The recent artillery exchanges, and deaths, in North and South Korea raised the chilling prospect of a war involving nuclear weapons.
It is impossible to know the precise detail of “who shot first” and it isn’t the key question. It is clear that South Korea’s military held a big naval exercise in the Yellow Sea that involved firing shells.
The North Korean government said these landed in its territorial waters and it retaliated by firing shells at the island of Yeonpyeong. Two construction workers and two soldiers were killed.
The South Korean government, a good friend of the US, then hurled 80 artillery shells into North Korea. Casualties have not been disclosed.
Just to ram home the message, Barack Obama then sent the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier the USS George Washington and five other warships to the Yellow Sea.
The US battle group showed support for the South Korean military and they took part in five days of war games together.
This dangerous escalation is designed to bring pressure on China to “discipline” the North. The New York Times reported, “Obama’s decision to accelerate the deployment of an American aircraft carrier group to the region is intended to prod the Chinese.”
It added that US officials “hope that by presenting Beijing with an unpalatable result—the expansion of American manoeuvres off its shores—China will decide that pressing North Korea is the lesser of two evils.”
So the US had decided to ratchet up tensions in an area bristling with troops and weaponry. Nearly 30,000 US troops remain in the South, 60 years after the Korean War. That three-year war saw the death of around four million people.
Today the North Korean state has around ten nuclear weapons. The US withdrew nuclear weapons from South Korea in 1991. But there are now moves to send them back.
North and South Korean forces clashed in 1999, 2002, 2009 and earlier this year. The recent episode serves as a warning about the tensions inside the world system—and how the great powers will use their military muscle to maintain their interests.
It’s also bloody frightening. Some slight “miscalculation” of risk by the politicians and instead of artillery exchanges something even more lethal might happen.
A sense of the mood in US right wing circles came from John McCain. He is the former Republican presidential candidate who is now regarded as a “moderate” compared to the rest of the party. McCain called for consideration of “regime change” in North Korea.
South Korea’s president Lee Myung-bak, who came to office two years ago, has moved away from the previous strategy of seeking to open up the North to investment through the use of aid. He has adopted a more hardline position.
Meanwhile the North Korean government is going through an internal crisis as it shifts its leadership from Kim Jong-Il (who may already be dead) to his son Jong-Eun.
The potential for conflict is particularly sharp at a time of economic crisis. Marxists have described capitalists as a “band of warring brothers”. They unite against the working class at crucial moments—to plug the message that we must all accept cuts, for example.
But simultaneously each state seeks to compete with others to boost “their” capitalists, defend markets and carve out influence.
Normally these battles take place at the level of economic pressure, currency wars, trade wars and so on.
But there is always a real danger that a more physical confrontation can break out. And the more desperate the economic pressure the more likely this is.
Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Alen Mattich recently wrote that competitive currency devaluations were “like shipwrecked sailors trying to stay afloat by climbing on each other’s shoulders”.
The toxic system we live under means that such competition can burst into war.