Japanese colonial state machinery, under the leadership of Syngman Rhee, an anticommunist politician who had spent many years in exile in the United States. In February 1946, this regime was officially recognized by the new U.S. president, Harry Truman.
So far, the CPKI had refrained from setting up a separate state machinery in the North. But after the Southern puppet state was formally recognized by the U.S., the CPKI undertook to build their own separate state machinery. An Interim People’s Committee was formed, under a relatively junior member of the Communist Party leadership, Kim Il Sung. And, eventually, in September 1948, three weeks after the proclamation of the Republic of Korea in the South, a Democratic People’s Republic was declared in the North.
The Northern nationalist regime soon proved to be a repressive regime, albeit enjoying a certain amount of popular support due to its land reform and nationalization policy. Meanwhile, the Southern pro-U.S. regime was turning into a ferocious dictatorship, banning all working-class organizations and drowning in blood the many protests and strikes against its rule, with the help of the U.S. army. More than a hundred thousand people were thus killed in South Korea before June 1950, by the South Korean regime itself or by U.S. occupation forces. Entire villages on the southern coast were slaughtered. Bruce Cummings, in his May 18th article in the London Review of Books, concluded: “In short, the Republic of Korea [South Korea] was one of the bloodiest dictatorships of the early Cold War period; many of the perpetrators of the massacres had served the Japanese in their dirty work – and were then put back into power by the Americans.”
By 1950, the Cold War and Truman’s containment policy against the Soviet Union had come to dominate the global political scene and there was no question of U.S. leaders conceding an inch of land from their sphere of influence. Syngman Rhee’s Southern regime became the recipient of massive flows of U.S. aid. As far as the U.S. was concerned, the partition of Korea was there to stay.
Finally, in June 1950, North Korean troops crossed the 38th parallel, in an attempt to reunify the country, but probably also in order to preempt a possible offensive by the Southern regime. The Korean War that followed lasted a full three years, involving 2.6 million soldiers, mostly Korean, Chinese and American. It was a ferocious, but also terribly unequal war, given the colossal military resources available to the U.S.-backed South Korea. The U.S. massively destroyed the country with “carpet bombing” and dropped 50,000 gallons of napalm on the north every single day for three years. One quarter of the North Korean population was exterminated in three years’ time. When the armistice was finally signed in July 1953, neither side could claim victory, and since no peace settlement was actually signed, technically the two countries have remained in a state of war ever since.
After 1953, Korea remained divided by the very same border line drawn in 1945 by the U.S. “War Department” – today named the Defense Department. While the South Korean dictatorship went on to benefit from billions in economic and military aid from the U.S., North Korea was subjected to a complete blockade by the imperialist powers.
The working class and poor had played no role in building the North Korean state which, as a result, had nothing to do with socialism or communism. It was a nationalist regime whose only political perspective was the reunification of Korea. It operated much in the same way as other contemporary nationalist regimes in the poor countries, having borrowed from Stalinism the rhetoric and the methods which suited its objectives.
North Korea’s political system was built on the dictatorship of the Korean Workers’ Party – the result of the merger of a number of radical nationalist groups with the Communist Party. On the economic front, its land reform had initially been aimed at mobilizing the support of the rural population. But in a country which was affected by chronic food shortages, this land reform was also a necessity just to feed the population. As to its nationalization program, it had merely involved taking over formerly Japanese-owned industries which had been abandoned after Japan’s defeat.
Unlike China, which was subjected to the same kind of blockade, North Korea did not have a huge population nor a wide variety of natural resources. It was entirely dependent on willing partners for a whole range of products and raw materials which it did not have – not to mention basic technology. And, of necessity, these partners had to be found outside the imperialist bloc – i.e., found mainly in China, the Soviet Union and a few Eastern European countries, which provided only a limited amount of aid.
So, these relations were more about trade than economic support. What’s more, at the best of times, North Korea’s relations with the Soviet Union and China were always difficult. North Korea’s nationalist leaders were very sensitive to any interference in their internal affairs. And they were suspicious of their backers’ real intentions, especially in the case of China, where the situation of ethnic Koreans was a permanent source of tension.
