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‘We’re opposing Trump’s drive to war’, say South Korean socialists

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Members of Workers' Solidarity, Socialist Worker's sister newspaper in South Korea, spoke about what's behind the nuclear tensions—and how the South Korean working class movement is responding
Issue 2572
Protests brought down South Koreas right wing government earlier this year
Protests brought down South Korea’s right wing government earlier this year (Pic: Workers’ Solidarity )

1. What is the situation in the Korean peninsula after the latest showdown between Donald Trump and North Korea?

Tensions in the Korean peninsula have heightened since Donald Trump was elected US president. This has prompted North Korea to respond with hydrogen bomb and ICBM missile tests. 

After the latest hydrogen bomb test, the Trump administration made all sorts of bellicose statements. 

Trump said, “We’ll see what happens”, when asked whether he was considering military action against North Korea. And defence secretary James Mattis spoked about “a massive military response” that may lead to “total annihilation.” 

Most recently the US said it will inflict the “strongest possible” sanctions toward North Korea—amounting to an economic blockade.

This heightened state of tensions is unlikely to lead to an immediate war, but it’s certain to add to the instability in the region. If imperialist rivalries in east Asia intensify further, things may well lead to a genuinely dangerous situation in the future. 

2. What are the rivalries and the interests behind the tensions in the area?

North Korea’s nuclear weapon programmes cannot be supported. 

By pouring an incredible amount of resources into developing nuclear bombs, North Korea has revealed that it’s not a socialist society of any kind. It’s another part of the capitalist world system.

But North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme is not the main driver of instability in east Asia. 

Their nuclear weapons are nothing compared to those of the US. There are also more than 25,000 US troops in South Korea—and the US and South Korea’s conventional weapons overwhelm those of the North. 

Since the end of the Cold War, North Korea was unable to untangle itself from the US’s strategy of containing its imperialist rivals in east Asia. One only needs to look at the map—the Korean peninsula stands between China, Japan and Russia. 

The US has been exaggerating the “threats” from North Korea for decades and used them as an excuse to project its power in the region. 

In response, the ruling bureaucracy of North Korea has rushed toward developing a nuclear weapons programme. They saw the fate of dictator Saddam Hussein, who did not have nuclear weapons and was deposed by the US’s 2003 invasion of Iraq. 

So North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme should be seen as a “blowback” of the US strategy in east Asia.

Current tensions also have to be seen in the the context of increasing imperialist rivalries. In its effort to contain China, the US is seeking to forge alliances with Asian countries that are also concerned about China’s rise. 

So Trump has also been ramping up pressure against China. It’s no coincidence that tension arose in the Himalayas—a disputed region between China and India—the Taiwan Straits, and the Korean peninsula at the same time. 

In April Trump began deploying the THAAD missiles in South Korea, using the “threat” of North Korea as a pretext. It’s part of the US’s missile defence system that intends to intercept Chinese missiles. 

North Korea had called for negotiations, but Trump and South Korean president Moon Jae-in rejected the offer. The US also started to impose sanctions on a Chinese bank for its transactions with North Korea. 

Shortly after, North Korea launched an ICBM missile.

The imperialist powers have conflicting sets of interests around Korea. China bickers with North Korea over its nuclear weapons programme, but wants to prevent a collapse of the regime. That would lead to China sharing a border with South Korea that hosts US troops. 

In August China’s state-run newspaper Global Times proclaimed that China would defend its interests in the peninsula. “If the US and South Korea carry out strikes and try to overthrow the North Korean regime, China will prevent them from doing so,” it proclaimed. 

China and Russia have divergent imperial interests, but both are wary of how the US plays up the “threat” from North Korea. 

Trump is turning up the heat on Beijing by referring to China’s “responsibility” for North Korea’s nuclear programme. Moreover, the US-China trade dispute instigated by Trump could interact with the North Korea question in ways that aggravate tensions between the two powers.

It’s possible for things to settle temporarily. 

Yet the inter-imperialist competition driving the current tensions is bound to lead to further tensions.  

3. What is the position of South Korea’s new government and how has it reacted t to the latest events?

Moon Jae-in got into office in May after protests brought down the right wing government. Because the former government had blatantly pursued a pro-US and pro-Japanese policy, many people anticipated that the new government would be different.

But Moon is betraying such expectations. He closely cooperates with Trump’s policies, including the THHAD deployment and North Korea bashing. When Moon met with Russian president Vladimir Putin, he called for an oil embargo against North Korea.

The right wing party that was brought down earlier this year is calling for redeployment of US tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea. 

The Moon administration doesn’t share this position, but talks about building South Korea’s own nuclear-powered submarines. The US opposed South Korea having its own nuclear weapon, but building nuclear submarines could be an indirect route to a nuclear weapons programme. 

Moon also announced that he will significantly boost the armed forces. 

The new government’s imperialist policy is aggravating tensions in the Korean peninsula. 

4. What’s the mood in the South Korean working class on the issue?

The right wing forces’ bellicose propaganda seems to get little response among the workers. And while many workers do worry that North Korea’s nuclear weapons may target South Korea, they also disapprove of Trump’s recklessness. 

Yet there isn’t a mood to take on questions that go beyond workplace issues. 

There’s a debate over the Moon government aligning itself with Trump. 

The majority of reformist forces pinned hopes on the Moon government, after suffering years of right wing governments. 

But Moon forcefully cracked down the local resistance against the THAAD deployment. Many workers are disappointed with this, and we’re beginning to see cracks within the people who have been supporting the government. 

That’s especially true of the ones who participated in the anti-government protests earlier this year.

This provides opportunities for the revolutionary left. 

6. How does the left intervene in the situation and what are the revolutionaries in South Korea fighting for?

North Korea’s nuclear programme has been the topic of fierce debate within the South Korean left for a long time. And many South Korean leftists are putting forward inappropriate and insufficient arguments.

Pro North Korean Stalinists advocate the nuclear programme as part of a “socialist” country’s inevitable self-defence against US imperialism. On the other hand, many pacifists collapse into equating the US and North Korea.

And some reformist socialists go as far as to criticise North Korea more than the US.

This means leftists find it difficult to build unity in the movement against THAAD. 

Workers’ Solidarity argues that South Korean leftists should focus on opposing US imperialism and the Moon government’s foreign policies. But that we should not support North Korea’s nuclear weapon as a tool for anti-imperialist struggle.

Peace will not be won from negotiations among the imperial powers and the rulers of North and South Korea. 

Workers’ Solidarity argues that we should be clear that imperialism is the main culprit. And that building an anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist working class movement is the only solution to take the struggle forward.

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