Tuesday 26 May 2009

No to War Against North Korea

The second successful underground test of a nuclear weapon by the grotesque North Korean dynasty has sent shock waves around the globe. Country after country have queued up to offer their condemnation. Even China, the one state that could be described as nearest to being North Korea's ally said it was resolutely opposed to the further testing and encouraged it to return to the disarmament talks (these talks involve China, South Korea, USA, Japan and Russia). Ratcheting the tension up further it has fired two short range missiles off its east coast, which come on top of three other missile tests that also took place on Monday. In response South Korea has announced it's joining a US-led scheme to stop and search cargo vessels suspected of ferrying nuclear technologies - the North has said it would regard a stop and search of its vessels as an act of war.

Without a doubt the North Korean regime is a deeply unpleasant police state ruled by a seriously unbalanced leader and a clique of paranoid militarists. But even here things do not occur in a vacuum. In terms reminiscent of 1930s high Stalinism, the latest communique on the disarmament talks ('Lee Myung Bak group accused of dancing to tune of the US',
here) says
The nuclear test and the launch of intercontinental ballistic missiles are the options taken by the DPRK to defend itself from the military threat increased by the imperialist forces for aggression and firmly defend the peace on the peninsula and the security of the nation. The DPRK will bolster up the war deterrent for self-defense in every way along the road already chosen by itself for the peace on the peninsula and the security of the nation no matter how others may speak ill of it as long as the U.S. hostile policy toward the DPRK and its nuclear threat and its lackeys the Lee Myung Bak war-like forces' moves to ignite a war against the north persist. The DPRK cannot take other option than the one mentioned above now that the hostile forces use the six-party talks as a lever for infringing upon the sovereignty of the DPRK, disarming and stifling it.
North Korea has a point. The Cold War may be long consigned to the history books but the militarisation of the Korean peninsula has continued apace since the Soviet Union's collapse. At present (according to Global Security) the US army has 29,000 personnel stationed in the south, with a further 587,000 South Korean troops. This is backed by 2,300 tanks, 790 aircraft and 162 war ships. On the surface these appear outclassed by the North's forces - 1.12 million troops (4.7 million in reserve), 3,500 tanks, 1.500 planes and 420 warships. However, the quality of their hardware is inferior to that available to US-led forces nor is it likely the North's industrial base would be able to adequately resupply its forces during a shooting war. And the leadership know this - hence the premium it has put on developing missile and nuclear technology. The North is also rumoured to possess a cache of chemical and biological weaponry.

The roots of North Korean militarism lie in a mix of Cold War geopolitics and the reluctance of the Soviet Union to provide for its defence or share military technology with the regime after the Sino-Soviet split at the beginning of the 60s - a position confirmed to Kim Il Sung with the USSR's perceived betrayal of Cuba after the Cuban missile crisis. After the USSR collapsed the North attempted to reach some accommodation with the US, proposing a non-aggression pact with the US, which the latter rejected in favour of the six party disarmament talks - all the while maintaining its own forces in the south. For a regime solely concerned with its own survival, with very few friends and faced by the world's only military superpower's desire to see it neutralised, it is easy to understand how the North's geopolitical position helps explain its militarism. Just because you're paranoid does not mean they're
not out to get you.

If war came to the Korean peninsular it would be absolutely devastating and at the very least threaten to drag Japan into what would be, for the North, an unwinnable conflict. If the US was really concerned about turning the militarist tide it would set about withdrawing its troops. Only once its presence has been removed from the South can real progress be made in demilitarising the Koreas and the road opened to a peaceful reunification.


Dave Semple said...

I'm afraid I have to disagree with you here. Of course, I am opposed to a war against North Korea. It would be far from the act of liberal humanitarian interventionism that it would be portrayed as: it would be both reckless (more on this in a moment) and counter-productive to establishing a Korea free of US / Chinese / Russian imperial interests.

It would be a reckless war since the North Koreans have enough regular artillery and short range ballistic missiles to turn Seoul into a glorified pile of rubble, even without the nuclear option. This is what the US would essentially force North Korea to do, if it started a shooting war.