However, with the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, the situation of North Korea became far more difficult. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, according to a U.S. academic study published in July 2001, “over just a few years, subsidized oil shipments, technical aid, and imports of parts for Soviet-designed factories declined to a few percent of their pre-1990 levels. The collapse of the USSR also meant that most North Korean exports, earmarked for the consumers and factories of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, suddenly had no markets.... In total it is estimated that the North Korean economy may have lost one billion dollars in annual aid from China and the USSR over the past decade.”
In fact, North Korea’s increasing isolation soon had devastating consequences. By the mid-1990s, widespread floods resulted in an unprecedented famine, which claimed an estimated three million lives. But the deterioration of the country’s infrastructure implied more long-term consequences, as the same study warned: “North Korea’s energy infrastructure is disintegrating in many ways. The national electrical grid is essentially nonexistent, operating at best as a series of unreliable regional grids using poorly maintained equipment that is 50 years out of date to begin with.... The lack of electricity, diesel fuel and spare parts for trains and trucks has crippled the system for transportation of goods (including coal) and people, while the lack of energy ... has reduced the output of heavy industry to a small fraction of 1990 levels. Residential and commercial lighting, heating and cooking have been affected by energy shortages, with indirect effects on health, productivity and the quality of life. Hospitals are unheated in winter, lack electricity for lighting and medical equipment and even lack fuel to boil water for human consumption.... The lack of power idles coal mines, resulting in coal shortages at power plants.”
For all intents and purposes, North Korea’s isolation had been turning the clock way back into the past, bringing its economy back close to the stage it had been at, decades before, under the Japanese occupation.
Not that the regime did not try to stop this downward slide. It was precisely for this reason that, for a long time already, it had been striving to renovate its energy production, by using the already antiquated nuclear-power technology that it had acquired from the USSR. But its efforts immediately came up against numerous obstacles when the imperialist powers seized on this pretext to accuse North Korea of seeking to develop nuclear weapons and of threatening the world with nuclear war.
In fact, from this point onward, the imperialist powers almost never stopped stigmatizing North Korea as a “nuclear threat” to the world and using this as a justification for imposing ever tighter sanctions on the country, although it was the U.S. who introduced nuclear weapons into Korea in 1958. Hundreds of them were kept in South Korea until 1991, when the USSR collapsed. Since then, the U.S. has carried out regular flights of nuclear-capable bombers in South Korean airspace – meant to remind North Korea of the U.S. threat.
Yet it is not as if North Korea failed to try, time and again, to make openings to the imperialist powers in order to get them to loosen the straitjacket in which its economy had been trapped for so long.
As soon as Nixon made his first advances to China in 1971, first by easing the country’s total blockade and then by admitting China to the U.N., Kim Il Sung initiated talks with South Korea, leading to a common declaration in 1972 that both sides would seek reunification peacefully. Two years later, North Korea joined the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), subsequently agreeing to IAEA supervision of its two Soviet-built nuclear power plants.
From then onward, an official line of political communication was established by the Western powers with North Korea. But the concessions made by the North Koreans to the demands of the imperialist leaders were never considered enough to satisfy the U.S. administration, which never maintained its side of the deal.
Thus, for instance, in 1985, the North Korean leaders agreed to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in return for the promise that economic sanctions would be lifted. But this did not stop the U.S. from reimposing these same sanctions three years later, by adding North Korea to its list of “nations sponsoring terrorism.”
In 1991, North Korea was finally invited to join the U.N., although this was mainly because the U.S. wanted the South Korean dictatorship to become a full member, which would have been difficult to achieve without inviting the Northern state to join as well.
Two years later, yet another crisis broke out. On the basis of U.S. “intelligence,” the IAEA suddenly accused North Korea of stockpiling enriched nuclear fuel and demanded that its inspectors be given access to the country’s alleged nuclear stockpiles. Kim Il-Sung’s response was to order a test launch of North Korea’s new medium-range Rodong ballistic missile. However, the following year, Kim Il-Sung died, to be replaced by his son, Kim Jong-il.
