This article is based on “North Korea in the crosshairs,” a talk I gave on June 28 at the Socialism 2013 conference in Chicago.

Korea labelsNorth Korea has been a special target for US military threats ever since the 1950s. US officials crank up the threat level every year by sponsoring joint military exercises with South Korea, as they did in March and April. But this year, they did more than usual. The two militaries rehearsed an amphibious invasion of the North, a real-time operation that was somehow integrated with a computer simulation of a full-blown takeover. The US also flew in some nuclear-capable aircraft and dropped some fake bombs — just for practice.

North Korea’s president, Kim Jong-un, responded by making some empty threats to strike South Korea, Japan and the United States with nuclear-armed missiles. Mainstream news outlets contorted these events into a story about an unusual level of provocations from North Korea. But when the US rehearses an operation to replace a government, it’s apparently not a provocation. It’s just routine military maneuvers.

Kim Jong-un may have escalated his response to the war games because the new young president needed to win the approval of a skeptical military establishment. But we don’t know that. What we do know is that the US escalated its usual level of provocation, and Kim responded with escalated threats.

Why does the US do this stuff? I’m sure that the Obama administration is concerned that North Korea became a nuclear power in 2006, but that doesn’t explain why the US has been threatening the North since the end of the Korean War. The fact is that US policy toward North Korea has never been about North Korea alone. The real focus of the US corporate and political elite has been on the greater powers that have stood behind North Korea. North Korea is not a rival the United States, but the Soviet Union was. Today, of course, the rise of China is the main concern.

At the same time, the US is also concerned about its relationships with its allies, South Korea and Japan, which also play major roles in the region.

In economic terms, North Korea is by far the least significant country of the bunch. China and Japan have the second and third largest economies in the world — behind the US — and South Korea is ranked 15th. The three together account for more than one-fifth of the world’s economy. North Korea comes in at No. 125. (These rankings come from the UN.)

The situation in Northeast Asia is complicated, but not just because of the number of players. It’s also complicated because China’s rise and the relative decline of the US are causing stresses and shifts in all of the relations in the region. So, to understand the confrontation with North Korea, we need to look at the tangle of relationships in the region and try to tease out the relevant strands. That’s what I’ll try to do today.

I’ll start with the big picture and the long view. This will be a fairly chronological narrative, and it should take up about half of my time. In the second half, I’ll use that background to explore the goals of each ruling class in relation to North Korea. I’ll finish by touching on the questions of Korean reunification and self-determination.

The big picture and the long view

Starting big is important because Korea is a relatively small thing in a region dominated by greater powers. Let’s take Taiwan as an example — which is also a small thing. It’s populated by ethnic Chinese, but Japan seized the island in 1895 and colonized it for 50 years. The US took over in 1945 at the end of World War II.

Four years later, the Chinese Communists defeated the nationalist Guomindang on the mainland. The Guomindang escaped across the water to Taiwan, where the US set them up as rulers of a place they’d never been before.

Ever since, the US has continued to back the Taiwanese government against China’s attempts to reabsorb the island. Without the US, Taiwan would be part of China. This means that the political entity known as Taiwan is a precipitate of the conflict between the US and China. In terms of dialectics, we could say that Taiwan is a congealed contradiction.

Korea has an even longer history as a collision point for greater powers. At various times, China and Japan have competed for influence in Korea, but by the end of the 19th century, the United States and Russia had also gotten into the act. We should note that Korea is different from Taiwan because it has its own long history of being a distinct political unit with its own language, alphabet and culture.

Despite its longstanding distinctness, Korea has generally been under the protection of one great power or another. And by protection, I mean it in the same way we speak of a protection racket. The Mafia comes to the shop owner and says, “We’ll protect you from the street gangs and thieves, but you gotta pay us for our service.”

For about five centuries, Korea was a tributary of China’s, which often didn’t mean very much, but sometimes it meant a fair amount of intrusion.

In the 19th century, China took a battering from the Western powers, while Russia and Japan were on the rise. Both of them made a play to take over as Korea’s “protector,” and they went to war in 1904-1905. Japan defeated Russia with British and American backing, and then Japan went on to colonize Korea with their approval.

The Japanese turned Korea’s southern farmland into their own food source. The Northern terrain is more rugged and not so good for agriculture, so Japan industrialized it. By the 1920s, the United States was a full partner in exploiting Korea. The occupation was racist and brutal, and eventually, Japan even tried to extinguish the Korean language.

