U.S. Threatens North Korea:
What's Behind the Conflict?

Updated April 10, 2013 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us


Over the past several weeks, longstanding tensions on the Korean peninsula have intensified. U.S. diplomats, news media, and political leaders have portrayed the small, impoverished nation of North Korea (formally the Democratic People's Republic of Korea) as a belligerent bully, a threat to its neighbors, and a nuclear-armed threat to world peace.

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North Korea Is Not a Socialist Society

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) calls itself socialist-communist. It is described in the West as a “fanatical” and “pure” communist country. In order to have a full picture of the forces driving the conflict between North Korea and the U.S., it is important to understand what communism is, what socialism is, and what the real nature of North Korean society is.

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The escalating threats and provocations, and the precarious situation on the border between North and South Korea and the whole tense situation has the potential to break out into a major war, with terrible consequences for the people in both countries, and beyond.

The U.S. claims to be the protector of peace, nuclear disarmament, and sanity. Of economic progress and democracy. To be protectors of the interests of the people of the world.

North Korea is an oppressive, repressive society. But as a source of oppression, repression, and violence in the world, as a nuclear danger to humanity, its impact is microscopic compared to that of the United States.

Over the past 60+ years, the underlying factors driving conflict between the U.S. and North Korea have changed radically. But consistent throughout has been the compulsion on the part of the U.S. to dominate the world, and to impose and enforce a global system of sweatshops, slums, and oppression of every kind. Throughout all this, U.S. moves against North Korea have been those of a global bully dealing with challenges to its domination.

The Korean War

The emergence of North and South Korea—two countries out of what had been a single nation for hundreds of years—was a product of tremendous changes in the world in the aftermath of World War 2.

July 1950: U.S. -backed South Korean soldiers walk among thousands of political prisoners shot by South Korea at Taejon.

July 1950: U.S. -backed South Korean soldiers walk among thousands of political prisoners shot by South Korea at Taejon. Photo: AP

A mad scramble ensued on the part of imperial powers to regroup and dig their fangs more deeply into the people of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Overseeing all this, and running the show, U.S. imperialism emerged as the "capo de tutti capi,"—the top godfather—in international capitalism-imperialism.

The other big change was the emergence of a socialist camp. One-third of humanity, in the Soviet Union and China, posed a powerful, living alternative to capitalism, based on the interests of humanity, not capitalist exploitation (See "Everything You've Been Told About Communism Is Wrong: Capitalism Is a Failure, Revolution Is the Solution."). Around the world, radical, revolutionary and nationalist forces in oppressed nations aligned with, and were supported in their struggles for liberation by that socialist camp.

Both of these big changes, but especially the clash between imperialism and socialism set the stage for the Korean War.

The Japanese imperialists colonized Korea in 1910. They banned the teaching of the Korean language in schools, forced Koreans to take Japanese names, and forced them to practice the Japanese Shinto religion. During World War 2, they forced 200,000 Korean women to be sex slaves for their military.

The Japanese empire was defeated in World War 2 by the combined forces of China and the Soviet Union—which worked together with nationalist resistance fighters throughout Asia —and by the U.S. and other imperialists.  The U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Japan, massacring hundreds of thousands of civilians. When Japanese authority in Korea collapsed, the country was divided between a zone occupied by the Soviet Union in the north and the U.S. in the south.

This was supposed to be a temporary division pending country-wide elections to establish a unified regime. But reunification elections never happened. The U.S. feared elections would put nationalist or communist resistance forces allied with the Soviet Union and China in power. Instead, the U.S. built up a separate regime in South Korea, and made the division of the country a fact on the ground. The U.S. put "strongman" Syngman Rhee in power and imposed intense repression, mass arrests, and massacres of nationalists, radicals, communists, and others.

In 1950, North Korean military forces moved south to come to the aid of uprisings in the south, with the aim of re-unifying the country. North Korean troops advanced rapidly into South Korea.

The U.S. struck back with a vengeance.

Carpet Bombing of North Korea & Nuclear Threats Against China

The U.S. orchestrated a United Nations resolution opposing North Korea, and under that banner sent hundreds of thousands of troops into South Korea. UN-sanctioned joint U.S.-South Korean armed forces were directly commanded by U.S. General MacArthur, and the U.S. also provided 88 percent of the 342,000 "international" soldiers.

The U.S. unleashed incredible devastation. It conducted carpet-bombing of North Korea, dropping more bombs on this one small country than had been used in the entire Pacific Theater during World War 2. Every building higher than one story was destroyed; U.S. General William Dean reported that most of the North Korean cities and villages that he saw were either rubble or snow covered wastelands.