For once – and probably it was a side-effect of the collapse of the Soviet Union – something new seemed to come out of this crisis: the so-called Geneva Framework Agreement, which was signed by the U.S., then under President Clinton, and North Korea, in October 1994. In return for allowing the IAEA to mothball Korea’s 5-gigawatt Yongbyon nuclear reactor, North Korea was promised the delivery in 2003 of two 1-gigawatt light-water nuclear plants, together with the supply by the U.S. of an annual total of up to 500,000 tons of heavy fuel oil to compensate for the shortage of energy in the meantime.
This agreement did pave the way for a short-lived improvement in the relationship between North Korea and the rest of the world – especially with Japan, which seized this opportunity to reestablish ties with North Korea – but mainly with South Korea. Indeed, in the meantime, the Southern military dictatorship had been forced to relinquish political power by a powerful working-class uprising. Eventually, following the devastation caused by the 1997 South-East Asian financial crisis, Kim Dae-Jung, a well-known opponent of the past military dictatorships, was elected president of South Korea, on the basis of a reformist program and of a policy of reconciliation with the North, the so-called “Sunshine Policy.”
“Sunshine” did not quite mean reconciliation nor reunification, however, although it did result in the release of over 3,500 North Koreans who had been rotting in South Korea’s jails, and in the possibility for families, which had been split by the country’s partition, to meet their long-lost relatives for the first time. But what it certainly meant was business, literally. Indeed, this period saw the setting up of a series of Special Economic Zones in the North, in which foreign companies – some Chinese, but most South Korean – were invited to run factories and tourist facilities, using North Korea’s “low-cost” workforce, thereby bringing to North Korea a regular stream of foreign currency which it desperately needed for vital imports.
But this respite did not last long. In fact, the promises made by the U.S. leaders in the Geneva Framework Agreement did not materialize – especially the promise for the two vital light-water nuclear plants, which were never delivered. Although a supply contract for one such plant was eventually signed with the South Korean state-controlled utility, KEPCO, in 1999, and its construction started in 2001, it was suspended in 2002 and finally abandoned in 2006!
What happened was that, in the meantime, the U.S. president, George W. Bush, had lumped together North Korea, Iraq and Iran in his “axis of evil,” as part of his first “State of the Union” speech on January 29, 2002.
Bush’s rhetorical offensive had undoubtedly a domestic dimension: at a time when the midterm U.S. elections were threatening to turn into disaster for his Republican party, it was certainly very expedient to pour more oil on the flames of his “war on terror.”
But beyond this domestic politicking, there were other, strategic reasons for U.S. imperialism to use its whip against North Korea. In particular, South Korea’s “Sunshine Policy” was not really to the U.S. administration’s liking. The U.S. military did not approve of it because it deprived them of any justification to keep tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers in South Korea – since the “Sunshine Policy” meant that the South no longer needed to be “protected” from the North. Moreover, U.S. big business was not too happy either because, while the Japanese government was providing its good services as facilitator between the two Koreas, it could only be expected to use this opportunity to promote the interests of Japanese multinationals in the Korean peninsula.
In any case, from then onward, North Korea became, once again, the target of increasingly aggressive rhetoric on the part of the U.S. administration. In the second half of 2002, the U.S. suspended the vital supply of heavy fuel for North Korea, which the Framework Agreement had provided for. In retaliation, North Korea announced that it would remove the IAEA’s seals and surveillance devices at its Yongbyon nuclear plant and that it would reactivate it in order to produce electricity for civilian use.
In the end there was nothing left of the Geneva Framework Agreement. The scarecrow of North Korea’s supposed “nuclear threat” returned to the front of the international political scene and the cycle of crises returned in the relationship between the U.S. government and North Korea.
The next major crisis came on October 9, 2006, when the imperialist powers’ intelligence agencies leaked to the press that North Korea had carried out an underground nuclear test. And Western newspaper headlines dutifully screamed of “nuclear provocation” by North Korea, even though the evidence was, at best, not all that convincing. On closer examination of this evidence, the U.S.-based Bulletin of Atomic Scientists estimated that the explosion yield, if it was really a nuclear test, was probably around 0.55 kilotons, or less than 5% of the explosive power of the bomb dropped by the U.S. Air Force 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.
