Kim Jong-un, recent bogeyman of the international press, has suddenly become its darling. The new diplomatic offensive took the “international community” by surprise, with the prospect of an end to a 70-year conflict. Although Trump is attempting to bask in the glow of success, the latest turn, in reality, demonstrates the relative weakening of US imperialism.
Trump is in celebratory mode, heaping praise on his former nemesis. “Little rocket man” has now become “very open and very honorable.” Trump says they now have the opportunity to accomplish “something very special.” The South Koreans, a month ago forced by Trump to make serious concessions on trade, also threw lots of praise on the president, suggesting they would nominate him for the Nobel Peace Prize (and quickly getting echoes from Republican congressmen). The international press, normally highly critical of Trump, suddenly found itself fawning over his accomplishment.
The apparent 180 degree turn by North Korea comes just nine months after they traded insults and threatened war, which led to a lot of talk of a third world war. Yet, all is not exactly as it seems.
In the first instance, the threat of war was never serious. It was clearly a lot of bluster. Trump never intended to attack North Korea, because of the disaster that would have spelled for South Korea, which would have borne the brunt of any North Korean response. Millions of South Korean lives, as well as tens of thousands of US troops, would be at immediate risk.
Secondly, whereas in the past, the Chinese were prepared to stand up for the North Koreans, relations between the two countries have soured, and the Chinese mainly seem to regard the North Korean regime as an embarrassment that places obstacles in the way of their diplomatic efforts with the West, in particular Europe whose support China is seeking against the US. No one would have intervened on the side of the North Koreans if the US had decided to attack.
Both Kim Jong-un and Trump are fond of who-blinks-first diplomacy. Trump likes to make a lot of noise and then cut a deal. The North Korean regime for some time has been attempting to push as far as they could with their nuclear program before they cut a deal. Kim the youngest is no different. The intercontinental ballistic missiles tests were intended to prove to the world that they could indeed send missiles very far, and potentially carry out a nuclear strike against the US and Europe. This would mean they would have to be treated with a level of respect they were never afforded in the past, when they were regarded as a poor relative by China and Russia.
Possibly inadvertently, Trump has given the North Koreans exactly what they wanted. The personal invite was clearly calculated to play on Trump’s vanity and over-inflated ego. “Little Rocket Man” is now going to meet with the President of the United States. This is an honor that previous presidents had deliberately avoided giving the North Koreans. In return Kim Jong-un has promised very little of consequence. He’s going to stop missile tests and close the test sites, and he’s raising the prospect of joining various international treaties on the subject—like every other nuclear power on the planet. He even has suggested that he is in favor of nuclear disarmament—again like every other nuclear power on the planet. In the game of international diplomacy Kim has promised nothing. Understandably, the US diplomatic community is frustrated with Trump’s Twitter diplomacy. He’s just given the Koreans a major win with little in return.
The position of US imperialism on nuclear weapons stinks of hypocrisy. The US has the power to annihilate all civilization on earth several times over. They are also the only power that has ever utilized nuclear weapons. They also reserve their right to intervene anywhere in the world, where their interests are threatened. The same goes for their nuclear-armed allies in Europe, and Israel of course. Their attempt to close down the North Korean nuclear weapons program does not stem from a desire for a nuclear-free world or to save the world from a nuclear disaster. The point is that nuclear weapons of smaller states are a threat to the US’s ability to meddle in the affairs of those states. The failure of US imperialism to stop North Korea acquiring nuclear weapons expose its weakness, as did the fiasco in Syria.
Another big question is the impact on the Iranian nuclear deal. If North Korea suddenly gets treated like this after it acquires nuclear weapons, what message does that send to Iran? Trump and Israel are adamant that the Iranian deal should be scrapped (or renegotiated). Surely, the Iranian regime will now look at any deal with North Korea and think that the way forward would be to push ahead at all possible speed to their own nuclear weapons.
The whole affair amounts to somewhat of a coup on the part of the North and to some extent the South Koreans. They took all the major powers by surprise with the swiftness of their diplomatic efforts, from the brink of war to hugs and handshaking in the space of a few months. The Chinese, although in favor of the general direction of the North Korean regime, are struggling to keep up and had to dispatch their foreign minister to Korea to make sure they weren’t cut out of the talks. The Japanese scrambled to impress upon the US that their interests were not to be forgotten in a meeting between Trump and Shinzo Abe. The South Korean promise of a Nobel Peace Prize nomination was similarly playing up to Trump’s vanity, calculated to ensure that he paid attention to their interests in the forthcoming negotiations.
