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November 23, 2010

Korea: On the Front Lines of Global Imperialism

by Jon Chandler

South Korea Bombing

The Korean peninsula is one of the globe's hot spots: in the north, it is the object of nuclear war fears - with the regime’s strategy of armed propaganda as shown by firing missiles into the Japan Sea or the artillery barrage on November 23 on South Korea; and, in the south, a harsh model for emerging markets.

In both cases, Korea is a product of the imperial competition between three of the world's largest powers, China, Russia, and the United States of America.

But will North Korea be the detonator in a military showdown between rival imperialisms?

Communist Dynasty?

On October 10th, the world got its first real glimpse of Kim Jong-un, two weeks after Kim Jong-il named him a four-star general and the Workers Party of Korea (WPK) held a rare party conference in order to make him a member of the party's Central Committee and the vice-president of its Central Military Commission.

That Kim Jong-un is relatively unknown - before this month only two photographs of him, both as a child, were in circulation - and has little if any leadership experience is irrelevant. What qualifies him for the future leadership of the WPK and of North Korea is the same thing that qualified his father 30 years ago: his family position. The rapid promotion of the 27-year-old to top positions within the North Korean hierarchy - going, among other things, from "Youth Captain" to "Young General" with the stroke of a pen - coincided with his being named the "designated successor" to Kim Jong-il.

This means that if all goes as expected, the leadership of North Korea's self-proclaimed communist and democratic state will have passed through three generations of the same family.

The Great Leader

Kim Il-sung - Kim Jong-un's grandfather - was a guerrilla leader in the resistance against the Japanese occupation of Korea and north-eastern China. At the end of the Second World War, the United States and the Soviet Union partitioned Korea along the 38th parallel, and Kim Il-sung was installed by the Soviets to lead their puppet regime in the North. After a bloody three-year war between North and South that resolved nothing, Kim Il-sung consolidated his position, creating a repressive state on the Stalinist model.

To an even greater extent than Stalin and Mao were able to do in their own countries, Kim Il-sung built a cult of personality around himself as the "Great Leader" of the Korean people. Despite claims of workers power and democracy, all opposition was systematically removed and all aspects of economic and social life were run by a tiny elite at the head of the state.

A major factor in this process was Korea's division. Although the Soviet Union controlled the North of the country, most of the domestic communist movement was based in the US-occupied South. Syngman Rhee, installed by the Americans to run the South, set systematically crushed that movement, including the massacre of up to 60,000 people in the brutal suppression of the 1948 uprising on Jeju Island - about one fifth of the island's population - against the American-backed plan to partition Korea. What's more, the hostile, US-backed regime in the South allowed Kim Jong-il free reign to clamp down on any internal opposition in the North.

The Dear Leader

In 1980, Kim Il-sung's son Kim Jong-il was named "Dear Leader" and promoted to several key positions within the party. Over the next several years, the cult of personality built around his father was successfully transferred to him, and he was able to assume leadership of the WPK, the military and the North Korean state by the time of his father's death in 1994 (although, bizarrely, Kim Il-sung has officially been considered North Korea's "Eternal President" since 1998).

North Korea under Kim Jong-il has been marked by increasing economic stagnation and hardship on the one hand, and increased political control and repression on the other. The loss of aid and preferential trade deals from the Soviet Union contributed to wide-scale famine throughout the 1990s. Although exact figures are unknown and estimates differ widely, the handful of party and military elite around Kim Jong-il continued to live in comfort while hundreds of thousands - and likely millions - of ordinary North Koreans starved to death.

Bureaucratic State Capitalism

The ongoing degeneration of basic living conditions in North Korea - like the economic and political collapse of states such as the Soviet Union and the turn to free market economics in China - is the result of the particular failings of the social organization imposed on them from above. In all of them, the economy was run not by the workers themselves, but by a state tightly controlled by a bureaucratic elite. Whatever their claims of socialism and workers control, dissenting opinions were repressed and the working class was exploited, with all power concentrated in the hands of a bureaucratic class. The bureaucracy in each case used their control to impose massive, and often crude, drives to accumulate capital, with all the resulting capitalist social relations that went along with them.

A prime example of this is in the North Korean context is the botched attempt at currency revaluation that took place at the end of 2009. The expressed aim of the revaluation was controlling inflation and reasserting state control over the small-scale private markets that have been growing (and, while not officially sanctioned, more-or-less tolerated) since the early 1990s. The public was given only a week to trade in their old currency before it became worthless, and strict limits - initially ÿ,000, or about $40 US - were placed on how much could be exchanged. Even worse, the new currency was not distributed until a week after the old currency stopped being legal tender.


As bad as the internal conditions in the North are, however, the overriding problem on the Korean Peninsula, as it has been for the last 100 years, is its domination and occupation by imperialist powers. The Second World War ended Japan's colonial occupation of Korea, but rather than allow for a free, independent and united Korea, the US and the Soviet Union instead chose to divide the country into separate zones of control. Although the Soviet Union has long since collapsed and South Koreans have managed to win for themselves democratic and civil rights, imperialist dominance over much of the region remains.

There are just under 30,000 US troops stationed in South Korea and another 35,000 in nearby Japan. The US also exerts a huge amount of economic influence on the South, the recently passed Korea-US Free Trade Agreement - which faced months of massive public protests and polls showing 83% public disapproval - being a prime example of this.

China, meanwhile, exerts imperialist pressure of its own. China provides most of North Korea's food and energy and is the North's largest trading partner, accounting for nearly 60% of the North's total imports and over 40% of its exports. China makes use of North Korea as a buffer to US interests in northeast Asia, allowing it to flex more of its military muscle elsewhere, as it has done with increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea. Chinese companies have also been active in North Korea in acquiring trade concessions and control over natural resources.

All of this brings China and the United States into greater competition in the region. This is no accident of bad policy or political misunderstandings, but a problem inherent to global capitalism. The contradictory economic pressures of the concentration of more and more capital within nation-states on the one hand, and the need for capital to expand beyond national boundaries on the other, leads to increased political and military competition and conflict. The Korean Peninsula has been on the front lines of this conflict for over 100 years.

The seeds of change, however, exist on both sides of Korea's demilitarized zone. South Koreans today enjoy civil and political rights unimaginable a generation ago, all on the basis of a mass protest and strike movement. Today the public continues to be active in mass demonstrations for economic justice. Last year there were nightly mass protests against the Korea-US FTA, and last week over 10,000 protestors faced down an overwhelming police presence (and months of overwhelming boosterism in the media) to oppose the G20 summit in Seoul. In North Korea clear information is much harder to come by, but it seems the government was forced by spontaneous mass protests to back down on the most onerous of aspects of its currency revaluation plan and, in typically brutal fashion, subsequently scapegoated and executed the official in charge of the government's Planning and Finance Department.

Much is made in the mainstream media about the dangers posed by North Korea, its horrible internal conditions, and the bizarre, paranoid belligerence of its leader, Kim Jong-il. What these reports neglect to mention is the basic reality of the massive American military presence in the region, much of it pointed at North Korea, let alone any real discussion about the reasons behind the conflict.

While an honest appraisal of the situation inside North Korea is important, it's meaningless without an understanding of the imperial context.