Whatever was the case, Bush did not wait for further confirmation before reacting. Within hours, he embarked on a vociferous denunciation of the North Korean regime, demanding an emergency meeting of the Security Council. Within five days, resolution 1718 was adopted unanimously, imposing a number of trade and financial sanctions on North Korea.
Since then, there has been little respite as the U.S. government raises the stakes with the North Korean regime. The only difference from the period before Bush’s 2002 intervention was that, ostensibly, the North Korean regime has been boasting far more provocatively of its alleged military capabilities, as if its aim were to hammer home the idea that North Korea could really be a threat to the imperialist powers.
But, of course, this would be assuming that today’s North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, and his entourage are just a bunch of idiots indulging in self-delusion – which is unlikely to be the case.
It is obviously impossible for anyone to be sure as to the real capabilities of the long series of missiles tested by the North Korean military, not to mention those of their nuclear devices. But neither is it wise to trust the hysterical headlines of the newspapers or the alarmist statements of politicians, who all have good reason to blow the North Korean “threat” out of all proportion.
Scientists have long been closely monitoring the nuclear and ballistic activities and capabilities of the growing number of protagonists in the Weapons of Mass Destruction race. Among these scientists are the contributors to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists already quoted. And this is what three of them – including a former U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq – had to say about the two Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) tests carried out by North Korea on July 4 and July 28, which led the media (and Trump) to claim that Kim Jong-un now had the capability to “nuke” the heart of America:
“From the point of view of the North Korean political leadership, the general reaction to the July 4 and July 28 launches could not have been better. The world suddenly believed that the North Koreans had an ICBM that could reach the West Coast of the United States and beyond. But calculations we have made ... indicate that these rockets actually carried very small payloads that were nowhere near the weight of a nuclear warhead of the type North Korea could have, or could eventually have.... In reality, the North Korean rocket fired twice last month – the Hwasong14 – is a ‘sub-level’ ICBM that will not be able to deliver nuclear warheads to the continental United States.”
In other words, whatever Kim Jong-un, Trump or the media may claim, the North Korean regime is very far from having the military capability of striking the heart of the United States.
Another example of the game of liars’ poker that is being played around North Korea’s weapons is the speculation that the sixth nuclear test ever carried out in North Korea, on September 3rd, used a hydrogen bomb – therefore potentially far more powerful than a classical atomic bomb. Here is what Siegfried Hecker, a former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory (the birthplace of the U.S. nuclear bombs), had to say on this speculation, in an interview published by the same Bulletin of Atomic Scientists: “The size of the blast was consistent with a hydrogen bomb – that is, a fusion-based bomb. However, it could also have been a large ‘boosted’ fission bomb.... If any telltale radioactive debris leaked from the underground test site, that could help us differentiate, but so far none has been found. So we can’t be certain.” In other words, this new nuclear test does not seem all that different from the previous one, in January 2016. Then, as well, the bomb involved had been described by all and sundry as a hydrogen bomb. Except that, subsequently, this assertion was rejected by most nuclear experts, because the scientific data available did not provide any serious evidence to support it.
In a way, however, whether North Korea really can or cannot produce a hydrogen bomb and a missile capable of being dropped somewhere above the U.S. is hardly the issue.
Indeed, why would the North Koreans want to stage a nuclear offensive against the U.S. in the first place? The numbers leave no space for any doubt as to the consequences involved. Even assuming North Korea managed to reduce the weight of its nuclear bombs enough for them to be delivered by an ICBM, Siegfried Hecker estimates that North Korea cannot produce more than six bombs a year – in particular because it just does not have enough nuclear fuel. And yet, according to figures published this year by the Federation of American Scientists, any nuclear strike using the handful of North Korean nuclear warheads (assuming there are any) would have to face the possible retaliation of America’s estimated 1,650 operational nuclear warheads, which are permanently deployed on intercontinental missile submarines and long-range bombers – enough to wipe out any life form from this planet, let alone Kim Jong-un and his regime!