A lot of the present talk concerns missiles. The US would like to see North Korea’s long-range missiles decommissioned and Japan would like to see North Korea’s mid-range missiles decommissioned, and they might get what they want, depending on negotiations. For South Korea, missiles are not much of a worry, given that North Korea has enough conventional artillery to level Seoul to the ground anyway. For the South, the concerns are much more about achieving stability and guarantees for private property. They are also keen for the North to remain outside the orbit of China and Japan.
In the South, the class struggle has actually removed one of the major obstacles in the way of a peace deal. The workers of South Korea are sick and tired of the conflict and division. The Park government that fell at the end of 2016 represented the most reactionary wing of the Southern ruling class. The new government sees peace as a comparatively cheap promise to deliver on. Rather than reversing the reactionary domestic policies of Park, in order to distract attention away from its own domestic problems, it prefers to gain some credibility by making a deal with the north. Nonetheless, any respite from the class struggle derived from such a deal would be temporary. It wouldn’t do anything to resolve the economic situation in the South.
So, the powers are now all scrambling to make a deal with Kim and North Korea. Rather than facing a united front of the other five interested powers (South Korea, Japan, China, US and Russia), North Korea can now to some extent play them off one against the other. In particular, the strengthening of ties with the South could allow the North to increase its ability to negotiate independently of China.
For North Korea, this might be the last play to allow it to normalize relations with the rest of the world. The country desperately needs to develop its economy. Its productivity is lagging far behind its neighbors. No really reliable statistics exist, but estimates are around $1,300 per capita, which is 1/20th of that of the south and 1/7th of China and Russia.
The remnants of the planned economy have failed to deliver any tangible progress over the past few decades. The reason for that is that it is planned bureaucratically without workers’ control and management, and it is isolated to one very small, relatively underdeveloped country. Because of the failures of this system, the bureaucracy some time ago began looking at the Chinese road to capitalism. It seeks foreign investment in order to bring in hard cash and modern machinery. At the same time, it wants to keep control of the process, just as the Chinese bureaucracy did.
As a result of US-led sanctions, the economy is completely dependent on China, which received 87 percent of North Korea’s exports in 2016. The exports consisted of 60 percent unprocessed raw materials, in particular coal. The comparable figure is 15 percent for the south. Trade with China has pulled the North Korean economy towards a mono-economy whose sole role is to supply Chinese industries with raw materials.
Chinese influence was correspondingly large, but at some point this started to worry the North Korean bureaucracy, which was becoming weary of being sucked into the orbit of China. It is therefore looking to find support elsewhere. Apparently, Beijing’s support for a plot involving Kim Jong-un’s uncle and brother soured relations. The uncle was executed in December 2013 and the brother publicly assassinated on his way back from China in February 2017. This was as close to an insult to China as the North Koreans dared. In response, China began implementing the sanctions it had already agreed some time before, and they had an effect. Petrol prices in North Korea doubled in the second half of 2017 and exports to China fell to the lowest point since 2011 (by about 1/3rd). This clearly provided an impetus for North Korea to do as many tests as it could before the sanctions became unbearable.
From the standpoint of the imperialist countries, North Korea has massive potential. Not only does North Korea have a lot of mining resources very close to the manufacturing centre of the world, but it also has a well-educated (and very cheap) workforce. Before the latest round of sanctions bit in 2016, South Korean companies employed 53,000 workers in the Kaesong Industrial Region, just across the border in North Korea, at a cost of $90 million per year, or around $1,700 per worker. As a comparison, wages in China are on average $10,000 and in South Korea $36,000 per year. For the bourgeoisie of the neighboring countries this is a tremendous opportunity to make profits if they can get some guarantees about the safety of their investment (North Korea has on several occasions taken over foreign companies without compensation). Of course, all of that would be at the expense of the workers of the north.
