BY IGGY KIM
On January 2 US President George Bush stated: "There are countries which are developing weapons of mass destruction and we will deal with them appropriately. One country is Iraq... if they won't [disarm], we'll lead a coalition to disarm them. Another country is North Korea... I believe the situation with North Korea will be resolved peacefully."
Some media commentators have had a field day accusing Bush of going soft on Kim Jong-Il's Stalinist regime while beating down on the "paper tiger" of Saddam Hussein. However, the US rulers are just as intent on achieving "regime change" in North Korea as they are in Iraq. This was made clear by Bush when he included North Korea as part of an "axis of evil", along with Iraq and Iran, in his January 2002 State of the Union address to the US Congress.
Throughout 2002, Washington's focus has been on carrying through the political and military preparations for an invasion of Iraq. However, plans for a US military assault on North Korea, including the use of nuclear weapons, have long existed.
The US introduced nuclear weapons into South Korea in 1958, in breach of the 1953 armistice agreement between Washington, Beijing, Pyongyang and Seoul that ended the 1950-53 Korean War. Thereafter, US and South Korean military strategy rested on the use of nuclear cannons and missiles within one hour of the outbreak of war.
US nuclear weapons were withdrawn from South Korea in 1991 at the dawn of US President George Bush senior's "new world order", as part of a worldwide withdrawal of overseas US nuclear forces aimed primarily at reducing military tensions with post-Soviet Russia.
However, the US rulers are still prepared to use any nuclear weapons in any war against North Korea. The September-October 2002 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists reported that, in June 1998 at the Avon Park Bombing Range in Florida, US long-range bombers simulated a nuclear assault on North Korea. George Bush junior's January 2002 Nuclear Posture Review, which explicitly put the US on an offensive nuclear footing, identified North Korea as a target for nuclear strike.
There is therefore nothing "irrational" in Kim Jong-Il's attempt to develop a nuclear arsenal of his own in order be deter the US from launching a nuclear attack on North Korea.
While Washington wants to stop North Korea acquiring such an arsenal, the US rulers' goals in Korea go far beyond this immediate objective.
They regard Korea a bridgehead for extending their political, military and economic dominance into north-east Asia as a whole. A substantial offensive military capability on the Korean peninsula is crucial to US imperialism's ambitions for global domination.
Crisis goes back to Bush senior
In the wake of the end of the Cold War with the Soviet Union and China's open turn toward restoring capitalism, the Bush senior administration needed to find a political justification for maintaining 40,000 troops in Japan and 37,000 troops in South Korea.
Following the 1991 Gulf War, Washington whipped up a propaganda campaign alleging that North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear power facility was being used to develop nuclear bombs. In November 1991, during then defence secretary Dick Cheney's "crisis" visit to Seoul, then US Joint Chiefs of Staff chairperson General Colin Powell remarked to reporters that if North Korea "missed Desert Storm, this is a chance to catch a rerun". At the same time, the Chicago Tribune twice called for a pre-emptive US military strike on Yongbyon. Leslie Gelb wrote in the New York Times that North Korea was "the next renegade state".
Pyongyang responded by signing an agreement with Seoul on January 20, 1992, to denuclearise the peninsula. Ten days later, the North Korea signed a safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and submitted an initial report on its nuclear program, including an admission that it was building a facility capable of processing weapons-grade plutonium.
Between May 1992 and February 1993, North Korea allowed six formal inspections of the Yongbyon facility by the IAEA.
In early 1993, General Lee Butler, commander-in-chief of the US Strategic Command (responsible for all US air force and naval strategic nuclear forces) announced plans to retarget towards North Korea the strategic nuclear missiles that had formerly been aimed at the Soviet Union.
In March 1993, US and South Korean forces went ahead with the controversial Team Spirit military exercises that simulated the deployment of nuclear-capable B-52 and B-1B bombers, several warships carrying nuclear-armed cruise missiles, and battlefield operations using "tactical" nuclear weapons.
Alarmed at these threats, North Korea announced its withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) on March 12, 1993. This then triggered the crisis that the new US administration of President Bill Clinton eventually resolved through the pivotal October 1994 US-North Korea Framework Agreement.
This agreement allowed North Korea to acquire two light-water nuclear reactors and foreign fuel oil supplies in exchange for Pyongyang rejoining the NPT. The agreement also provided for "full normalisation of political and economic relations" between Pyongyang and Washington. It was under the umbrella of this agreement that South Korean President Kim Dae-Jung began his "Sunshine Policy" towards the north.
However, the Bush junior administration has worked to undermine this agreement from the day it took office in January 2001. The new Bush administration failed to come through with the light-water nuclear reactors and worked to undermine the growing detente between Pyongyang and Seoul.
Pyongyang's resumption of nuclear weapons development arises out of its growing fear that Washington aims to bring about violent "regime change" in North Korea.
Renowned US Korea specialist Bruce Cumings argues that a military strike against North Korea was imminent during the 1993 crisis. This is what hastened former president Jimmy Carter to fly to Pyongyang and broker a deal. Even then, in the 1994 negotiations, the Clinton administration refused to meet a key North Korean demand: a public declaration that Washington would not threaten or use nuclear weapons against it. This is still an unanswered demand: a non-aggression pact that includes a guarantee against nuclear attack.
