By Simon Basketter
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South Korea – a state built for empires

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Issue 2546
Protests ousted president
Protests against Park Geun-hye have ousted the president (Pic: workers solidarity)

Exploding Samsung phones are no more a cause of the crisis in South Korea than the disgraced president Park Geun-hye buying Viagra on expenses for altitude sickness.

But they are both a reflection of a real crisis that runs deep to the heart of the South Korean state.

Mass mobilisation forced Park Geun-hye from office after she accepted multi-million pound bungs in return for political favours.

The “mystic” Choi Soon-sil has been charged with using her connections with Park to persuade companies to donate more than £60 million to her “charities”.

Jay Y Lee, de facto head of the Samsung smartphone and shipbuilding empire, spent the night in jail in January.

Park Guen hye

Park Geun-hye (Pic:

Samsung’s nominal boss Lee Kun-hee is South Korea’s richest person with £10.1 billion.

His son Jay Y is accused of shifting £30 million to Park to ease the merger of two Samsung subsidiaries.

Samsung is the biggest of the conglomerates called “chaebol” that dominate the economy.


The elder Lee was convicted twice on bribery charges. He was sentenced to jail time he didn’t serve, receiving presidential pardons.

Park became entangled with the Choi family after her mother was killed in a failed assassination attempt targeting her father, then-dictator of South Korea Park Chung-hee, in 1974.

The elder Choi—a religious cult leader—claimed to be in communication with Park’s mother’s spirit. Choi Soon-sil, the daughter, took over that role after he died in 1994.

Park’s father was killed in 1979 by the head of the Korean CIA, Kim Jae-gyu. He told a court that one of his motives was the leader’s failure to stop Choi’s corrupting influence.

There were also mass demonstrations threatening to bring down the government which may have focused his actions.

General Park Chung Hee came to power in a coup in 1961. Both Park and Kim graduated from the US military school in 1946.

US involvement since 1945 has been key. The US anointed the first president of South Korea, Syngman Rhee, who had spent the previous 35 years in America.

The CIA flew him to Seoul in US army head General MacArthur’s private plane.

On 14 August 1945 US president Harry Truman ruled that Japanese troops south of the 38th parallel, an arbitrary line across Korea, should surrender to the US. Troops north of the line surrendered to Russia.


The state was cut in half and ordinary people had no say about it. The end of Japanese imperialism marked the beginning of the country’s domination by the US and Russia.

Both Russian and US imperialism tried to crush every sign of resistance and established loyal regimes in their halves of the peninsula.

Neither of the dictators chosen by the superpowers turned out to be simply puppets who would do whatever they were told.

Having received approval from the Russian leader Joseph Stalin, North Korea’s Kim Il Sung began a war in 1950.

The US got United Nations (UN) backing to intervene and sent in 1.5 million troops. Some 63,000 British troops were among other forces to join the invasion.

The Chinese government sent troops to support the North. The war was fought in the interests of the intervening countries.

It killed and wounded at least four million Koreans and created another 20 million refugees. Two million Korean civilians died, and half the Southern population lost their homes.

At the height of the war in 1951, the US carried out dummy nuclear bombing flights over North Korea’s capital Pyongyang. And it used more napalm in the three-year war than in the ten years of Vietnam.


After three years they had fought to a stalemate and neither side could continue without escalating to an open superpower conflict.

The final demarcation line was the same as at the beginning.

The futile and barbaric war summed up the Cold War.

Korean war

The Korean war killed millions (Pic: National Archives)

After the war the US stationed nuclear weapons in South Korea. A deep hatred of the US, based on memories of the war, was key to the survival of the regime in the North.

North Korea alternately collaborated with—or shunned—Russia and China. Its economy went on to grow rapidly and overtake South Korea’s.

This was not communism but “state capitalism”—where the state, instead of private capitalists, accumulated capital and competed for profits on the global market. Following the path already taken in 1930s Russia, it had the same appalling human cost.

Increasing globalisation during the 1970s put state capitalist economies at an increasing disadvantage. And the collapse of Russia strengthened China’s influence.

In contrast, the US backed South Korea as a bulwark against the North. South Korea owes its entire existence to the US military, and continues to be home to US soldiers.

The vast US military presence and investment in the South allowed industrial growth.

The Korean War also provided a huge boost to the economy of Japan, then the most important staging post for US forces.


The direct and indirect economic benefits from the US presence helped to provide a motor for growth in Korea itself.

South Korea was the recipient of huge amounts of US aid. It also came to be used as an offshore manufacturing base for Japanese companies seeking cheap labour.

After the US-approved coup, Park Chung Hee’s regime took close control of the economy, planning its growth.

That also led to a close relationship between the state, banks and industry. The intermingling of global politics continues.

It is telling of the nature of the right wing in South Korea that the families of the 2014 Sewol ferry sinking were branded “pro-North Korea commies”. The disaster claimed more than 300 victims, 250 of them school students.

Park made the decision last year to deploy a US-made missile defence system. Despite her impeachment the acting president, Hwang Kyo-ahn, pushed ahead with the plan beginning the deployment this month.

This tilt to reassure the US sours relations with China. But now China, as a home to exports both for goods and for parts, is vital to the Korean economy.

The shutting down of an economic cooperation zone with North Korea last year was also as a direct result of US power plays in the region.

comrade selling our paper

A comrade selling our sister organisations paper (Pic: workers solidarity)

But there has always been a strong alternative to imperial manoeuvres and ruling class corruption in the strength and militancy of the Korean working class.

The years between 1945 and the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 were tumultuous.


Workers in the North and South began to take control of factories formerly owned by Japanese capitalists. Throughout the country new organs of democracy sprang up —the people’s committees.

In August and September 1945 a People’s Republic of Korea was declared in Seoul as a provisional government based on the people’s committees formed in every part of the country.

The US and Russia clamped down on any expressions of popular democracy. But industrialisation also created a powerful workforce.

In 1960 after student protests against corruption were met with brutal repression, demonstrations escalated and brought down the president. They did so again in the late 1970s.

In 1987 demonstrations by students and sections of the middle class shook the military regime, forcing it concede a degree of liberalisation. It was followed in 1988 by a series of major strikes which were settled when workers won double digit wage increases.

Repeatedly in the last two decades Korean workers have faced repression only to organise and resist with massive militant mobilisations.

Park had tried to repress the workers’ movement in Korea. In October last year more than 20 trade union leaders and activists were in prison.

But workers at Hyundai also struck and won significant rises. It was strikes by rail workers that lifted off the current movement.

It was the almost constant mass mobilisation of millions of people on the streets that brought Park down. It will be them that can take power from the generals, the spies and the chaebol bosses.



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