With this in mind, there is absolutely zero justification for the DPRK to have nuclear weapons. It would surely be preferable to lose a war than to use weapons of mass destruction against Japan or South Korea - especially since the use of such weapons might trigger their counter-use by the USA.

This is the argument that CND, Militant and others have been making for years when we discuss getting rid of the British bomb. We say that Britain should retire from such a forward role in the global order, and that we should accept the loss of a war rather than employ such destructive measures - even if they are used against us.

Whilst the position of North Korea within the global order is different, the role of the bomb as deterrent is surely not. As such, we should advocate there just as here a unilateral nuclear disarmament. Workers under the rule of a resurgent capitalist power is surely better than an irradiated wilderness from which all life has been extirpated.

Phil said...

Actually I agree with you. I can understand why the North Korean regime has acquired all kinds of hideous weaponry, but I certainly do not condone them doing so. North Korea is certainly no friend of our class and its development has been distorted by its emphasis on military production.

There is another question that arises from this. Personally I do not believe the North is any kind of a workers' state - but that aside, and despite the left's proud record campaigning against nuclear weaponry, there is a case sometimes made for keeping hold of any and all weaponry we get hold of after a socialist revolution. This is on the grounds a cache of chemical, biological and nuclear weaponry is the best deterrence against interventions of foreign powers seeking to strangle the revolution at birth. If a revolutionary government inherits nuclear weapons, is it wise to keep hold of them or better to make a grand statement to the world by scrapping them?

ModernityBlog said...

what dave semple said

Socialists should be clearly against ALL nuclear testing, no matter who does it.

I really can't take too serious the argument that all that has to happen is for the US to move out of Korea (which would probably be a good idea anyways), because they've been there for 50+ years and so if you wish to understand the dynamic at play here, you have to say, what's changed, which made these awful nuclear tests possible?

(hint: It ain't the US troops in South Korea)

Phil said...

I suppose we've got to look at what can break the dynamics that sustain the last Cold War frontier, Mod. In the first place, as far as I'm aware the South Korean left are opposed to the presence of US troops. I'd prefer to defer to them on that point, backed by the evidence that US troops elsewhere have hardly advanced the interests of working class people or created more favourable opportunities for socialist politics.

But this is a starting point. The removal of the US would not bring peace or a lasting treaty in and of itself, but it might allow an opening. After all like all Stalinist regimes the North's rulers are looking to perpetuate and reproduce themselves - they don't want to be overthrown by internal revolt or external intervention.

Anonymous said...

"...the North Koreans have enough regular artillery and short range ballistic missiles to turn Seoul into a glorified pile of rubble, even without the nuclear option. This is what the US would essentially force North Korea to do, if it started a shooting war. With this in mind, there is absolutely zero justification for the DPRK to have nuclear weapons."

I don't believe this is true Dave, unfortunately Nuclear Weapons offer an entirely different class of deterrent. There is an imaginable chance that the annihilation of Seoul by artillery could be avoided. However, Nuclear Weapons offer a guarantee of some sort of Armageddon (on top of a psychological fear which would turn the public against any war), artillery just isn't scary enough.

North Korea are hoping for some sort of Nuclear Peace. Plus as I've said on Socialist Unity, a stronger Nuclear Deterrent means their conventional army can be reduced, or reallocated.

I do 100% agree with your concluding point however. I just understand the logic of NK's position.

ModernityBlog said...

"but it might allow an opening."Sorry, you've lost me.

Let me get this right? Someone sets off a nuclear weapon, and so by default it must be the Americans' fault?

And only if we could rid the Korean peninsula of Americans, then peace would come? Sounds more airy-fairy wishful liberalism than Marxist materialism?

Surely, the starting place is to say, what dynamic is in play within the North Korea ruling class and why did they push this forward?

Dave Semple said...

@Phil. Any workers' movement that has within its power nuclear weapons should get rid of them. Period. The basic question is this; are there literally any circumstances in a workers' republic would consider the murder of millions of workers? If the answer is yes, then I want no part of it.