This oppression gave rise to an equally intense national identification among Koreans. In earlier centuries, the rulers of Korea might have resented the power of China’s emperor, but the common Korean people didn’t know too much about him. The Japanese occupation changed this and made national identification into a mass popular phenomenon.

The Japanese retreated at the end of the Second World War, but Korea’s subordination didn’t end. Korea was officially de-colonized, but Joseph Stalin and Harry Truman agreed to divide the peninsula into spheres of influence that reflected the new balance of world powers and the approach of the Cold War.

When the Korean War broke out in 1950, the United States backed up the South. Russia, and especially China, backed up the North. The two sides fought to a standstill, and the partition was established officially with an armistice in 1953. The war added to Korean grievances against imperial intervention because of the US firebombing of every city and town in the North, as well as massacres of thousands of civilians, which the Pentagon is still trying to cover up.

The division of the Korean peninsula is a graphic sign that the place is a living contradiction. Many of Korea’s major political characteristics—not to mention its military characteristics—are the product of a balance between powers that lie outside Korea’s borders.

This historical background leads the majority of Koreans, North and South, to support reunification. These hopes for reunification frame the ideology of both regimes — a fact that sometimes even imposes some restraint on the hostility of the two ruling classes toward each other.

Nevertheless, while most Koreans at the popular level are in favor of reuniting, both ruling classes are ambivalent about the prospect. That’s because they worry about the terms under which reunification would take place. I’ll come back to this point a few times.

Korea’s neighbors

Now let’s fill in the picture from the point of view of Japan and China. I mentioned that Japan defeated Russia in 1905, but it won a couple of wars against China before that.

In the second half of the 19th century, Japan embarked on a crash course of modernization in order to avoid being victimized by the West in the same way that China was. Japan set itself up as a junior partner to Britain and the United States, foreshadowing the relationship that Japan has to the US today.

As I mentioned before, Japan used its new modern navy to defeat China and seize Taiwan, just ten years before it defeated Russia and seized Korea. In 1931, Japan invaded the Chinese mainland from its base in Korea. In the following years, Japan developed northern China — the region then known as Manchuria — as a new industrial center and a staging ground for further incursions into China.

Around this time, the United States began to look at Japan has more of a rival than a partner. The two went to war in 1941, which the US resolved in 1945 with the firebombing of Tokyo and other cities, followed by the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

On the Chinese side of things, of course, the long view is very long. The Chinese empire was the world’s most advanced civilization as far back as the Tang Dynasty around 700 A.D. Japanese and Korean culture grew up under heavy Chinese influence. But in the past 200 years or so, the story begins with China’s decline.

China’s so-called “century of humiliation” began with a defeat by Britain in the First Opium War from 1839 to 1842. Then there was encroachment from other Western powers and defeats at the hands of Japan. The end of this century of humiliation was the Revolution of 1949, which was supposed to signal China’s redemption and its eventual return to pre-eminence in Asia.

These capsule histories illustrate that the nationalisms of Japan, China, Korea are intertwined with each other. Each national ideology is a different rendition of the same history. Chinese nationalism is built on hostility to Western imperialism, but especially to Japan’s. The Chinese Communist Party still plays up its role as China’s redeemer in the war of resistance against Japan.

Japan’s national story is about its own rise and modernization while its former superior, China, remained backward and fell apart. When Japan extended its reach throughout Asia, it did so with a sense of a civilizing or modernizing mission. A strong Japan was supposed to be a benefactor to Asia. Japan’s nationalism is thus a bit like American nationalism, because it’s built on a sense of superiority rather than being a response to oppression. Japanese nationalists today take note of China’s revival, but still regard their own country as much more advanced and cultured.

As I mentioned, modern Korean nationalism developed under pressure of the Japanese occupation. In a region of intense national antagonisms, Korean nationalism is probably the most intense of all, because it stems from long-term — and ongoing, current — subordination to outside powers.

The nationalist ideologies of Northeast Asia are thus defined by the countries’ different roles in a common history. Naturally, these ideologies present one-sided and self-serving versions of that history, and they get recrafted and stirred up by the respective ruling classes whenever it’s convenient.

Nationalism is not just ideology. It’s the expression of a ruling class’s interests in competition with other ruling classes. At the same time, these ideologies have something of a life of their own, and the ruling classes can’t just turn them off at will. More to the point, they don’t want to turn off people’s hostility toward their regional neighbors, because nationalism is crucial for binding the loyalty of each working class to its own ruling class rather than to the workers of the other countries.

