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North Korea: a divided history

This article is over 14 years, 9 months old
While North and South Korea are in peace talks, US threats towards the North remain. Ha-young Kim looks at the country’s story
Issue 2073

George Bush’s attitude toward the poverty-stricken East Asian country of North Korea demonstrates the contradictory stance of the US government.

After years of threatening North Korea over its nuclear weapons programme, Bush recently welcomed a deal reached between North and South Korea to work towards a permanent end to the Korean War of 1950-3.

This deal involved North Korea promising to disable its nuclear facilities by the end of the year.

US hostility to North Korea has a long history. Korea was divided in two at the end of the Second World War after 35 years as a Japanese colony.

Soviet troops occupied the north while the US army occupied the south. Both Russian and US imperialism crushed every sign of resistance and established loyal regimes in their halves of the peninsula.

Having received approval from the Russian leader Joseph Stalin, North Korea’s Kim Il Sung began a war to establish a united state on the peninsula in 1950.

When the US and China intervened, the Korean peninsula became the battleground for a proxy war between the imperialist powers. This resulted in the deaths of an estimated three million Koreans.

During the course of the three year war, the US considered using nuclear weapons on a number of occasions. At the height of the war in 1951, the US even carried out dummy nuclear bombing flights over North Korea’s capital Pyongyang.

However, the war ended in stalemate. Because of their memories of the war, the North Korean people still have a deep hatred of the US. For a long time this was one of the keys to the survival of the regime.

After the war the US stationed nuclear weapons in South Korea, in violation of the armistice agreement. Although the US announced that it was withdrawing its nuclear weapons from South Korea in 1991 it has continued nuclear exercises on the peninsula.

Immediately after the Korean War the US boasted that “North Korea will not recover, even in 100 years”, but the North managed to reconstruct its economy at an astonishing speed.

Kim Il Sung, who learnt his politics in the anti-Japanese guerilla struggles of the 1930s, followed the old Stalinist model and pursued high-speed industrialisation centred on heavy industry.

He drastically curtailed consumption by the North Korean people. Just like the Soviet Union, North Korea made good missiles, but useless clothes and shoes.

North Korea’s philosophy of “Juche”, or self-reliance, emerged against this background. The North Korean state insisted that “the people are the masters of the revolution and economic construction”.


But this was an order to ordinary people to work longer and harder for the construction of the economy. The endless productivity drives were given names associated with military operations against the US or Japanese.

North Korea was able to take such an independent line from the Soviet Union thanks to China. From the 1960s onward, North Korea made use of the political conflict between China and the Soviet Union.

It alternately collaborated with – or shunned – one side and then the other, according to its needs.

A high level of repression was necessary to maintain a high rate of exploitation. The regime would brook no dissent and any opposition factions were falsely branded as “US spies” and sent to the gallows.

The regime bolstered itself with purges, labour camps and a secret police. The existence of public executions and the camps was even acknowledged by the regime a few years ago.

Freedom of the press, publication, protest and association were all banned, as was the right to form trade unions. Homosexuality was outlawed and all disabled people removed from Pyongyang.

In 1972, North Korea put forward its “socialist constitution”. But there is nothing about North Korea that resembles socialism. North Korea is just as repressive and exploitative as the former military dictatorships of South Korea that received US patronage.

The North Korean economy outpaced the South’s into the 1970s, but it then began to reveal its limitations. By the 1980s, the North’s economy was on a downward curve similar to that of the Soviet Union.

The 105-storey concrete pyramid of the Ryugong Hotel in Pyongyang, begun in 1984, was supposed to be a sign of prosperity. It was never finished because of economic difficulties and is now a symbol of a ruined state.

Although North Korea did not collapse, its economy received a huge blow from the fall of the Eastern Bloc in 1989. Due to energy shortages the number of factories operating fell by more than half. Floods in the mid-1990s brought more misfortune.

