War threat over Korea

December 9, 2010

The continuing threat of war on the Korean Peninsula underscores the urgency of the Marxist-Humanist perspective that the opposite of war is not peace but revolution. North Korea seized the focus of war, peace and nuclear annihilation on Nov. 23 by raining deadly artillery shells down on South Korean-controlled Yeonpyeong Island. The artillery attack appeared to be meticulously planned–“precisely aimed,” North Korea claimed, against military installations. Yet entire fishing villages were destroyed, and two civilians were killed as well as two South Korean marines.

The North Korean regime has survived since 1945, even after the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union, that state-capitalist regime calling itself Communism. The Korean Peninsula to this day rumbles with periodic military attacks. North Korea is pushing ahead its nuclear weapons program, right next door to China, itself armed with hundreds of nuclear warheads, while nuclear-armed U.S. submarines patrol the surrounding seas. Behind these facts lurk the threat of World War III as each nuclear-armed power–North Korea, the U.S., and China–maneuvers in ways that raise the risk of war.

The regime’s justification for supremacy of the military within North Korean society rests on the real, imagined, and manufactured magnitude of external threats–above all, military confrontation across the demilitarized zone with South Korea and the U.S. It is bolstered by the mythology built around founder Kim Il-sung as the great liberator of Korea from Japan’s colonial rule. The “military first” (sungon) policy that funnels resources to nuclear and conventional military forces gives the military inner circle the final word–and has caused death by starvation of over two million North Koreans in the last two decades. A currency revaluation earlier this year caused great civilian distress, including fears of a return to the worst days of famine. Refugees have reported rising discontent among the population.


Since last year North Korea has raised the level of confrontation, leading up to the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island. In April 2009 North Korea ended six-party talks aimed at agreements for limiting its nuclear weapons program in exchange for food aid, in a place where the UN considers 50% of children to be malnourished.

In March North Korea sank the South Korean naval ship Cheonan, killing 46 sailors, leading South Korea to end most remaining trade and aid. In October North Korea raised the nuclear threat level by revealing a massive plant for separating out bomb-grade uranium-235.

Kim Jong-il’s 20-something son Kim Jong-un, who just found his first job, as a four-star general, needs accomplishments for his second job, replacing his father. Endorsement of Kim Jong-un by senior military leaders enhances their control. But escalation of external tensions has at all times benefited internal control by the military–all they are risking is every starving member of the population if someone missteps.


Debate over response to North Korea, in this Tea Party era, includes voices calling for restarting the Korean War or even dropping a nuclear bomb on North Korea. The South Korean government replaced its Defense Minister, but has otherwise called for caution. If there were a war, the ten million citizens of Seoul–a city a stone’s throw away from the border–would be among the first casualties.

The Obama administration has met North Korea’s brinksmanship with its own. It hastily ordered an aircraft carrier task force to the Yellow Sea for joint naval exercises with South Korea ending Dec. 1. On Dec. 3, the U.S. and Japan began an eight-day joint military exercise of 44,000 troops near the Peninsula. President Obama’s diplomatic plans to defuse the situation seem to begin and end with leaning on China to rein in North Korea, revealing that Obama had no plan at all.

China pointedly did not condemn North Korea’s artillery attack, but did condemn the U.S.-South Korea joint naval exercises. China’s suggestion to restart six-party talks–between North and South Korea, the U.S., China, Japan and Russia–was rejected by the U.S. and Japan. Direct talks between the U.S. and North Korea are considered by Washington to be a reward for aggression.


Obama has vowed to stand “shoulder-to-shoulder” with South Korea–an added reason why this standoff in a region awash in nuclear weapons is so perilous. If each side is taking measured steps to the brink of all-out war, they depend on allies and adversaries alike to be doing the same dance to keep events from spinning out of control. Nuclear-armed adversaries, great and small, endanger not just Asia but the whole world when the military is in the driver’s seat–and at a time when global crises are so profound that a relatively minor incident raises the specter of nuclear annihilation.

Far from being simply a relic of the horrors and failure of Stalinism, North Korea is very much of today. The situation indicates the only real future that state-capitalism in all its forms has in store for humanity: 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.

–The National Editorial Board of News and Letters Committees, December 9, 2010


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