U.S.-led forces drove deep into North Korea toward China. At that point, the People's Republic of China intervened in the war. This was a major sacrifice for the Chinese people, who had just seized nationwide political power and were only beginning the revolutionary transformation of a society wracked by mass poverty, starvation, and backwardness. U.S. forces were driven back across the 38th parallel (roughly the middle of Korea, between what today are North and South Korea).

Throughout the war, the U.S. repeatedly made plans to use nuclear weapons against the North Korean and Chinese forces. General MacArthur, who was not only a general but a major political figure in the U.S. ruling class, demanded authority to invade China and attack it with nuclear weapons. Other forces in the U.S. ruling class felt this it would be too risky. In a tense showdown within the U.S. ruling class, President Truman fired MacArthur, and ultimately the nuclear attack was called off—but the U.S. came very close to launching it.

The war killed millions of Koreans—estimates range from three to five million, overwhelmingly civilians, with a large majority of those killed in the North. Devastation was everywhere, but the North was literally reduced to rubble.

An armistice was signed in 1953, ending hostilities, though no actual peace treaty ending the formal state of war has ever been signed. Korea ever since has been divided into North and South.

On the part of the U.S., the Korean War was a move to consolidate its domination of South Korea, to seize control of the North, and move against communist and nationalist forces in Asia. The U.S. was not able to accomplish those objectives in the Korean War. But after the war, it moved to build up South Korea as a political, economic, and military base from which it could face off against China, and impose its interests in the region.

Changing Global Conflicts—Korea Still in the Crosshairs

Three major global geopolitical conflicts have set the stage for the conflict between the U.S. and North Korea. The first was the clash between the socialist camp and the world revolution on the one hand, and imperialism on the other.

In the mid-1950s, that changed. Forces in the Soviet Union reversed the revolution and restored capitalism. North Korea, which had been aligned with the world revolution but had never been a socialist country, was integrated into the Soviet social-imperialist realm.

And shortly after the death of Mao Tsetung in 1976, capitalist forces within the leadership of the Communist Party of China staged a reactionary coup and brought back capitalism, even as they retain a thin pretense of being communists to the present day. The loss of China was a terrible blow to the people of the world. With that loss, the contradiction between socialist countries and imperialism was no longer an element of global geopolitics.

From the late-1950s until the early 1970s, the global conflict between imperialism, led by U.S. imperialism, and national liberation struggles in Asia, Africa, and Latin America against imperialism mainly defined the world stage. From the mid-1970s until the collapse of the Soviet-led imperialist bloc (1989-1991), the conflict between the imperialist bloc headed by the U.S., and the imperialist bloc headed by the Soviet Union, mainly set the terms for other conflicts in the world. During that era, the Cold War, the border between North and South Korea remained a tripwire, but now between two reactionary forces. The rulers of North Korea aligned with the Soviets, relied on Soviet economic aid to prop up their economy, and in return served a useful role for the Soviet Union in global contention with the U.S.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 pulled the rug out from under the North Korean rulers. It left them without a global big-power sponsor. This created a desperate situation in a country whose economy was dependent on its integration into the former Soviet Union's camp.

In this context, the U.S. engaged, to some degree, in carrot and (mostly) stick pressure on North Korea. Long standing sanctions that contributed to hunger and lack of medical care in North Korea were tightened, and sometimes slightly loosened. For their part, the North Korean rulers used their nuclear program and nascent nuclear weapons capacity as a bargaining chip for aid and an end to sanctions.

In the period after the collapse of the Soviet Union, new and unprecedented challenges emerged as obstacles to the U.S.'s role as the world's sole superpower. Among them: Islamic fundamentalist Jihadis along with the rise of regional and big-power rivals to U.S. dominance. An in-depth analysis of the impact of tensions between the U.S. and China on U.S. moves against North Korea is beyond the scope of this article, but is a significant element in this picture.

U.S. moves against North Korea intensified with George W. Bush's 2002 State of the Union address. Framed by continuous references to revenge for 9/11, Bush put Iraq, Iran, and North Korea on the "axis of evil" list. Of course none of those countries had anything to do with 9/11, but the consequences of being put on the list were, and remain, ominous.

In the context of the range of new challenges they face, the rulers of the U.S. find North Korea's small nuclear weapons capacity unacceptable. That technology is not under U.S. command or control, and there is potential for that technology to be exported to other countries and forces that the U.S. sees as serious threats. For their part, the North Korean ruling class sees their nuclear capacity as one of their few bargaining chips. The more the U.S. strangles North Korea economically and intensifies military pressure, the more North Korea's rulers are driven to build up their nuclear weapons capacity.

