Back to the nuclear brink

February 10, 2011

From the Jan.-Feb. 2011 issue of News & Letters:


Back to the nuclear brink

The continuing threat of war on the Korean Peninsula, the nature of debate over the just-ratified New START nuclear arms reduction treaty, and the “wisdom” Homeland Security has shared with us on surviving a nuclear attack, all underscore the urgency of the Marxist-Humanist perspective: the opposite of war is not peace, but revolution.

North Korea last Nov. 23 returned the question of war and nuclear annihilation to world attention by raining deadly artillery shells down on South Korean-controlled Yeonpyeong Island, killing two civilians and two South Korean marines. It sank a South Korean naval ship in March, killing 46 sailors, leading South Korea to end most trade and aid; then it raised the nuclear threat level in October by revealing a massive plant for separating out bomb-grade uranium-235.

The North Korean regime has survived since World War II, buttressed by the mythology built around founder Kim Il-sung as the great liberator of Korea from Japan’s colonial rule. Its “military first” (sungon) policy funneling resources to military forces has made it a nuclear power at the expense of starving over two million North Koreans in the last two decades. Last year’s currency revaluation has revived fears of a return to the worst days of famine.


Escalation of international tensions, which always strengthens military dominance over North Korean society, also benefits succession to office of Kim Jong-il’s 20-something son Kim Jong-un. As the Korean Peninsula remains the last partitioned country created by Cold War rivalries after World War II, North Korean saber-rattling, pinned between China and the U.S. fleet, renews the threat of World War III as each nuclear-armed power–North Korea, the U.S. and China–reacts in ways that raise the risk of war.

The Obama administration, vowing to stand “shoulder-to-shoulder” with South Korea, hastily ordered an aircraft carrier task force to the Yellow Sea for joint naval exercises with South Korea. On Dec. 3, the U.S. and Japan began an eight-day joint military exercise of 44,000 troops near the Peninsula. If there were a war, the ten million citizens of Seoul, a stone’s throw from the border, would be among the first casualties.

President Obama’s plans to defuse the situation seem to begin and end with leaning on China to rein in North Korea. China, which has an interest in maintaining easy access to North Korea’s mineral wealth, pointedly did not condemn its artillery attack, but did condemn the U.S.-South Korea joint naval exercises.

China’s suggestion, accepted by North Korea, to restart six-party talks–between North and South Korea, the U.S., China, Japan and Russia–was first rejected by the U.S. and Japan. Now the U.S. is promoting those talks but South Korea is holding back.


Despite this months-long reminder of nuclear brinksmanship, Republican Senators made the New START arms reduction treaty with Russia unusually partisan by filibustering it along with all other Obama initiatives. Using old Cold War rhetoric they claimed treaty provisions, which in general cut the maximum missiles in active service by one-third to 1550 per side, fettered only the U.S. This placed Republicans to the right of their hero Ronald Reagan, who favored a zero nuclear world. They did follow Reagan’s hypocrisy, as he had simultaneously promoted nuclear escalation with his “Star Wars” anti-missile defense systems.

Obama caught that legacy of Reagan: as his administration “defended” the New START treaty he assured Senators that it would not interfere in expanding anti-missile emplacements across Eastern Europe facing Russia. By promising billions for modernizing nuclear facilities, Obama seduced defectors from the Republican side, including two right-wing Tennessee Senators. Even so, the treaty was ratified 71-26 on Dec. 22, by a narrow margin over the two-thirds vote required.


The Homeland Security Department’s revised report on surviving a nuclear attack, issued on Dec. 16, that urged victims to get behind a brick wall and “shelter in place,” was met with universal derision. “Shelter in place” was mocked as a remake of “duck and cover,” the watchword of 1950s nuclear “preparedness.” “Duck and cover” addressed the real and near-universal fears of a nuclear holocaust. It did not allay those fears, as surveys at the time confirmed, but it attempted to make the idea of threatening nuclear war acceptable.

“Shelter in place” addressed those old fears and the fears of terrorism that have been stoked for political gain since before Sept. 11, 2001. The Homeland Security report assumed a nuclear device, smaller than the bomb that devastated Hiroshima, detonated by terrorists. This report is part of legitimizing the endless war on faceless terrorists–as against the real terror threat of anti-abortion and Tea Party zealots.

The only real future that state-capitalism in all its forms has in store for humanity is endless wars and immiseration. Neither Obama’s pragmatism nor that of China’s Communist Party leadership presents a real alternative to that.

To fully oppose the war moves by all parties to this conflict means to confront exploitative capitalism and its barbaric wars across the globe, and to base that opposition on a total concept of what we are for: social revolution. War will continue to be a present reality until the achievement of a revolutionary uprooting of the old and the creation of a new human society.

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