Korean development after partition

Now let’s go back and pick up on events in Korea following the armistice of 1953.

The US never pulled its troops out. The military built a major base on prime real estate inside the capital, Seoul. This has been a sore spot for ordinary Koreans, especially since US troops have a history of racism — and abuse of Korean women.

Currently, more than 27,000 US troops are stationed in the country, a force that gets enlarged whenever there’s a military exercise. In case of war, South Korean armed forces are supposed to be under the command of the US, an arrangement that is finally set to expire two years from now. Since the late 1950s, United States has bolstered its troop presence with nuclear arms. The US withdrew nuclear weapons from the peninsula in the early 90s, but they remain offshore on ships and submarines.

During the Cold War, the two Koreas both developed as militarized dictatorships, although their names proclaimed their commitment to democracy. The North is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), and the South is the Republic of Korea (ROK). Until the 1970s, the DPRK’s economy ran ahead of the ROK’s, partly because industrialization under Japanese occupation gave them a head start.

The North’s growth strategy was based on the “Juche Idea,” which is an ideology of self-reliance. The North did depend on help from China, and especially from Russia, but the North tried to develop its own capacities in all sectors. That included the development of: mining and metalworking; energy production (through coal and hydro);  agriculture, which mechanized much more quickly than Southern agriculture; and chemical production, which helped produce fertilizer for the farms. The Juche Idea is the product of a ruling class that is trying to get out from under the influence of its patrons, so juche ideology resonates quite strongly with the nationalism that was born in the 20th century.

South Korea’s growth strategy was more successful in the long run. American protection came with the price of forced opening of the economy to the rest of the world, so the South Korean state concentrated its resources on potential export industries. Like the Japanese before them and the Chinese after them, South Korea began its industrialization at the low end of the technical spectrum — textiles. Over time, they imported technology to climb the technical ladder and become major exporters of steel, ships, cars and electronics.

One effect of this development was that the GDP of the South shot ahead of the North’s by the 1980s. Another effect was the growth of a working class that wanted a bigger share of this product and struggled against the military regime. In the late 1980s, a mass movement forced the generals to step down and call elections. This was all no thanks to the United States, where Democratic and Republican administrations supported brutal repression by the military regime up to the last minute.

Right now, the Northern regime has the reputation as the provocative government on the peninsula, but the nationalism of the South Korean ruling class has been just as bellicose at times. The South didn’t even sign the armistice of 1953, because Syngman Rhee (aka, in Korean, Yi Seung-man) wanted to continue the war and take the whole country.

Then, in the 1970s, the United States discovered that the military rulers of South Korea had started a clandestine nuclear weapons program. The ROK was under the so-called nuclear umbrella of the United States, but the generals wanted weapons of their own to allow them to pursue a hostile policy that was independent of the US. The United States put an end to that program and redoubled its military commitment to the Southern regime.

This episode, and the dominant US military presence in South Korea, both illustrate a key point about US policy in the Cold War. The policy wasn’t just to contain the Stalinist states of China and North Korea, but also to contain the independence of US allies in Asia.

This becomes all the more obvious from the postwar settlement in Japan, which outlawed the reconstruction of Japan’s offensive military capacity. US military protection of Japan is not a gift, either to the ordinary Japanese who have to live with the military presence — or to the Japanese ruling class, which sacrifices some of its independence on the world stage because it lacks a fully armed state machine.

To close out the narrative, let’s look at the implosion of North Korea in the 1990s.

The end of the Cold War was not good news for the Northern regime. The first major blow came when the regime lost the support of its biggest patron, Russia. North Korea’s Kim Il-sung was close to the Russian Stalinist hardliners, and the Soviet Union gave North Korea significant economic support. But the Russian Stalinists lost power in 1991, and the people who replaced them weren’t keen on supporting the DPRK.

At the same time, the United States continued to impose its perpetual economic state of siege on North Korea, shutting the country out of access to credit, foreign investment, and export markets.

In the next few years, the North also experienced a series of natural disasters, including floods that destroyed vast tracts of farmland and flooded the mines. All through this time, North Korea still directed disproportionate investment toward the military because the United States kept up its hostile military posture.

When all these factors came together in the 1990s, 1 million or more North Koreans died from famine. Since then, the economy has recovered somewhat, but more than one-quarter of the children are still malnourished, which accounts for their stunted growth compared to the growth of children in the South.

