The Spark

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

Korea Is Thawing Out, but the U.S. Could Change Its Mind ... Again

May 2, 2018

This article is a translation and slight update from the magazine Lutte de Classe, issue no. 192, May-June 2018, published by Lutte Ouvrière, a Trotskyist organization in France.

On April 27, sixty-five years after the Korean war that divided the country, the leaders of both Korean states, still officially at war, met at the border post of Panmunjom in the so-called demilitarized zone, for peace talks and to have fun stepping back and forth over the border in front of the TV cameras. U.S. president Donald Trump, leader of South Korea’s guardian power since its creation, was thrilled by the meeting and took all the credit for it, even if, just a few months earlier, he threatened to destroy North Korea. This just goes to show that the threat of nuclear war that the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump spoke of was nothing but theatricals from both of them.

Whatever the Western media says, North Korea has never been a communist regime or a country of “madmen.” It’s a nationalistic regime that was set up in the north of Korea after World War II when U.S. imperialism installed a puppet dictatorship in the south which was occupied by U.S. troops. In 1950, the U.S. used all its military resources to oppose an attempt at reunification by North Korean troops. It was the Korean war. It ended in 1953 leaving 3 million dead. It ended in an armistice but without North or South Korea having signed a peace treaty. Since then, North Korea’s development has been stifled by the embargo imposed by U.S. imperialism.

The North Korean dictatorship has been handed down from father to son – Kim Il-sung (1948-1994), Kim Jong-il (1994-2011), Kim Jong-un (since 2011). All three have tried to put an end to this enforced economic isolation. At first, thanks to their links to the countries in the Eastern bloc, as long as it existed, then mostly through exchanges along the border with China. The people of North Korea have paid a very high price for the blockade that has lasted more than half a century. Western media have often blamed the North Korean regime for the famine during the 1990s when crops failed, but the real cause was economic under-development due to the U.S. embargo.

At the end of the dark decade of the ‘90s, the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il, tried to have the embargo loosened. But after 9/11, U.S. policy became tougher. In 2006, South Korea broke off economic relations with the North. This was when the North began its ballistic and nuclear testing, so that denuclearizing the country could be used as leverage for any future negotiations with imperialism. By outbidding Trump, Kim Jong-un brought this strategy to its conclusion.

Trump’s aim was to pose as the leader of the so-called democratic world, even though he knows that the only aim the North Korean dictator had was to negotiate. The U.S. administration even admitted that during this game of liar’s dice, diplomatic relations with North Korea were never broken off. But Trump can now appear as the winner of this bluff and can impose U.S. imperialism as if he were the only master of the game.

The South Korean government has been calming things down, at least over the last few months. It would obviously never have taken pacifist initiatives towards the North without first having obtained the permission of U.S. leaders. But, even if the U.S. has deployed a missile shield in the country, South Korea is on the front line and would be the first target of any military conflict with the North. The right-wing party, heir to the military dictatorship, was in power for nine years until the timely election of Moon Jae-in, a democrat and former opponent of the military dictatorship. His election offered South Korea’s bourgeoisie the opportunity to conduct a more open-door policy towards North Korea.

The South Korean bourgeoisie has always been subjected to U.S. policies since it owes them everything. U.S. finances coupled with the cold war meant that the country could be industrialized. This was done in the context of systematic state intervention and under a ferocious military dictatorship that was no better than the dictatorship in the North, except that it had political, military, and financial support from the U.S. By grabbing entire segments of the nationalized economy, the stunted bourgeoisie attached to the dictatorship managed to find itself at the head of real industrial empires. These are the chaebols (large industrial conglomerate) such as Samsung, Hyundai, Lotte, and Daewoo. And, even if South Korea remains an unfailing ally of the U.S., these chaebols have their own specific interests.

A significant example: last September when Kim Jong-un and Trump were throwing insults at one another, the South Korean government, in the interests of the country’s capitalists, argued for the re-opening of the Kaesong industrial park in North Korea where, up until 2016, tens of thousands of North Koreans worked for South Korean companies for ridiculously low salaries compared with those in South Korea.

The meeting between Trump and Kim Jong-un on June 12 was a first because there has never before been a meeting between a North Korean leader and a U.S. president. However, it is impossible to know how far these negotiations might go.

The South Korean population is in favor of the peace policy between the two Koreas and, if polling is to be believed, by an overwhelming majority. And there is every reason to believe that the desire for reconciliation also exists in the North. Just like many borders in the world, the one that tears the Korean peninsula apart is a bloody absurdity. It has separated families and created permanent military tension. It shows the aberration of a country split in two, where one side has no money and no infrastructure and the other has modern industrialization and a powerful economy. Trump may have made a temporary choice to ease tensions with North Korea, but there is no guarantee that he won’t go back on that, and as fast as he moved in the other direction, to answer the needs of the imperialist order in the region.