By this I don't mean to indicate a fetishisation of death (in the Marxist rather than the sexual sense, obviously). The possibility of a workers' republic having to fight a revolutionary war of defence to survive is entirely possible. But nuclear weapons go beyond war; at least with conventional warfare, there exists the objective possibility of inspiring other workers in the aggressor nations to come to your rescue.

The best propagandist would find it hard to do that if they turned the enemy cities into glass.

@ leftoutside.

Sure their conventional army can be reallocated, however, do you have any idea how expensive a nuclear programme is? Moreover, just because it creates the conditions to redeploy members of the armed forces doesn't mean that's going to happen. Bearing in mind the militarist character of the North Korean regime, I sincerely doubt it will.

I also reject your point about the Nuclear Peace. This is not mutually assured destruction. If a war breaks out, North Korea will lose, with or without nuclear weapons. After all, we're only speaking of Hiroshima-sized devices.

Speaking in the only role I can - which is a socialist who wishes to speak to the people of North Korea, not the government - I would urge North Korean workers to the view that North Korea and workers everywhere would be better if any potential war was lost without nuclear weapons, which would serve only the prideful rage of North Korea's ruling class.

Unknown said...

of course the US and south Korea if provoked enough could in fact neutralize north Korea within minutes using the worst case scenario of nuclear weapons, today's tomahawk and cruise missiles could hit their targets withing minutes in sufficient quantity as to render dprk harmless . literally ..in minutes..

Dave O said...


Do you/the Socialist Party consider North Korea to be a workers' state of any description?

Do you still uphold Trotsky's position that the ruling caste is an 'inconvenient hireling' of the proletariat that objectively upholds proletarian property relations and therefore has to be defended against capitalist restoration?

ModernityBlog said...

America is not really interested in North Korea, hardly any oil there? eh?

Anyway, China is the key, no one, but no one is going to attack North Korea as long as China is around

So the questions descend to the basics:

should socialists be critical of nation states that test nuclear weaponry ? and waste billions on useless missile systems, at the expense of social spending and a starving population?

We shouldn't have to ask such questions, but .....

Anonymous said...

The recent speight of activity on the peninsula is as much to do with a succession race within the regime as their usual tub-thumping.

If this forces the international community to AT LAST act on North Korea then it's a good thing...

However, I predict enough won't be done. Kim Jong Il will die and the military will fight the party bureaucracy for power, all to the obvious detriment of the North Korean people.

Anonymous said...

Hey Phil, I'd appreciate your take on my post over at http://leftoutside.wordpress.com/2009/05/27/the-logic-and-lunacy-of-kim-jong-il

Anonymous said...

Ahem, I mean "Hey Phil, I'd appreciate your take on my post over at Left Outside"

Phil said...

Mod, I put it to you that it's the height of liberalism to suppose US forces can play any role on the Korean peninsula. They are there now for the same reason they were there during the Cold War - to defend the interests of US capital in the region.

It's also the height of liberalism to pretend North Korean's brinkmanship is happening in a vacuum. Why are they paranoid? Why does it direct a great deal of its puny resources to building up a large military machine?

This is not to 'defend' North Korea - but to understand the balance of power on the Korean peninsula, it's context, context, context.

Phil said...

Dave, I don't believe North Korea is a workers' state. It might have some progressive features but as far as I'm concerned, it's the content of property relations that determine the class character of a particular state and not the form they assume. If, for example we took the form of capitalist property relations above their content, we'd be liberals, not socialists.

However the party "line" is that the North Korean monarchy remains a deformed workers' state.

ModernityBlog said...

This type of discussion is increasingly taking on a surreal flavour, which is both annoying and perturbing because, if much of the British left can't make a conscious effort to recognise the real issues concerning North Korea and are dragged into some form of reflexive anti-Americanism then surprise surprise it will lead to political dead ends.

It will lead to a chunk of the British left being isolated on foreign policy issues, as they played out politics to some template constructed 60 years ago by Trotsky.

You wouldn't believe that we are in the 21st century, with nations testing nuclear weapons, proliferating nuclear technology, etc and the issue of the day, we are told, is "Get America out of South Korea". Oh yeah!

That is as likely as Emperor Kim standing as leader of the Tory party.

I await with anticipation, to be told, what exactly is progressive about North Korea?

