What’s behind the tensions on the Korean peninsula?

North Korea is a state many commentators – even on the left – feel they do not have to take seriously: the funny hairstyles, the platform shoes; the bombast and hyperbole of the state media. If there is not belittling humour, extreme moralism obscures any political analysis. The same phrases are swapped between left and right: “rulers that starve their own people”, “the most secretive regime on earth”, “totalitarianism in action” and so on.

The reality is no joke. Korea is a country devastated by imperialism. Families have been torn apart, millions lost their lives in the Korean War, and foreign troops still occupy the peninsula.

We in the International Socialists have no time for the rulers of North Korea, but we need to put the current tensions into perspective. Who is the real threat to peace in the Asia-Pacific region? The United States has used nuclear weapons against civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The United States maintains a policy of sanctions that starves the people of the North. And New Zealand’s rulers have supported this, from sending troops to fight alongside US imperialism from 1950-1953 to Prime Minister John Key offering to join in a war earlier this year. New Zealand forces are taking part in the provocations around Korea now.

Responsibility lies with the United States.

This is a story with personal significance for me. I was born into a family with North Korean papers. My people, Zainichi – Korean residents in Japan – are the product of this colonial history. Koreans were displaced into Japan during Japan’s colonial occupation, some arriving willingly, others being used virtually as slaves during wartime production. After the war some wanted to go back but could not; some wanted to stay in Japan but were forcibly deported. Some, with the US and Japanese governments knowing the terrible situation in the North, pressured into migrating to the North.. Koreans born in Japan – sometimes with their parents also having been born in Japan – still now may have North Korean-related passport papers, and so find international travel – let alone getting a job in the Japanese public service or mainstream life – almost impossible.

The Korean War is not history in Asia. It is a lived experience in the after-effects for millions.

In Japan right now, Koreans are facing threats, intimidation, and violence as a result of state hysteria over North Korea. Korean school kids are having to take alarms with them going to school to ward off racists. That’s the reality of the “jokes” the mainstream are happy to peddle.

Obviously, living in New Zealand today means that this is not the oppression I face right now. But we’re internationalists for a reason. We stand with the oppressed.


We are facing an army of barbarians in Korea, but they are barbarians as trained, as relentless, as reckless of life, as skilled in the tactics of the kind of war they fight as the hordes of Genghis Khan … They have taken a leaf from the Nazi book of blitzkrieg and are employing all weapons of fear and terror.

You could be excused for thinking that this quote was a recent explanation of North Korean.  “Madman”, “evil”, “brutal”, “inscrutable”: These are ways how the mainstream media encourages dehumanizing the “enemy”. This quote is in fact from over sixty years ago. It appeared in the Times three weeks after the Korean War began in 1950.

So the “recent” Korean crisis is not recent at all. It has actually been one of the longest wars in history. In 1953 the UN forces led by the US and North Korea signed an armistice, not a peace treaty, so the two sides are still at war.

Of course, this kind of vilification of the enemy is nothing new. As Stansfield Smith argues in a piece for Counterpunch, “it’s used to signify that the leaders are target for US overthrow. It’s also meant to intimidate and isolate anti-war activists as being “crazy” for ever wanting to oppose a war against countries ruled by “madmen” – be that Kim Jong-Un, Saddam Hussein, Fidel Castro, or Hugo Chavez.”  The rhetoric against the North is part of a whole package normalizing US aggression and moves for war.

Recent tensions

One thing that measured commentators on Korean politics – people like distinguished historian Bruce Cumings, or realist analysts in the south of Korea – have all agreed on is that most of Kim Jong-un’s threats have been bluffs. It’s just silly to imagine the North’s aged weapons and army pose any real threat to Japan or the United States. Most of Kim’s actions have been reversible. They’re the opening gambits for further negotiation.

As David Whitehouse argues in his article “The US Chokehold on North Korea”,

His threats to launch nuclear-armed missiles against the U.S., South Korea and Japan are simply bluffs. The North’s missiles have proven unreliable. And besides, even if North Korea fires the first shot, it doesn’t have a second. The ensuing “war” would entail a ferocious US attack on the North and the all-but-certain overthrow of the regime.

The shutdown of the Kaesong industrial zone is an example of the reversible measures. Kim has looked for dramatic things to disrupt, like the hotline connecting Northern and Southern militaries. He can restore this when tensions subside.

Kim has made it clear, however, that North Korea will not return to a non-nuclear status quo. The US has stepped up its threats of military action and refused to sign a nonaggression guarantee. So North Korea’s bombs serve as a deterrent, not a bargaining chip against US aggression.

North Korean officials, whenever they have been asked, have drawn quite sensible comparisons with Saddam Hussein. He let weapons inspectors into the country, and look what happened to him. When the US is threatening them constantly, and when they are on record as hoping for their destruction, is it any surprise that the North’s leaders want to arm themselves?