This gave rise to a terrible famine in which 5 to 10 percent of the population (one to two million people) starved to death. Tens of thousands of refugees left the country.

Food shortages and infant malnutrition continue. Young South Koreans are as much as 15 centimetres taller than their counterparts in the North. The lives of ordinary people have got even worse since the North Korean government “reformed the state economy according to profit-making criteria” in July 2002.


Services formerly supplied free of charge now have to be paid for, subsidies for education and childcare have been abolished, and piece rates have been introduced in all workplaces.

While wages increased to between eight and 20 times their former level, workers have suffered greatly, particularly in the cities, as soaring inflation has seen rice prices increase to more than 500 times their former level.

Although it is often claimed that North Korea has refused to open up, this is not true. The North has wanted to pursue friendly relations with the US and Japan. It has also been keen to join the World Trade Organisation and the Asian Development Bank.

It was reported that Kim Il Sung’s son and successor Kim Jong-il told Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi in 2002 that he wanted “to sing and dance with Bush until I go hoarse”. North Korea has even said that it would not object to US soldiers remaining on the Korean peninsula.

The US has turned a deaf ear to these overtures. It even sabotaged the improvement of relations between North Korea and Japan. It did not hide its feelings of dismay at the prospect of North-South relations improving faster than North Korean-US relations.

The US has used the demonisation of North Korea as a means of dealing with the post-Cold War order in North East Asia. In 1998 the Rumsfeld Commission Report produced by the US Congress exaggerated the threat of North Korea’s long distance missiles.

It was able to secure supplementary budget funding for the construction of the Missile Defence (MD) system.


This programme is aimed at China, whose influence in the region is growing, but the US used North Korea as the excuse. South Korea is also participating in the MD system.

Despite this, its interests are not the same as the US. The majority of South Korea’s capitalist class hope that the North will become a site for new investment.

The cheap labour available at the Kaesong Industrial Complex – a complex for South Korean-owned factories recently established on the north side of the border – is attractive to them. Workers at the complex are paid £28 per month, while workers at a similar level in South Korea would be paid £1,000.

South Korean capitalists see North Korea as the conveyor belt that connects them with China, Russia and Europe.

China and the European Union have already overtaken the US as the biggest market for South Korean goods.

South Koreans no longer see the North as a major threat. They are more concerned about the possibility of a US pre-emptive strike on North Korea.

The South Korean ruling class sees the possibility of a sudden collapse of the North as just as much of a threat as North Korean nukes.

Despite tough talking from Bush, the US has not been able to intervene in North Korea. Even after it had carried out a nuclear test, the US was too bogged down in Iraq to use the military option against it.

The economic sanctions implemented by the United Nations against North Korea after the nuclear test were not effective either. China, which has the greatest influence on the North’s supply of crude oil and other trade, showed no enthusiasm for them.

Rather than let South Korea, Japan and Taiwan acquire nuclear weapons in a domino effect, the US had no choice but to begin dialogue with North Korea.

Bush, who had previously announced that “we will not reward bad behaviour”, offered North Korea shipments of heavy fuel oil and promises of other improvements in an attempt to get the country to freeze its nuclear programme.

Now Bush says that if North Korea gives up its nuclear programme it can normalise relations with the US. If Bush is serious about solving this problem he will first have to abandon his policy of hostility.

This process will not be a smooth one. There is a concern that suspicions of a North Korea-Syria nuclear connection will influence the course of North Korea-US negotiations.

Even if Bush declares the Korean War over after 54 years and concludes a peace treaty, this will not be able to guarantee peace on the peninsula.

The nightmare of war is still with us today because the emerging US-Japan alliance and the conflict with China may lead to war. There is a fear that any such war would involve South Korea.

The anti-war and workers’ movement in South Korea will resist any attempt to take us to war.

Ha-young Kim is the editor of the South Korean socialist newspaper Counterfire. Her article was translated by Owen Miller

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