For North Korea to use, or even just threaten to use, its nuclear arsenal, even if it were more sophisticated than it really is so far, would just be suicidal. Why would Kim Jong-un do it? His aim in this game of liars’ poker over nuclear weapons is precisely to defend his regime’s existence and avoid being at the receiving end of the kind of “regime change” method that the imperialist powers have been using so much over the past decades.
Indeed, isn’t the whole point of having nuclear weapons, for a poor country like North Korea, precisely to ensure the survival of its regime? And haven’t the U.S. leaders themselves demonstrated with Qaddafi the risk that a third-world dictator may take by giving up his nuclear program? After all, Kim Jong-un may well have come to the conclusion that, had Qaddafi held out against the imperialist powers on the question of nuclear weapons, he might just still be alive.
By developing nuclear weapons, poor countries’ regimes can acquire a certain degree of political independence, because it gives them the means to deter imperialism’s regional stooges from attacking them, and it gives them a bargaining chip in their relationship with the imperialist powers. And due to the economic and social consequences of the current imperialist-imposed blockade, Kim Jong-un certainly needs a lot of bargaining chips, in order to protect his own skin from the imperialist powers, and also from his own population, which could turn against him if he failed to improve their living conditions.
This is why there is method in Kim Jong-un’s apparent madness and in the way he systematically inflates the military capability and aggressive intentions of his regime – not from a military point of view, of course, but from a political one, which is the only one he can afford to have, anyway.
So, what is the point of imperialism’s multi-decades-long poker game, in which it has been raising the stakes with North Korea? In any case, one thing is certain: for all the U.S. talk about the lack of democracy in North Korea, this democracy is not something they care about in the least. After all, what difference is there between the methods of the North Korean dictatorship and those of the death squads of Duterte’s regime in the Philippines, the U.S.’s historical client state in Asia?
But then, Duterte has never shown any kind of aspiration to the kind of independence mentioned above, whereas it is precisely to this kind of independence that the imperialist leaders object in the case of North Korea. Just as they object, on behalf of their respective capitalist masters, to the development of homegrown nuclear industries in the poor countries, because it gives them a degree of independence from the world monopoly of Western energy multinationals.
But, in addition, there is a lot more to the U.S.’s raising the stakes with North Korea than just the fact that its regime’s defiant attitude is a thorn in imperialism’s side. Behind the ongoing U.S. skirmishes with North Korea lie the requirements of the imperialist order in Asia, against the backdrop of today’s worldwide capitalist crisis. And in this regional order, North Korea is very small fry compared to the two main Asian regional sharks, China and Japan. These two countries really determine U.S. policies in the region, albeit in different ways and for different reasons. Despite Kim Jong-un’s big talk, North Korea only happens to be caught in the crossfire between the region’s two big players and U.S. imperialism.
In fact, it seems that the U.S. strategy in Asia experienced a turning point at the end of 2011. This was put in place by Hillary Clinton, who was Obama’s Secretary of State at the time, in November 2011, when she announced that there would be what she called “a new American pivot to Asia” – something that others, like the then National Security Advisor Tom Donilon described as a “rebalancing” of U.S. policy toward Asia. In an attempt to clarify this obscure language in hindsight, a New York Times columnist explained a year later: “Whatever it’s called, the new approach essentially involves deploying 60 percent of U.S. naval forces in the Pacific, a change from the previous 50-50 split between the Atlantic and Pacific commands. Six aircraft carriers will be part of the Pacific fleet.... The pivot also involves bolstering alliances and friendships with an array of Asian nations, including India, and especially those that have been at odds with China in recent months – Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam and South Korea.”
Indeed, China logically appeared as the main target of Obama’s “pivot to Asia” – logically, because of the sheer size of China’s economy and population, and because of the potential influence it could gain as a result across the region, with or without U.S. approval.
In this respect, Obama may have been replaced by Trump and his tweeting fury, but there has been no change in the policy of U.S. imperialism. As Trump’s CIA Director, Mike Pompeo, was quoted saying in July: “I think China has the capacity to present the greatest rivalry to America … over the medium and long term.” Then, in September, General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the joint U.S. chiefs of staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the rebalancing of focus and military forces toward Asia was continuing, adding: “As China’s military modernization continues, the United States and its allies and partners will continue to be challenged to balance China’s influence.”