In the rest of my time, I’ll break out of the narrative format and consider themes and issues instead of chronology. I’ll talk about

— what the North Korean regime wants

— the evolution of US and South Korean policy

— China’s goals in relation to North Korea

— the confusion that exists in recent US policy

and I’ll finish with

— a few words about Korean self-determination.

What do North Korea’s rulers want?

For decades, the Northern regime has demanded a security guarantee from the US and an eventual peace treaty to replace the armistice. The DPRK has no diplomatic relations with the US and has been under continuous threat for 60 years.

In this light, we can see that the main purpose of North Korean nuclear weapons is deterrence against US attack. The best evidence for this may be that North Korea has started and stopped a nuclear weapons program for at least 25 years, but the regime only got serious about producing a weapon under the pressure of threats from George W. Bush. That was when Bush was actually carrying out threats to overthrow the governments of Afghanistan and Iraq.

It’s always interesting to hear from hardheaded mainstream analysts who realize that the North Koreans wouldn’t try to start a serious fight … because they’d lose. As these brilliant people put it, Kim Jong-un’s highest priority is “regime survival.” When you think about it, though, that’s the highest priority of every regime, everywhere. It only becomes important to make this point when a regime is actually being threatened.

So that’s why the regime says it wants a security guarantee and a peace treaty.

What else do the North’s rulers want? They want the economic blockade to end. I won’t go into detail here, because I’ve spelled it out elsewhere, but the US and its allies have applied an economic quarantine that has hamstrung the operation of North Korea’s economy for decades. That’s gone on even when there aren’t UN sanctions against the North.

The DPRK’s Kim family also wants to normalize relations with Japan. That would expand the space for credit, trade and investment, but it would also open the possibility that Japan would grant billions of dollars in reparations for the colonial years — if Japan acts as it did when it normalized relations with the South in 1965.

Among all the things that the North wants, it’s crucial to understand that the regime is looking for relationships with South Korea, Japan and the United States that can diminish its dependence on China. As I mentioned earlier, Korea has a long history of dependence on a single patron. There’s even a Korean word for this subordinate condition — sadae — which means, “serving the great.” Korea’s rulers can’t hope for independence on an equal basis with the greater powers, but they can hope to spread out their dependence so they aren’t so easily pushed around by a single patron.

Finally, North Korea’s rulers want reunification with the South, but they’re concerned that it might happen in a way that shuts them out of power. I’ve run across some speculation that a second motive behind the decades-long effort to build nuclear weapons, besides the obvious one of self-defense, has been that members of the Kim dynasty want to ensure their place in a united Korea by contributing a weapons system that puts the country into the military big leagues. As far as I know, nobody’s offered any proof of this theory, but even if it’s false, it still has the ring of truth.

Where the ROK stands

Now let’s look at the evolution of US and South Korean strategy, with some emphasis on the South Korean point of view. From the beginnings of the Cold War, there were two schools of thought about how to handle the conflict with the Soviet Union and its allies. One school called for “containment,” which includes military encirclement and the kind of economic quarantine I mentioned. The other school called for “rollback,” which meant that the US should look for every opportunity to overthrow communist and even radical nationalist governments.

As the years went on, these strategies didn’t really mark out different factions so much as the two poles around which US policy fluctuated. Whenever it looked like it would be too difficult to overthrow some regime, US Cold Warriors would settle for containment. North Korea is a prime example of this treatment. Various presidents have signaled that they might just assault the North and take it over, but the steady policy has been to strangle the country economically and while dangling a nuclear Sword of Damocles overhead.

In South Korea, most of the rulers have taken the same position. This includes Syngman Rhee, the first president, and Park Chung-hee, the longstanding military dictator whose daughter is South Korea’s new president.

When the Cold War ended in the early 90s, however, the South Korean ruling class began to rethink this position. They saw how difficult it was for West Germany to absorb East Germany, because the East was so poor and undeveloped in comparison to the West. They also began to worry about the political and social chaos that would occur in the North if the US and the South overthrew the Northern regime or pushed it to collapse.

As a result, the so-called liberal wing of South Korean politics came up with what’s known as the Sunshine Policy. Kim Dae-jung came into office in 1998 and declared that the South should seek to build up the North in preparation for a peaceful reunification. He got the ball rolling on Southern investments in the North, a movement that eventually created the maquiladora at Kaesong, where Southern corporations have employed cheap Northern labor.