The fact it is a police state? the fact that it starves its own population? the fact it wastes precious monies on weaponry? etc

So what is progressive about North Korea?

Or should we dispense with redundant and extremely outdated Trotskyist slogans, which seemed to be a substitute for trying to think about these situations, in an original fashion, which is surely the requirement?

Phil said...

It's only going to go round in circles Mod because you're determined to abstract the actions of the North Korean leadership from the context they're taking place in. Sure, they are an actor with their own agenda, but their strategies are deployed in a context that has formed out of the USA's attempt to keep the region under its hegemony. If you fail to analyse this context, sooner or later you're left with the sort of "analysis" that explains everything by resorting to what's going on in the Dear Leader's head.

ModernityBlog said...

"Sure, they are an actor with their own agenda, but their strategies are deployed in a context that has formed out of the USA's attempt to keep the region under its hegemony."Okay I'm game, it seems a nonsensical argument to me, but let's follow the logic through of your case, so we're told that the primary problem is not nuclear weapons ,not material weaponry, but American hegemony.

1. Let us forget for the moment that no one in their right mind is going to invade North Korea, there is nothing there but starving people and a dictatorial ruling class (still waiting to be told which particular element of North Korea is progressive)

2. But let us take it as a given that American hegemony is the worse possible problem here and everything else follows from that.

3. Thus, getting America out of South Korea should then be the campaign slogan, irrespective of how immaterial it is to the lives of millions threaten by nuclear weapons.

4. Roll the clock forward, suppose that happens and America leaves South Korea.

5. What next? Does North Korea stands down all its troops and starts unilateral nuclear disarmament?

How likely is that? honestly, how likely is that?

Dave O said...


Do you not think your party's line is laughable?

Neil said...

The 'party line' as it's called is not quite as ridiculous as it may seem.

I think all are agreed here that an invasion of North Korea (unlikely as that is to happen) for the purposes of regime change would be unacceptable and so already we will be taking a form of defense of North Korea although not necessarily because it is a workers state. I imagine most people would oppose it on humanitarian grounds. Nevertheless that is still a tacit acknowledgement that the North Korean regime, appalling as it is, is still better than a foreign invasion and all that goes with it.

Now let us consider what regime change in a capitalist direction would mean concretely. In all likelihood this would take the form of shock therapy as we saw in Eastern Europe and Iraq after the American invasion. I have no doubt this would bring about the complete collapse of North Korean society, leading to a humanitarian catastrophe. Even a slower return to capitalism I believe would bring even bigger suffering for the people of north Korea and if anyone thinks the restoration of capitalism will go hand in hand with liberal democracy I have a picturesque bridge here in London I'd like to sell you.
At best all the people of North Korea could hope for on the basis of capitalism would be something similar to Turkmenistan and it's highly unlikely they would get even that, in fact I think North Korea would turn into a failed state like Somalia if the planned economy was destroyed.
So that is what is progressive about the planned economy as it exists today, not that it is particularly good but that capitalism would be even worse.

A few words on the North Korean famines. There is no doubt NK Songun (military first policy) imposes enormous hardships on the NK people. However there are deeper causes for the food shortages.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, NK's closest trade partner, the Russian federation cut all fuel supplies to NK. Thanks to the Western imposed embargo on NK it was unable to buy fuel on the world market. This meant basic fuel to keep farm machinery going was no longer present. Even worse the raw materials for making fertilisers and pesticides disappeared overnight. Farm yields collapsed from 1991 onwards. As if that wasn't bad enough in the mid 90's NK suffered two years of heavy rains leading to catastrophic floods that wiped out 10% of its arable farmland.

Since then NK is kept afloat by aid from the US and China, although much of this aid is a consequence of it’s nuclear diplomacy. The fact remains though, that the famine was a problem not of the making of the regime. It is true to say that the suffering from that famine was made worse by the policies of the regime.

ModernityBlog said...

I don't suppose that I will get an answer to my above points, but then again this is probably one of the reasons why such discussions become antagonistic and bitter, the inability of modern-day British socialists to engage with their interlocutor's points and thus hone their arguments. Instead, arguments are ignored, inconvenient facts brushed under the carpet, etc.,

Still, Neil has made some points, concerning how beneficial the centralised economy in North Korea is? I suppose as an aside that implies that it is in someway "progressive"?

