SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 76 Jul-Aug 2003

Bush's Korean crisis

JUST WHEN George Bush and Tony Blair have been experiencing considerable difficulty proving that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, the North Korean regime openly declared that it is developing its nuclear weapons capability! The Pentagon has not ruled out a pre-emptive strike, even against nuclear installations in the North. It has repositioned long-range bombers in the region and has approached the government of Thailand to set up a new base there.

Many in South Korea live in terror of a US attack on the North and believe their fears are being confirmed. Washington has announced the relocation further south of tens of thousands of US troops who have been patrolling the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) at the ‘38th parallel’ for more than 50 years. The move is aimed at enabling ‘tactical strikes’ to be launched as part of the Pentagon’s new military doctrine and will cost the US $11bn.

US Deputy Defence Secretary, Paul Wolfowitz, has insisted that Seoul should match the sum being spent by the US – to modernise its own 700,000 strong army and take up the duties at the DMZ. The South Korean defence minister has asked for a 28% ($18bn) increase in the armed forces budget.

Critics of the US within South Korea understandably suspect that withdrawal from the DMZ is aimed at letting Korean soldiers and civilians take the brunt of any attack from the North provoked by US economic sanctions or military threats – perceived or real.

Some US officials hoped that the tough US line in Iraq would have a ‘demonstration effect’. But the North Korean regime may be drawing the conclusion that nuclear weapons are its only defence. Kim Jong-il, the head of state in the North, has declared that economic sanctions would be considered an ‘act of war’. Now, Washington’s attempt to rally support for a virtual naval blockade is being seen in the same light.

While China and South Korea remain nervous about such a policy, Australia and Japan have already carried out ‘selective interdictions’. The Japanese authorities arranged for 2,000 inspectors of various kinds to await the arrival from North Korea of the only ferry that plies between the two countries – the Mangbongyong 92. It is believed to carry large amounts of narcotics from the world’s third-largest opium producer and to bring back up to 90% of the parts North Korea needs for its nuclear weapons programme. Pyongyang immediately withdrew the ferry from service.

Under increasing pressure, Pyongyang has threatened to unleash ‘unimaginable disaster’. With an army of more than one million, even a conventional attack would inflict enormous damage. Pentagon studies suggest that it could cause thousands if not millions of casualties in the South’s capital, Seoul, which is within range of 11,000 North Korean artillery pieces. The use of nuclear weapons as a desperate last stand by North Korea’s totalitarian regime cannot be ruled out. The Taepo-Dong 1 rocket, test-fired over Japan in 1998, is said to be able to reach any target in Japan or South Korea. And the American CIA says an up-graded version could soon be able to hit the US mainland.

The dictator-president of the North, Kim Jong-il, claims that he needs to develop nuclear weapons to reduce the huge state expenditure on maintaining the massive army. But with the North’s economy in tatters, there would be no jobs for the redundant and, until now, relatively well-fed soldiers. With the ‘hawks’ dominant in the US regime, it seems that a cataclysmic collapse of North Korea’s economy and regime is their desired aim, rather than the idea of a gradual abandonment of the distorted planned and state-owned economy and ‘assimilation’ into the capitalist South.

The recently-elected president of South Korea, Roh Moo-hyun, was not the favoured candidate of the US and his relationship with the White House is extremely strained. Big demonstrations demanding the total withdrawal of US troops from South Korea were organised in the run-up to his election and smaller ones continue almost daily on the DMZ borderline. His predecessor, Kim Dae-jung, refused US requests to send ‘combat support’ to Afghanistan. The eventual approval by the South Korean parliament to send 500 non-combat engineers and 100 medical staff to Iraq saw mass protests again on the streets of the capital.

Nonetheless, Roh fears the complete withdrawal of the 37,000 US troops from the peninsula, viewed as affording a limited deterrent against attack from the North. The ‘sunshine policy’ of reunification, initiated by the previous government, is also stalling, mainly because of the conflicting interests of the conglomerate-dominated capitalist South and the distorted, Stalinist planned economy in the North.

It has been further discredited by two court cases. One in China involves a Dutch-Chinese businessman, Yang Bin, until recently the second-richest of its citizens. He had been chosen by Pyongyang to head a market-oriented Free Trade Zone close to the border with China. Now he is on trial for major fraud and bribery which could see him imprisoned for life. In the ‘cash for summit’ trial in South Korea, a former deputy director of the National Intelligence Service, Kim Bo-hyun, has been accused of handing over to the North huge sums of money to guarantee talks between Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong-il. The case involves one of the South’s biggest companies, the ‘chaebol’ conglomerate Hyundai, which sent money North to get special treatment for establishing factories to exploit the appallingly cheap labour of that state.

Roh’s popularity has quickly slumped to below 50%, criticised from both sides – for being ‘too close’ to US imperialism and ‘too soft’ on the regime in the North. He is seen in business circles as a dangerous populist from humble origins who has made a number of attempts to halt corruption and fraud within the giant family-owned ‘chaebol’ conglomerates. Roh was recently accused of considering allowing the existence of a communist party in South Korea. He was forced to reassure South Korea’s capitalists by denying it. (Socialism is also still technically outlawed.)

Roh is walking a tightrope. The economy’s growth rate has slumped from 6.3% to a projected 2.9% this year with the first two quarters showing a negative figure, according to the Korea Economic Research Institute. Another survey shows that nearly 60% of graduates cannot get jobs. A prolonged downturn in the US will batter the economy further.

Trade unions are still embattled over privatisation, ‘flexibility’, wages and jobs. In the first half of this year there have been big strikes involving truck drivers, subway (underground) workers, teachers, electricity workers, taxi drivers, engineers, bank-workers and pension agents. Roh himself was instrumental in the release earlier this year of a number of jailed trade unionists, including Dan Byung-ho, president of the biggest trade union federation, KCTU, after 20 months in prison.

As a human rights lawyer, Roh earned a reputation for fighting repression. However, it is now anticipated that he wants to tighten South Korea’s labour laws in the interests of the bosses and retain the hated security laws used so often against the labour movement. Even these could be an inadequate defence in the face of a united and determined working class, whose traditions of combativity are legendary. A mass walk-out and demonstrations was called by the KCTU for June 25 as a warning against attempts by Roh’s government to return to hard-line anti-labour policies.

Another pending nightmare is an implosion of the North Korean regime. There would be a flood of refugees and a massive demand on the resources of the South to come to the rescue of the Northern economy.

On the basis of capitalism and Stalinism, there is no hope of a harmonious reunification of the tragically divided peninsula. Socialists defend the state ownership and planning basis of the North. But the whole economy should be under the control of the workers through democratically elected committees and councils. This would require the removal of Kim Jong-il and the parasitic clique around him – a far-reaching political revolution. In the South, the still growing labour movement has the power to get rid of the stranglehold of the mighty chaebol and the big banks. This would only be possible by taking into public ownership their assets and running them on the basis of democratic workers’ control and management. Parties adopting such programmes – North and South – would have to include a sensitive demand for the reunification of Korea on the basis of a voluntary union or federation of equal and genuinely socialist states.

Elizabeth Clarke

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