60+ Years of Military Pressure and Economic Strangulation

While underlying global forces have shifted over the past 60+ years, U.S. economic and military pressure on North Korea has been non-stop.

The U.S. built up South Korea and continues to maintain that country as a strategic outpost for its interests. From 1953-1974, South Korea received $4 billion in direct U.S. aid—accounting for 60 percent of all investment in South Korea—along with many other forms of indirect aid such as discounted loans. All this was presided over by U.S.-puppet "strongman" rulers. When Syngman Rhee was driven from the country in 1960 by massive protests, the U.S. replaced him with Park Chung-hee who ruled as an unelected fascist dictator for almost two decades (Park's daughter, Park Geun-hye, is the current president of South Korea).

Both North and South Korea are highly militarized societies. The North Korean army is the fifth largest in the world, with more than a million soldiers and millions of reservists. The South Korean army as well has been built up into one of the largest armed forces in the world, consisting of nearly 700,000 active duty soldiers, 4.5 million reservists, and more modern weapons, training, and capacity than North Korean troops.

Today, nearly 30,000 U.S. troops are stationed in South Korea. U.S. naval and air power, including nuclear weapons, are "on call" to move against the North. These forces have regularly conducted joint "war games," including recent ones where U.S. and South Korean forces practiced invading and occupying North Korean territory.

Along with military threats, the U.S. has imposed economic sanctions against North Korea since 1950. Those sanctions isolated North Korea economically and cut off much world trade. And the U.S. orchestrated UN–imposed economic sanctions on North Korea starting in 2006.

The U.S. claims such sanctions are targeted at North Korea's ruling elite. But the history of these kinds of sanctions has been one of massive disease, suffering, famine, and death throughout society, with the worst impact on the poorest people. North Korea was devastated by successive years of floods and droughts in from 1994 to 1998. Estimates of famine deaths are hard to verify, but range from hundreds of thousands to over two million.

Although some of the trade sanctions against North Korea were lifted during the 1990s, those currently in place cripple North Korea's attempt to recover from an ongoing public health crisis that resulted from the floods and droughts in the 1990s. (See "Economic Sanctions Towards North Korea: A violation of the right to health and a call to action," British Medical Journal, BMJ 2009;339:b4069)

Nuclear Threats: from the USA

The U.S. justifies its moves against North Korea by invoking that country's threats to use nuclear weapons if it is attacked.

Who's talking about nuclear threats?!

Until 1991 the U.S. directly stationed nuclear weapons in South Korea—aimed at the North. For that entire time, North Koreans lived under the constant threat of a U.S. nuclear attack. Since 1991, the U.S. and South Korea claim there are no U.S. nukes stationed in South Korea, but in 2010, more than two years before the current crisis, South Korea's Defense Minister hinted publicly that there was a possibility that U.S. nukes would be re-deployed on South Korean territory.

And again, these ongoing threats of nuclear attack were coming from a country that had bombed every inch of North Korea into rubble in the Korean War.

While the U.S. does not currently have nuclear weapons stationed in South Korea, the U.S. has the capacity to strike anywhere in the world with nuclear weapons, millions of times more destructive than anything North Korea could possible develop. And the U.S. holds the whole world, including North Korea, as nuclear hostages. (See "Who's the Real Nuclear Threat?")

Contending Oppressive Agendas… and the Need for a Real Alternative

U.S. sanctions and threats against North Korea have nothing to do with peace, nuclear disarmament, or any of their other claims. North Korea is an oppressive society, not a model for positive or radical change. But as a source of exploitation and oppression, wars to enforce that, and in terms of posing a nuclear threat to the people of the world, it cannot hold a candle to the suffering and violence the United States imposes on the people of this planet.

U.S. moves against North Korea must be opposed most fundamentally because they are all about the USA enforcing its "right" to be an unchallenged global bully. We must oppose U.S. moves against North Korea. The interests of the U.S. imperialists are not our interests. And we need to bring to light the real interests of the people as part of bringing into being a real, revolutionary alternative to the world as it is.


Correction: The article posted online at revcom.us on 4/8/2013, and that appeared in the print edition of Revolution, contained an incorrect formulation describing the period from the mid-1950s until the end of the 1980s—that during that period the confrontation between the Soviet and U.S.-led imperialist blocs defined the world stage. That formulation has been corrected as of 4/10/2013 in the online article.

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