The question of the reunification of Korea has been raised in relation to the recent warming of relations between the two Koreas. But that would be impossible now, given the extreme disparity between the two economies. The cost of bringing North Korea up to the level of the South would be tremendous. Some economists calculate it could be as much as $1 trillion, but it would likely be much higher. German reunification cost €2 trillion and East German GDP per capita was around €10,000, which was 2/3rd of West Germany’s GDP per capita. The South Korean bourgeoisie has no desire to undertake such a huge burden. Reunification on a capitalist basis is therefore not on the cards. Their better option is to keep the bureaucracy of the north in charge for now but make a deal to exploit the North Korean workers. In such a scenario, they would have to contend with other imperial powers doing the same, but inevitably South Korean companies would have an advantage, because of language and geography.
The division of the island was the result of the counter-revolutionary maneuvering of the US at the end of the Second World War. After the defeat of the Korean Revolution in the south with the help of US and Japanese imperialism, the country was divided in two, between the areas liberated by the victorious (Chinese-Korean) guerrilla armies, and the south. The attempt by the victorious guerrillas to conquer the south was thwarted by an invasion by the US, which threatened to take over the north. A decisive intervention by China almost won the war, but the US forces (under the UN flag) managed to fight the war to a stalemate, around the present border. A ceasefire was signed, but a peace agreement was never reached, partly due to the intransigence of the reactionary regime that had come to power in the south under Syngman Rhee, basing itself on the old Japanese colonial regime.
Korea became one of the many border regions of the Cold War. The border is heavily militarized, as much as the Berlin Wall was. Sporadic clashes have occurred in and around the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), which have killed a few hundred soldiers since the truce was signed. At present, the South Korean Army consists of around 600,000 active personnel and the North Korean around 1,000,000. It puts both countries in the top 10 for the highest number of soldiers per 1000, as well as the top 10 for the size of their armies. If you count reserves, the South Korean and North Korean armies are the biggest in the world in absolute numbers (according to 2017 figures from IISS). This has been a tremendous drag on the economic development on both sides of the border. There was a certain logic to it during the Cold War, when two economic systems (the planned economy of the north and the capitalist south) were facing off. But with the collapse of the Soviet Union, China’s transition to capitalism and North Korea’s attempt to follow China, this difference is no longer decisive.
The north emerged out of the Cold War far weaker than the south. The economy of the south was for a long time propped up by the US with a large input of capital, but no comparable aid was forthcoming from China or the Soviet Union for the north. The collapse of the Soviet Union put additional pressure on the northern economy, and within a few years the economy fell from $16 to $5 billion. The result is that the North Korean economy is one of the poorest in the world.
It was around this time that the north started its nuclear weapons program in earnest. This was never meant for offensive purposes, but to give North Korea a place at the negotiating table. The country could no longer rely on being able to balance between the Soviet Union and China, but had to stake out its own course in order to avoid becoming completely dependent on Chinese support. The Chinese nuclear weapons program was incidentally developed for much the same reason: to gain independence from the Soviet Union. In the cynical maneuverings of the Stalinist bureaucracies, in the same manner as imperialism, the small states and their independence are only small change. But a nuclear weapons arsenal, particularly with the means of delivering them to the US, makes it impossible to invade North Korea.
The past 25 years have seen a lot of deals being made and broken. Clinton made a deal with North Korea in 1994, which lasted for two years. Talks were resumed in 1999 and lasted for about a year. They were resumed a few years later, but North Korea resumed missile and nuclear bomb development. The talks finally broke down in 2009, after another missile and nuclear test by North Korea. Sanctions were implemented by the UN and gradually ramped up over the following years.
During the whole period the North Koreans gradually opened up to private property and the market. The state monopoly on foreign trade was abandoned some time ago. The majority of the economy remains in state hands, but official statistics admit that 26 percent is now in private hands and it could be even higher than that. Any deal is likely to rapidly accelerate the pace of development towards capitalism, and it would be a capitalism leaving the authoritarian regime in place, without trade unions and with the most ruthless exploitation.
One thing is clear, neither the North Korean bureaucracy, nor the various capitalist powers that are trying to muscle their way into the country, are going to defend the interests of the North Korean workers and peasants. In spite of all their bluster, the North Korean bureaucrats are a privileged caste standing above the workers, and they are already consciously preparing the way for the restoration of capitalism.
In the longer run, inward investment could stimulate a greater industrial development, as it has done in China. With this would come a strengthening of the North Korean workers and that would be the only positive thing that could come out of the present maneuverings. The real solution to the whole situation lies in building links between the workers, north and south, with the perspective of a struggle for genuine socialism, which would be the basis for a genuine reunification of the country.