On June 12, the U.S. had trade sanctions placed on North Korea to punish it for testing a nuclear bomb. This conflict is part of a rising one between the U.S. and China, one where the U.S. tries to marshal anti-communism to win U.S. workers to support increasing military action worldwide.
North Korea is repeatedly presented as a mystery, a place impossible to understand, with a crazy, untrustworthy leader, likely to irrationally attack the U.S. or Japan or other “play-by-the-rules” nations. Ironically, U.S. imperialist urge workers to trust them — the only ones who have experience using these “weapons of mass destruction” in war!
Modern Korea began with Japanese and U.S. imperialism, and the wars they fought to gain control of the region. In 1905, Japan “won” Korea as a colony after a war with Russia. Teddy Roosevelt received a Nobel Prize for brokering “peace” between the two imperialist rivals, one that included Japan’s acceptance of U.S. control of the Philippines. In 1945, after 40 years of brutal exploitation and resistance to Japanese imperialism by Korean workers, the U.S. occupied southern Korea. As part of its World War II victory, the U.S. took what is now called South Korea as both an economic beachhead and a potential garrison for containing the Soviet Union and the communist-led, anti-imperialist movements of northern Asia.
Initially, a pro-U.S. government was staffed by Koreans who had served in the hated Japanese army and police force, but it couldn’t shut down the people’s committees that had been formed during the anti-Japanese resistance.
In June, 1950, after months of border skirmishes, most often initiated by the South Korean government, the U.S. demanded UN permission to attack North Korea for what it alleged was a foreign “invasion” of South Korea. Plagued by guerrilla resistance to landlords, to former collaborators and to U.S. rule, the U.S. hoped to “roll back” the northern communist regime that it blamed for civil war in the south.
The resulting Korean War demonstrated the lengths to which U.S. butchers would go to destroy communism and defend imperialism. As control of Korean territory passed back and forth between U.S. and North Korean forces, U.S. officials adopted a scorched-earth policy aimed at wiping out every city in North Korea.
By August 1950, B-29 formations were dropping 800 tons of bombs per day over North Korea, many of them pure napalm. Every city in North Korea was damaged, with most experiencing 75-80% destruction. U.S. bombers targeted dams and shot farmers in their fields. The goal: to starve the population into submission. The U.S. also threatened to use atomic bombs, moving them into Asia, and ran practice atomic bomb drops over the North.
As a result of this aerial bombardment, 4 million out of a population of 30 million died during the Korean War: 2 million North Korean civilians, 1 million South Korean civilians, and 500,000 North Korean troops. A million Chinese soldiers (who had joined in the defense of Korea just as Koreans had fought in their revolution) and 56,000 American soldiers were also killed. Like the Vietnamese a decade later, Koreans know from personal experience that U.S. imperialists have never valued the lives of the worlds’ working class.
A 1953 truce — officially the war has never ended — left Korea just as divided as before. The Korean communist party (the Workers’ Party) of Kim Il Sung governed the North. A fascist, pro-U.S. government ruled the South, aided by a permanent garrison of some 40,000 U.S. troops armed with nuclear missiles and tactical nuclear weapons. North Korea defied the U.S. military assault, but its own political weaknesses turned this victory into a defeat for the international working class.
Founded in 1925, the Korean communist party grew out of the resistance to Japanese occupation in the wake of World War I and the Bolshevik revolution. Part of an international movement, thousands of Koreans served in the Chinese Communist army during the resistance to Japan.
In 1946-47, the Korean communist party initiated land reform, made education and health care free for all, liberated women, and nationalized the large number of Japanese and U.S. factories in the North. But these socialist reforms did not move Korea toward communism. The Korean party focused on building “socialism in one country” which, over time, led to nationalism becoming its primary ideology.
In modern North Korea, no slogans call for workers’ power or internationalism. Banners proclaim “Long Live the Great Juche idea!” “Juche,” calls for national (Korean) independence in politics, economics and defense; the term is linked to monarchist ideologies that meld the people and the nation into the person and family of the ruler, now Kim Jong Il, the son of Kim Il Sung. Glorified images of Kim Il Sung — reminiscent of the cult of the individual that weakened the Soviet Union and China — replaced the internationalism and the fight for communism that were once part of Korean practice.
Within its nationalism, North Korea retained wage differences and operated within the broad international economy. From the 1950s to 1980s it traded with the USSR and China for raw materials (oil) and manufactured goods. In the 1990s, with the break-up of the Soviet Union, and the intensification of capitalism in Russia and China, North Korea began to suffer the problems of all capitalist economies. Russia wanted hard currency for oil, and Korea had to find more markets for its goods.
The North Korean government had two responses to these economic problems, both reflecting state capitalism, not communist goals. One offered its workforce as low-wage labor by setting up free trade zones where South Korean and Japanese factories employ highly-skilled North Korean workers at low wages.
The other was to enhance its exports. In the 1990s, the trade in weapons became an increasingly important source of petroleum and foreign currency, and North Korea became a major supplier of SCUD missiles to countries such as Iran who are linked to China, Russia and other rivals of U.S. power. North Korea’s push to develop nuclear weapons is a tool to gain economic benefits and to manipulate the intensifying imperialist rivalries.
None of this benefits the working class. We can draw two lessons: One- no matter what sweet words the latest U.S. ruler coos, imperialism is a dead-end and a death trap for the working class. Second- there are no shortcuts to communism, to a society without wages, run by the working class. Nationalism has repeatedly been offered as a path to change, and it has repeatedly led workers back to capitalism and to death, whether in the Middle East, Asia, or the U.S. Only an international communist movement to smash capitalism worldwide can end war, racism and exploitation once and for all.