Obama’s condition – that it will not negotiate until the North commits to giving up nuclear weapons – is of course a way of making sure it does not have to negotiate at all. Whitehouse quotes the Wall Street Journal on what he calls the ‘real meaning of strategic patience’:

Obama administration officials have said they have no current intention of reengaging with the North. Instead, the White House has pursued a policy of heightened economic sanctions against the communist country, both unilaterally and through the United Nations; new efforts to missile defense in Asia; and new measures to joint-military capabilities with South Korea and Japan.

The mainstream media would have it that it’s all North Korea’s fault. The US State Department, said “once again brought the country to the brink of war”. This is a familiar trope that Washington has used from the 1950s onwards.

Missing in the US State Department’s media release was that the US conducted month-long war maneuvers last March, which extended into April. They used stealth bombers, undetectable by radar, capable of carrying nuclear weapons. And this year these are not “deterrent” war maneuvers, but “pre-emptive war” maneuvers.

Smith in his Counterpunch article puts this in useful perspective: Wouldn’t any government and people get a little “irrational” if the only foreign country to have previously used an atomic bomb and people, killed millions around the world, sent nuclear-capable stealth bombers to fly around for a month in preparation for a possible nuclear attack? This is especially true in a country with Korea’s history, a history that the North knows well. During the Korean War, Operation Hudson Harbor was infamous. Airplanes dropped “dummy” A-bombs or very heavy TNT bombs. Imagine the fear of Koreans deep in the bunkers never knowing if the bomb was going to cause the devastation that the US unleashed on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, or whether it was going to be a dummy run.

In recent weeks, the US has had to admit that this latest round of threats from the North has come about as a result of US military activity. When the ruling class feel they are talking to each other – in the so-called ‘quality’ press – they can be remarkably explicit about this. Whitehouse quotes the Wall Street Journal again:

After a high-visibility display of military power aimed at deterring North Korean provocations, the White House is dialing back the aggressive posture amid fears that it could inadvertently trigger an even deeper crisis, according to US officials …

The US stepped back from the plans this week, as US officials began to worry that the North, which has a small nuclear arsenal and an unpredictable new leader, may be more provoked than the US had intended, the officials said.

Reality and rhetoric

Pre-emptive war is something that’s been heralded since the Bush administration against Iraq and certainly commentators today in the New York Times have called for Barack Obama to bomb North Korea “before it is too late”.

But satellite images of North Korea – dark above the 38th parallel – show the fantasy. Does it not strain credibility to imagine that a country lacking the ability to light its major cities at night is going to be able to launch a military air strike endangering the United States?

All the evidence suggests that while they have nuclear capabilities, North Korea lacks the ability to deliver the bombs on missiles. And, besides, the rulers there will know their first strike would be their last. As Tim Beal argues in his book Crisis in Korea, North Korean militarism is an essentially defensive posture.

Siegfried Hecker, one of America’s senior nuclear scientists, stated this himself. He’s visited the DPRK’s nuclear facilities several times and said:

“Despite its recent threats, North Korea does not yet have much of a nuclear arsenal because it lacks fissile materials and has limited nuclear testing experience.”

Korean War

Too much analysis of the Korean crisis starts as if it began yesterday, as if we can understand the peninsula without any reference to history, to the forces involved, to the legacy of tragedy. But this conflict has deep roots.

Korea is divided because the victorious countries after World War Two invaded and divided it after the Japanese surrender. The leaders of the DPRK had been fighting the Japanese since the early 1930s in an anti-colonial resistance, and 200,000 of their forces had lost their lives.

On 14 August 1945, President Harry Truman ruled that Japanese troops south of the 38th parallel, an arbitrary line across Korea, should surrender to the US. Troops north of the line surrendered to Russia. The state was cut in half and ordinary people had no say about it.

What happened after this did not suit the interests of either contending power, the USSR or the USA. As Sadie Robinson summarises:

But liberation from Japan led to an explosion of political activity. People held demonstrations and set up committees to run society. They began to publish Korean-language newspapers that had been suppressed under the occupation.

The newly arrived Russian and US troops set about smashing resistance and establishing regimes that would serve their own interests.

In the north, Russia dismissed Korean workers’ self-management of factories as “syndicalism”. It closed down or censored Korean-language newspapers and ended freedom of association.

In the South the US quickly dismantled the revolutionary committees which emerged out of the resistance to the Japanese occupation.

Puppet regimes were imposed north and south. The US assistant secretary of state admitted in 1947 that, “Many Koreans feel they are worse off than they were under the Japanese”.