The Sunshine Policy caught the attention of rulers in China, Russia, and Japan, who all wanted to get in on the development of North Korea and its eventual integration into the economic powerhouse of Northeast Asia.

By the time Bill Clinton was about to leave office in 2000, he too was beginning to warm up to the idea of the Sunshine Policy — especially because there were signals from Kim Jong-Il that the DPRK would agree to a continued US troop presence in a unified Korea as long as his regime could rule the North as part of a confederated Korean state (Cumings, 77-78).

Needless to say, Sunshine, which aims to build up the North, is the opposite of rollback and containment, which aim to tear it down.

George W. Bush came into office in 2001 determined to stop all this Sunshine nonsense. In ideological terms, he was a fairly rabid post-Cold Warrior. He was an idiot, of course, but some of his advisors were not. They were calculating that the rehabilitation of North Korea would integrate the economies of Northeast Asia without any essential role for the US — and that this integrated development might break up the alignment of the US with its allies against China.

Japan wouldn’t jump into the Chinese camp, but South Korea looked like it might seek a position between the two camps. When Bush stepped up the threats against North Korea, it wasn’t really in response to anything that the North had done but in response to fear that the South might be slipping away.

The Bush policy failed. It was ostensibly about preventing the North from building a nuclear weapon, and it pushed the North into doing just that.

But Bush also failed to kill the Sunshine Policy. Right now the factories in the Kaesong Industrial Zone have been shut down since the crisis this spring, but Park Geun-hye, the president in the South, is trying to get them reopened. If the zone is closed forever, it will be the Northern regime, not Park’s, that shut it down. A significant portion of the South Korean ruling class has been committed to investments in the North and to the whole idea of developing the North into a place that’s worth absorbing later on. Park has also said she’s interested in a carrying through on an idea that Kim Dae-jung floated more than ten years ago — connecting a rail link through the DPRK to the rest of Asia.

There’s been one president since 1998, Lee Myung-bak, who seemed willing to revert to a Cold War relationship with the North. He held office till early this year. So these questions are still a matter of dispute in the South Korean bourgeoisie, but it’s possible that people like Lee are becoming the outliers. Park, the current president, is a reactionary who looks up to Margaret Thatcher, but she isn’t demanding that the North give up its nuclear weapons before economic cooperation resumes. She campaigned on the slogan of “trustpolitik” — which means to build on the easiest things to agree to, without setting conditions about how to resolve the more difficult ones.

The last thing I’ll say about the Sunshine Policy is that even South Korean conservatives are impressed by a couple of realities. One is that the incorporation of the North would be far more costly if it’s the result of the collapse than if it’s the result of development. One think tank estimated that the cost of gradual unification would be $322 billion, while the cost of picking the North up after collapse would be more than $2 trillion. The numbers are speculative, of course. What’s important is that South Korea’s elite is thinking about the numbers.

The other reality is that China is already competing with South Korea to develop and exploit the North. So South Korea can stay involved with the North or lose influence and fall behind.

China’s goals

China has voted for two sets of UN sanctions in the past eight months, but that doesn’t mean that it has fundamentally revised its policy toward North Korea. China may be the North’s closest ally, but China’s rulers have never been thrilled that the Kim family has nuclear weapons, or that they make missile threats against other countries. These things just give the United States an excuse to build up its military presence in the region, and it also draws South Korea and Japan into tighter military cooperation with the US. Voting in the UN to condemn missile tests and nuclear tests is thus an expression of longstanding Chinese policy, not a major shift.

It would be a major shift if the Chinese really pulled back from its economic commitments in North Korea, but they aren’t. The new sanctions keep one important Chinese bank from dealing with North Korea, but investment and development plans are going ahead uninterrupted. China’s rulers regard North Korea as an important source of minerals and cheap labor, and the DPRK offers a chance for China to develop its own northeastern provinces.

The development of China’s northeast is impeded by the lack of direct access to the Pacific. When China was under pressure from multiple imperial powers in the 19th century, Russia drove down into Manchuria in the 1860s and cut China off from the sea. The tsar built the port at Vladivostok on land taken from the Ching Dynasty.

China’s current rulers are building infrastructure to connect China’s Jilin province to the Pacific through North Korea. They’ll be upgrading the port facilities at Rason, a city in the DPRK’s northeast that has already opened as an economic zone for Chinese enterprises. What’s more, the Chinese are planning to extend their own electrical grid to service Rason, as the ROK has already done for its industrial zone at Kaesong.