Therefore, part of the U.S. policy in Asia is aimed at tightening links with its allies and client states in the region – like South Korea – while, at the same time, twisting China’s arm into clamping down on its own client states – North Korea, in particular.
Indeed, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the subsequent collapse of South Korea’s “Sunshine Policy,” which was partly due to U.S. pressure, and the ongoing U.S.-sponsored sanctions against North Korea have effectively turned this country into a client state of China, albeit a reluctant one, as its economy has become largely dependent on its trade with China. And part of the campaign of saber-rattling carried out by Trump has been precisely aimed at forcing China to let down its protégé, implementing, to a certain extent at least, the new raft of sanctions announced by the U.N.
By contrast, the U.S. administration has made a big show of the fact that it is prepared to put massive resources at the disposal of its own client states. The joint U.S.-South Korean naval exercise, which took place right in the middle of the latest nuclear crisis, was obviously a demonstration of strength aimed at North Korea, but also a demonstration of U.S. loyalty toward the southern state. Likewise the U.S. deployment of its THAAD anti-missile defense system in South Korea was certainly meant to cow North Korea into showing more respect for the regional imperialist order, but also to demonstrate that, unlike China’s regional allies, the regional stooges of the U.S. could definitely count on its unwavering protection.
But the scope of U.S. policy in Asia goes beyond China. Japan is a target too, albeit for somewhat different reasons. While, due to its size, China can afford a certain degree of political independence from the U.S., Japan cannot, at least not in the same way. However, Japan is, far more than China, a major rival for the U.S. multinationals. While the Japanese industrial giants have been forced to accept some constraints in the U.S. market, they have more than made up for this by expanding their share of the European market. And in the biggest Asian countries – in particular India, China and Indonesia – Japanese companies are way ahead of their U.S. rivals in terms of investment. In fact, even South Korea now imports more from Japan than it does from the U.S. – and mostly high-value-added goods, like sophisticated machines and high performance electronic components.
Using the pretext of a North Korean threat to reinforce its military presence in Asia is a way to reassert U.S. political domination in the region. And today, especially in the midst of the present capitalist crisis which exacerbates competition between rival multinationals, it is just another way for U.S. imperialism to try to contain the Japanese multinationals’ ambitions and to protect the greed of U.S. multinationals.
Ironically, though, this policy may well backfire in the end. Indeed, while Japan’s long-serving prime minister Shinzo Abe has been careful to tread the U.S. line and to go along with Trump’s aggressive rhetoric, he has also been using, for a long time and with some success, the pretext of the North Korean threat to whip up support in Japan for a reappraisal of the limits put on the country’s military forces as part of the postwar settlement following WWII. Thus, the U.S. raising the stakes in its poker game with North Korea may well end up fueling Japan’s rearmament, thereby increasing inter-imperialist rivalries in Asia.
Finally, but this has been the case for decades already, North Korea provides the U.S. leaders with a convenient bogeyman in Asia. How else would they justify their huge, permanent military deployment in the region – a deployment which, as mentioned before, is actually increasing – now that they can no longer use the pretext of a Chinese or Soviet “threat,” both in the eyes of the American taxpayer and in those of their regional allies? How would they justify having still 39,000 troops and 10 military bases in Japan, 23,500 troops and 15 bases in South Korea, plus naval bases and forces stretching from Australia to the isle of Guam (east of Japan), Singapore (southern tip of Malaysia), and the British colony of Diego Garcia (off the southern coast of India)?
So the question should be asked: where does the real threat of war come from? From the symbolic gestures of a nationalist dictator trying to preserve his regime, to retain a degree of independence for his impoverished country and to gain some recognition from the imperialist powers? Unlikely. But such a threat definitely exists, coming from the world’s most heavily armed capitalist class, the only one to have ever used the nuclear weapon, and the one which, today, bears direct responsibility for most of the existing wars and civil wars across the world, and which, above all, is the custodian of an imperialist world order which is rotting on its feet due to its incurable contradictions.
This threat will only disappear with capitalism itself.