At the same time, North Korea is desperate to end its crippling international isolation. The combination of the Soviet collapse and a series of devastating natural disasters in the early to mid-1990s has left the country an economic basket-case. Between 1993 to 1996, production fell by 50%. While there has been some recovery since, it is still 40% below the 1990 level.
Kim Jong-Il's bureaucratic regime is looking for a way out its deep economic crisis, specifically the path of a bureaucratically controlled development of capitalism — along the same lines as that pursued by the Chinese bureaucratic elite since the early 1990s.
The main obstacle in Pyongyang's pursuit of this path, however, is Washington, which is vetoing North Korea's access to Asian Development Bank and other foreign loans. While South Korean capital has been flowing into North Korea for several years, it is not enough to lift the north out of its dire circumstances. Thus, the threat of developing nuclear weapons is also a bargaining chip to force the US to concede some economic breathing space to Kim Jong-Il's regime.
In pursuing this course, Pyongyang's key ally is South Korea — an ironic reversal of the situation that prevailed for most of the last 50 years. As some commentators have observed, Kim Jong-Il is deliberately driving a wedge between Seoul and Washington.
Pyongyang's ability to do this is due to a shift in the relationship of political forces between the liberal and conservative sections of the South Korean capitalist class in favour of the former.
For most of its history, the anti-communist, pro-US, conservative wing of the South Korean ruling class had the upper hand. Even a meek effort at liberal rule — following the April 1960 student-led uprising — was brutally crushed by General Park Jung-Hee's military coup. Red scares were a common part of daily life in South Korea from the 1950s until the early 1990s.
Propaganda blitzes depicting communists as devils with horns and the US military as saviours were a regular part of primary school indoctrination. Even today, driving along country highways, one can still see large government billboards urging people to report leftists to a hotline phone number.
Since the financial crisis of 1997-98, and the subsequent intensification of neoliberal economic restructuring, the south's ruling class also been looking for a new orientation in the increasingly more competitive global conditions. Many have turned to the north with a gleam in their eye: barely a couple of hours from Seoul lies a large, cheap and educated labour force, heavily disciplined and regimented by the Pyongyang regime's "Juche" brand of Stalinism.
Since 1992, Pyongyang has introduced a series of laws governing foreign investment, joint ventures, foreign enterprises, and the setting up of free economic and trade zones. A number of South Korean firms have been sending materials and equipment to the north to undertake "processing-on-commission". According to the South Korean government's unification ministry, inter-Korean trade in 2002 was US$641 million, an increase of 59.3% from 2001, and a near threefold increase since 1998. Inter-Korea business transactions in 2002 were worth US$342 million — evenly divided between $171 million from commerce and $171 million from processing trade.
The liberal wing of South Korea's capitalist class is taking the lead in opening lines of communication and investment to the north, entailing the need to overhaul the framework of Seoul's official policy toward the north. The result has been a relaxation of anti-communist propaganda.
One highly symbolic example of the change in attitude toward the north was the popular, festive donning of the name "red devils" by the South Korean soccer team and fans in last year's World Cup. This would have been unthinkable a decade ago. "Red devils" was a previously fearful term reserved for North Koreans and southern leftists on their way to the gallows.
Outright repression has repeatedly failed to crush the workers' movement in South Korea. The depth of economic crisis in South Korea and the resulting frenzied pace of neoliberal restructuring leave no margin for securing social peace through stable economic concessions to the working class.
The only option left for South Korea's capitalist rulers is political cooption. This is what accounts for the growing hegemony of the liberal wing of the bourgeoisie: only the likes of former pro-democracy, imprisoned dissidents like Kim Dae-Jung and Roh Moo-Hyun. South Korea's president-elect, are in any position to carry out such a tactically delicate manoeuvre.
Roh has mooted an overhaul of electoral laws for next year's National Assembly elections, to introduce partial proportional representation. This is clearly aimed at coopting the Democratic Labour Party, which scored around 5% in last year's presidential election. Already, various leading forces in the DLP have given Roh their support.
Such an abrupt shift in politics carries its own dangers and contradictions for both the ruling class and the workers' movement. On the one hand, it opens up a political space further to the left of liberalism and the social-democratic DLP — this is the context for a socialist regroupment effort currently being pursued by the radical leftist Power of the Working Class group.
Against the backdrop of rapprochement towards the north and growing liberalisation in the south, the US is increasingly in a bind, being viewed by many South Koreans as a hindrance at best, and as a racist bully, at worst.
This is the context in which South Korea has been swept by a wave of spontaneous mass protests against the presence of US troops, including weekly candlelight rallies throughout South Korea, attracting tens (and sometimes hundreds) of thousands.
The political liberalisation in South Korea and Seoul's moves toward detente with the north have helped create a political climate in which the popular anti-imperialist feelings that have persistently simmered within South Korea for decades can now openly express themselves.
In the wake of the wave of anti-US protests that swept South Korea at the end of last year, the Bush administration dropped the increasingly aggressive course it was taking toward North Korea, and shifted to a public stance of seeking to negotiate with Pyongyang, while still refusing to rule out a military attack on North Korea in the future.
From Green Left Weekly, January 22, 2003.
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