In 2004, a Chinese institute even declared that the northern part of the DPRK is properly part of Chinese territory — based on military expeditions more than 1,300 years ago to Goguryeo, a state that spanned the current border between China and Korea. Koreans regard Goguryeo as one of three states that gave rise to a unified Korea, and South Koreans protested at the Chinese embassy when China’s territorial claim went public (Rozman, 127).

The connection from Jilin to Rason is just one of the development projects that the Chinese have in the works. The broader plan involves building high-speed rail into Jilin and Liaoning, the two Chinese provinces that border North Korea. The rail projects have a couple of purposes. One is to populate the place in order to staff and service the factories they expect to build. High-speed rail is for people, not for freight.

Another purpose is to rebalance the demographics of China’s northeast so that Koreans never dominate the region. There are a lot of Koreans there already. In this regard, the project is exactly like what they’ve been doing in Tibet and Xinjiang — simultaneously developing the territories and swamping the local population with ethnic Chinese.

When it comes to Korean reunification, Chinese officials are like the DPRK’s — ambivalent. The worst-case scenario, as far as the Chinese are concerned, is that a reunited Korea would be a close US ally with nuclear weapons. To make things even worse, a rapid collapse of the North would almost certainly cause a flood of refugees into China.

As a result, China’s policy does have one thing in common with South Korea’s. They both favor gradual steps toward reunification. In fact, some Chinese officials have recommended a transitional phase like the one that China worked out with Hong Kong, which is known as, “One country, two systems.” This idea bears some resemblance to the proposals for confederation that the DPRK and ROK both floated around the turn of the 21st century.

Because the rulers of China and South Korea are both interested in developing the North, they have tended to agree on the need to engage the North even when the US refuses to talk. In late June of this year, Park Geun-hye and China’s Xi Jinping made this agreement explicit by issuing a joint call to reconvene the “Six-Party Talks.” These talks — which concerned the North’s nuclear program and included the two Koreas, Japan, China, the US and Russia — began in 2003 and broke off in 2009. The North’s Kim Jong-un had already agreed to resume the talks a few weeks before Park and Xi made the joint call in June. Since he took office at the beginning of 2012, Kim has declared that the North will not consider giving up nuclear weapons until the US puts its own nuclear arsenal up for discussion. Barack Obama, of course, has demanded that the North commit to disarming as a precondition for talks.

Understanding the inconsistency in US policy

The more I’ve looked into this topic, the more I’ve come to doubt that the US actually has a strategy for dealing with North Korea. Out of all the interested parties, the US has had the most inconsistent approach since the end of the Cold War — as presidents have made both peace overtures and existential threats. That is, the policy has oscillated between the incompatible options of Sunshine and regime rollback.

Most of the most time, however, US officials don’t know what to do, so they just settle into hostile containment and move on to other questions.

Whenever a member of the Kim dynasty dies, however, there is a policy that falls midway between containment and rollback that Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have both practiced, which is to sit back and wait for the regime to collapse. After Kim Jong-il died last year, the US and South Korea cooked up the idea for their war games this spring. They were actually not simulating an invasion, the kind of scenario where they would fight their way in against the full armed forces of the North. They were practicing a takeover based on the hypothesis that the Northern state would be falling apart.

Well … it hasn’t.

To be fair, it’s got to be tough to settle on a policy toward North Korea at a time when the whole imperial balance in the Asia Pacific has been shifting. Let’s take stock of some of the shifts that have occurred just since the Bush years. The driving force of change, of course, has been the rapid rise of China and the relative decline of the US. This means that the economies of US allies have become more and more integrated with China’s.

Even ten years ago, the central bankers of South Korea and Japan had already begun to hold annual trilateral meetings with their counterparts in China. Back then, the ROK was investing more in China than it was in the US, but today it’s trading more with China than it does with the US — even though we’re still buying all those Hyundais and Samsung smartphones.

Japanese trade has shifted toward China just as Korea’s has. As Kim Ha-young wrote recently in International Socialism, the trade among the three countries has connected them in an East Asian supply chain from which each party profits. The relationship has benefited the trade balance of Japan and the ROK — as the US trade balance has suffered:

The principal goods traded within the region are intermediary goods, reflecting the division of labour within the East Asian economy. Core components made in Japan then flow into China, South Korea and the five ASEAN countries (Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines). The components are then reprocessed in South Korea and the ASEAN countries before flowing into China. Thus, Japan, South Korea and the ASEAN countries all have trade surpluses with China. China then assembles these components and exports the finished goods, mainly to the US. China’s trade surplus with the US increased by 12.29 times during the period 1995-2008.