But let's engage with Neil's statements:

Concerning the possibility of a nonexistent invasion by America, Neil wrote:

"I have no doubt this would bring about the complete collapse of North Korean society, leading to a humanitarian catastrophe."They are already there, there is a major humanitarian crisis in North Korea already and only a propping up of the Juche ruling class and the military holds the country together. There is a massive shortage of food in North Korea already, and for years South Korea was shipping food in.

But let's dispense with this completely, America by her own admission couldn't successfully implement real regime change in Iraq, a far simpler proposition. So the likelihood of them even trying in North Korea, with their million strong army and militia is next to nonexistent. It is a political red herring.

"So that is what is progressive about the planned economy as it exists today, not that it is particularly good but that capitalism would be even worse"Surely, we should judge something by what it does?

By how it materially effects people's existences? The command and control economy in North Korea only has one aim in mind, to keep the North Korean ruling class in power. That's it.

And what precisely does the North Korean ruling class spend their precious resources on?

Pandering to their leader's whims, building up useless military capacity, launching missiles, wasting billions on useless nuclear technology and proliferating nuclear weaponry around the world.

Which is not very progressive when you balance them up.

Back to the topic of nukes?

Anyone interested in evidence of famine in North Korea could do worse than look at these links, from 1998 onwards:


Phil said...

First things first, Mod. I'm not tied to this blog so it might take a few days before I get round to answering your points.

It seems to me you still cannot get your head around the context in which the present crisis is taking place. I do not support nuclear weapons and certainly don't have any brief for the North Korean regime. That said, given the world superpower has a track record of invading/subverting troublesome countries, only a few short years ago publicly announced North Korea was on its "hit list", and has an army sitting on the border, you begin to understand why an already paranoid regime might see nuclear arms an attractive option.

To anyone who doesn't have illusions in the progressive humanitarian mission of the US military - and yes Mod, your arguments suggest they have - the route out of the crisis is to alter the dynamics sustaining it, and these dynamics come back to US hegemony. If they sign the non-aggression treaty with the North (remember, it was they who offered it and the US refused - why?) and began withdrawing, real movement on cross border travel, trade and aid is possible. But as long as the US sees it as an outpost of their sphere of influence this cycle of confrontation, talk, walks outs, weapon tests, confrontation, etc. will go on and on until it becomes a shooting war.

ModernityBlog said...

Phil, you wrote:

"It seems to me you still cannot get your head around the context in which the present crisis is taking place."Ahh Phil, you make me a laugh, it seems to me I am waiting for others to put cogent arguments, not trot out a line in a rather bored fashion, and I still haven't had a reply to my above point, "how likely is it?"

you wrote: "the world superpower has a track record of invading/subverting troublesome countries, only a few short years ago publicly announced North Korea was on its "hit list","We all know the US's record, but that does not change the *geography* of the region

Nothing, but nothing will happen to North Korea as long as China is her patron. The US is in decline and like an old circus lion, it can roar, strut around a bit, but it has a rather toothless bite nowadays.

China is the key player here and no one is going to attack North Korea with the many millions in the People's Army standing the other side of the border.

"To anyone who doesn't have illusions in the progressive humanitarian mission of the US military - and yes Mod, your arguments suggest they have"Phil, you are an academic, it would be best if you tried to INFER less in to what others say and actually address the points they make, but for the record:

I don't think the US is progressive, NOT progressive, got that? but neither is a Stalinist mini state which starves its people and wastes billions on weaponry.

So back to your point, US hegemony.

It does not exist in that region, China is the big player, the rest is a by gone memory of MacArthur.

and still the question of nukes and their proliferation exists

Boffy said...


I'm a bit confused by your statements about the class nature of North Korea. You correctly state that for a Marxist the criteria is the content of the property relations, but then rather than tell us that that content is, which class exactly it is whose content fills these relations your only reference is to Monarchy!