Kevin Gray, in a recent article for New Left Review, outlines how this shaped the political culture of the south of Korea:

The collapse of the colonial power after Hirohito’s broadcast on 15 August 1945 was greeted by Koreans with spontaneous celebrations, the release of some 30,000 political prisoners from colonial gaols and the countrywide establishment of people’s committees. Attacks on the police proliferated as Japanese Army units disintegrated, and half-starved Koreans returned to their villages from forced labour in mines and factories to confront the collaborators who had sent them there. The US decision to divide the country, to contain the influence of its Soviet neighbour, had been accepted by Stalin without a murmur. While collaborators in the North were sacked and anti-Japanese guerrillas (like Kim Il Sung) welcomed home as heroes, in the South the opposite policies applied. Alarmed by the state of popular mobilization when they arrived in September 1945, the US occupation commanders determined to retain and ‘Koreanize’ the Japanese administrative machinery and colonial police. The nucleus of the future Republic of Korea Army, over which the US would retain operative command, was staffed with Japanese-trained officers. These repressive forces were immediately unleashed against a rebellion that spread across the South in 1948, initially sparked by protests against police terror on Cheju island, and fighting for independence and unification. Just as under the Japanese, tens of thousands of political prisoners were gaoled and many more were sent to ‘guidance camps’ for anti-Communist re-education. Meanwhile the American occupation authorities oversaw an electoral process, widely boycotted, which confirmed the authoritarian Syngman Rhee, a long-time Korean exile in the US, as head of state. A ‘tepid opposition’, largely made up of former Southern landlords, was confined to a virtually powerless National Assembly.

The Cold War started to develop almost as soon as World War 2 was over, but the two major competitors, exhausted from the recent fighting and aware that they were not ready to confront each other openly, worked to avoid a head-on battle. But the Korean peninsula acted as a field for them to play out their conflict.

The Korean War began in June 1950. Within two months, the North occupied most of the South. The South’s rulers – and this was true until the late 1980s – were associated with collaboration with the Japanese colonialists, and had compromised themselves as military dictators in the eyes of ordinary people. They had little popular legitimacy.

It’s sometimes called ‘the forgotten war’ in the West, but the Korean conflict was massive. The United States, with United Nations, intervened, sending1.5 million troops. New Zealand soldiers were among other forces joining the invasion. The Chinese government, freshly confident from its victory in the revolution of 1949 and anxious to prevent the US destabilizing its borders, sent troops to support the North.

The war was fought in the interests of rival imperialisms. Ordinary Koreans suffered the consequences. At least four million Koreans were killed, and another twenty million became refugees.

For the United States, this war offered the chance to test new weapons. It used more napalm in the three-year war than in the ten years of Vietnam. Napalm was invented at the end of World War Two and became a major issue during the Vietnam War as the world saw for the first time horrific photos of little kids running down the road naked, their skin peeling off.

A US soldier described the effect of napalm when it was dropped on American soldiers during friendly fire. This quote is taken from Bruce Cumings’ article “Korea: Forgotten Nuclear Threats” published at Le Monde Diplomatique:

Men all around me were burned. They lay rolling in the snow. Men I knew, marched and fought with begged me to shoot them … It was terrible. Where the napalm had burned the skin to a crisp, it would be peeled back from the face, arms, legs … like fried potato chips.

Three years of horror fought both sides into a stalemate. They could not afford to escalate the conflict for fear of it upsetting the delicate ‘stability’ of the Cold War and turning into World War Three, an open superpower battle. So, with millions dead, the border returned to exactly where it had started.

Three things stand out from the Korean War. It was the first war in the twentieth century the US did not win. So it rankles for US imperialism. It’s inconclusive conclusion stablised the division in the region, setting up, in North and South, ruling classes who came to mirror each other. The military dictatorship in the South worked to build up a local capitalism, while the military dictatorship in the North worked to build up a state capitalism.

US imperialism in Asia today

The roots of the conflict start from the imperialist rivalry between the United States and the USSR. And it is imperialist rivalry that continues to fuel the war today. The US has its eye now on the rising Chinese economy, which is becoming a threat to US domination in Asia and globally.

China’s growth has been phenomenal. Thirty years ago, China’s economy was smaller than the Netherlands’. Now it has surpassed Japan as the second largest in the world, and is projected to eclipse the United States in the next couple of decades. It is the largest exporter in the world system.

China is perhaps best known for the way it is used by multinational corporations as an ‘export-processing platform’, but it has also maintained and developed state monopolies, and these are now starting to compete globally. China is a global force.

Chinese defense spending has increased at more than 9% a year for over a decade. It has asserted its territorial rights more forcefully in recent years against Japan, and may, in the next generation, equal the US in military spending.