But, Monarchy is not a form of class society, it is merely a political institution. In fact we have seen Monarchies under three different types of class society under slave society, under feudalism and under Capitalism. I suppose if you distort anthropolgy enough you can also refer to Monarchy udner Primitive Communism.

The point is that its not this political form that is significant but the class content that determines the true nature of that political institution. As far as I can see in North Korea, both the feudal class and the Capitalist class such as it was, were overthrown, and the material foundations of those classes destroyed by the abolition of private property. So if we want to look at what class it is that fills the content of that property form we have to start, surely from that fact. We can only conclude that the ruling CLASS must be either the workers or peasantry or some new undefined class.

As a Marxist I do not believe that the peasantry can fulfill such a role, and I have to be given proof of the existence of some new class.

Phil said...

Mod, US hegemony is alive and well in the region. True it is being challenged by China and Russia, but what's new? That has been the case since the US defeat of Japan.

Where we differ is you separate the issue of nuclear proliferation from US activity in the region - I don't. Because they are intertwined one cannot realistically decouple a political strategy against the North's nuclear weapons from the dynamics that sustains confrontation between the Koreas.

Arthur, I'm not an expert on North Korea and I am wary of making any hard and fast statements about it without at least a cursory analysis of its political economy. But what I do know is that where the bureaucratic plan of production is controlled by and has sustained a stable self-perpetuating elite that behaves like an absolutist monarchy, serious questions have got to be asked about the application of Trotsky's provisional schema to North Korean society.

Boffy said...


All scientific theories are provisional in the sense that we try to disprove them, and replace them with soemthing more adequate, including Trotsky's Theory about the Degenerated Workers State. However, by the same token until such time as a theory IS disproved it stands.

Like you I am no expert on North Korea. But, I do know that the old exploiting classes were uprooted along with private property, which is the mateial foundation upon which both of those classes depend.

Now you claim that there exists a self-perpetuating elite in North Korea. Is that true? I don't know. If you mean the succession of the Kim's that is indisputable, but the succession of a Father by his son in a political office does not prove the existence of a self-sustaining elite - nor indeed, is it unknown in other class societies political regimes.

I heard the same claim about the USSR, but any analysis of the actual elite shows it was not true. The vast majority of the last Politburo, including Gorbachev himself, were not the sons of previous bureaucrats, but the children of peasants and workers. At least one grew up in a State orphanage!!!!

Without proof of the lineage of the bureaucrats in North Korea, therefore, I am reluctant to just take at face value the idea that those who make up the Bureaucracy, are any more self-perpetuating than is say the Trade Union bureaucracy in Britain! After all we don't like that bureacracy either, we recognise its role frequently in acting against workers in those very Trade Unions. Nevertheless, it is a workers bureaucracy, a bureacracy that arises on the back of workers organisations, and a weak workers democracy in those unions, a bureaucracy, which, however, much its interests vary from those of the workers is still dependent for its existence upon those Trade Unions, and is forced on occasion to respond to the needs of the workers within them.

You may be right that a self-perpetuating elite exists in North Korea. It would then resemble the bureacracy of the Asiatic Mode of production, and the Glorious Leader would occupy the same role as the Chinese Emperor. I do not rule out that possibility. That would mean that it was a caste based rather than class based society, requiring all the trapppings of laws, rituals and tabboos, moral codes etc. of a caste system that ensures that control of the means of production is passed on through family lines.

But, if that is the case I await the evidence of all those things. Uttil then, I will stick with the existing theory that in the absence of private property, in the absence of a bouregosiie or feudal class standing upon it, then the ruling class must be the working class, and the reactionary nature of the society simply demonstrates that there is no necessary equation between the term Workers State and the term Socialism.

ModernityBlog said...


Your exchange with Bough is a prime example as to why the British Left don't get much support: detachment from reality.

Discuss the important issue of the nukes, hardly a comment, but bring up old and redundant theories from Trotsky and whoosh reams of guff.

I hope you can see that (and of course you could confirm that by doing a post at SU on Nukes, then a few days later one on workers' state stuff, I'll bet you get 3-5 times the comments on the latter) :)

Joe said...

Did it ever dawn on anyone that Pyongyang are the ones provoking war?