US socialist Ashley Smith notes in the latest issue of International Socialist Review:

… Obama issued a new Defense Strategic Guidance in January 2012 entitled “Sustaining US Leadership: Priorities for the 21st Century Defense” that announced his “Pivot to Asia.” With this new policy, he is dramatically reorienting American imperialism on the region most experts predict will be the hub of twenty-first century capitalism—the Asia Pacific. Obama continues to promise engagement with China to lure it into an international order under American hegemony, but his actual policies demonstrate an unmistakable shift toward containment of China as its principal imperial rival.

It is in this wider context of imperialism that any provocation towards North Korea from the US needs to be understood. Revolutionary socialist Kim Ha-young, an activist in South Korea put it like this: The US “needs … to use the poorest and the most vulnerable country in North East Asia as a bogeyman to justify a system that really targets China. In South Korea there is widespread discontent that the US seems to want the tensions on the Korean peninsula to continue. All the same, the US expects South Korea to toe its line in dealing with North Korea.”

Renovating old military bases throughout the region, shifting naval forces from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and constructing secret drone sites in Asia are far easier to justify as a “response to North Korean aggression” than as what they really are: namely, the reorientation of the US military toward a strategy of containing China, which US officials see as the main strategic rival to the US in the 21st century.

China obviously wants to stop the US from using North Korea as the alibi to justify its pivot. So, as Ashley Smith puts it, “China joined the US to support new sanctions against Kim Jung-un’s regime in the US. Far from signaling a new spirit of political cooperation, this move is intended to undercut one of the key justifications for the military encirclement of China.”

All of this doesn’t mean North Korea isn’t a Stalinist dictatorship that rules with ruthless authoritarianism. This fact just makes it easier for the US to demonize the North. And, for socialists in the oppressor countries and living inside states loyal to US imperialism like we are, this is a secondary consideration. The real enemy is at home.

Here in New Zealand, Prime Minister John Key is champing at the bit to send New Zealand troops into any potential war in order to show his allegiance to US imperialism. When most other countries were trying to dampen now rising tensions in the Korean peninsula, John Key was insinuating war against North Korea because “obviously NZ has got a long and proud history of coming to the support of South Korea”. It was an absolutely disgraceful position.


A war in the Korean peninsula seems unlikely.

But imperialism continues to disfigure Asia, and to make the threat of war a reality. The positioning between the US and China over who will be hegemon in Asia is turning up the heat in a number of local conflicts, whether this is in Korea, Taiwan, or the islands Japan and China dispute.  As Smith puts it, “the danger is that even a small military skirmish could detonate larger clashes with states invoking mutual self-defense treaties that require their allies, including the US to join in.”

Globalisation has not brought an end to conflicts between states, or to imperialism. The names of the key players may have changed, but inter-imperialist rivalry still characterizes world politics. The US is still the most powerful state in global capitalism, by far, but it is in decline and it knows this is the case. An ageing power, paranoid and worried about its pre-eminence, is a dangerous power. US imperialism looks to China as a threat to its dominance.

What more matters to us here? Sometimes you hear on the left that the historical debates in the twentieth century don’t matter anymore. Korea shows that they do. Our tradition, developed when Stalinism was a powerful force globally, insisted on the slogan “neither Washington nor Moscow but international socialism”. We reject the dead weight of Maoism, and illusions in either the Kim dynasty or US liberal democracy. Clear revolutionary politics are essential for us to break out of the cycle of imperialism and war in this region.

I want to end with some clear revolutionary politics. Here’s Kim Ha-young on how we should respond to the growing interstate imperialist rivalries:

Opposing imperialism is a crucial task for socialists. We must oppose the US’s imperialist expansion to maintain its world hegemony as well as the Asian governments that ally with the US to increase their own international clout.

We must have no illusions or fantasies about Chinese imperialism either. China can never offer a better model for humanity.

The answer is not to take sides among competing imperialist countries but to build an anti-imperialist movement from below. Imperialism is not a set of policies thrust upon us by particularly nasty rulers; it is the latest stage of global capitalism driven by capitalist dynamics.

Therefore, to oppose imperialism consistently, it is ultimately necessary to oppose capitalism.

Socialists have to make every effort to encourage workers’ movements to develop into an anti-capitalist movement.

Further Reading

I drew extensively on three main sources for this talk. David Whitehouse’s excellent articles unpicking the rhetoric around this latest crisis; Ashley Smith’s ‘US imperialism’s pivot to Asia’ provided a wider view; and Kim Ha-young’s ‘Imperialism and Instability in East Asia Today’ offered a strategic assessment for socialists. Bruce Cumings is a very good historian, and his North Korea: Another Country is worth reading. His article on ‘Korean War Games’ in The Nation is also useful.

Finally, I have based my analysis on the International Socialist tradition of socialism from below, a tradition developed in Korea itself by the comrades in All Together, sometimes in very difficult and dangerous circumstances. You can find an archive of Kim Ha-young’s more historical pieces on Korean capitalism, North and South, here.