Economic shifts like these have had an impact on political relations.

Ten years ago, China’s rulers were trying to multilateralize their political and economic connections in order to “break into the game” in those places that US imperialism had shut them out. When the Chinese played a key role in the Six-Party Talks less than ten years ago, and it was a big step forward for their international profile.

At that time, George W. Bush was still trying to manage US alliances on the Cold War model. The idea was to maintain bilateral relations in East Asia, with Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, unlike the multilateral NATO relationship with Europe. The US was the hub, and the others were the spokes. But the rise of China means that there is a new hub in town.

Now it seems to be that the political stewards of US imperialism who are trying to multilateralize relations so that they don’t get left out. Consider China’s island disputes with countries in the region. China has proposed to settle the disputes bilaterally, and Hillary Clinton made a special point to declare the US intention to insert itself as a player in all of China’s bilateral relations.

The Cold War system of bilateral relations is not good enough to sustain US preeminence, so Obama is pursuing initiatives of economic integration such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, as well as multilateralizing its military relationships. This includes conducting trilateral military naval exercises for the first time with Japan and South Korea. It also includes the pursuit of uniformity in weapons and tactics among US allies throughout East and Southeast Asia — a goal that the Pentagon calls “plug-and-play interoperability.”

A multilateral approach poses new challenges, because the United States needs to get its allies to cooperate in ways that they are not accustomed to. Japan and South Korea are not particularly close to each other. They have not even resolved all the disputes that arose in the period when Japan colonized Korea. This includes a conflict over the islands that Korea calls Dokdo and Japan calls Takeshima.

The island dispute is taking place on a couple of levels. The dispute is real in itself, as all the region’s maritime routes and resources are up for grabs. The Dokdo/Takeshima area is a promising site for extracting natural gas, and it has significant stocks of fish. So the dispute is a part of a broader economic rivalry between South Korea and Japan.

At the same time, disputes like this provide a windfall of domestic fervor in support of two strongly nationalist presidents — Park Geun-hye in South Korea and Abe Shinzo in Japan. The tide of nationalism escalates the real friction between the two governments, and it could make it hard for the US to get them to cooperate on multilateral projects. In the past, the US needed to manage its alliances one by one, often dictating the terms unilaterally, and now it needs to referee the interactions of larger groups. So far, the main result of the friction between Japan and South Korea seems to be the cancellation of some meetings, but their economic competition is bound to lead to more political clashes in the future.

As the US tries to foster cooperation among its allies, it is still in the business of containing them. When Secretary of State John Kerry flew to Asia in the middle of this latest crisis, he reassured the leaders of Japan and South Korea that the US is committed to their defense. The unspoken part was that US military forces will counteract any North Korean threat so that South Korea and Japan don’t need to contemplate framing an independent policy.

The US still restrains South Korea’s independence on an ongoing basis. President Lee Myung-bak was all set to escalate a conflict with the North in 2010 after North Korea shelled an island and killed some South Korean civilians. The US saw the potential for a major escalation if the South retaliated in kind, and a US general warned that an uncontrolled “chain reaction” might result, so the US got South Korean forces to stand down. This spring, the US and South Korea worked out a joint plan for proportional responses to attacks from the North. The plan legitimizes South Korean attacks on the North, of course, but it also aims to restrain the South Koreans from going farther than the US would like.

Two weeks later, US officials refused to allow South Korea to start reprocessing spent nuclear fuel because they’re afraid the Park Geun-hye will restart the weapons program that her father attempted in the 1970s.

Despite US efforts to discipline its allies, the relative decline of US power is driving the White House to try to subcontract imperialist tasks to those same allies. In the process, the status of the allies gets elevated. That means that the US really does have to give up command of the South Korean army in 2015, and it means that when the US encourages Japan to rearm itself, it should expect Japan to start asserting itself more independently.

[2017 update: In 2014, US and South Korean military officials again put off the transfer of wartime control of South Korean forces until sometime in the mid-2020s.]

It’s not that the Japanese ruling class will defect from Team America and join the other side, but Japan may begin to fall out of step with the US on particular issues, including North Korea. During this spring’s war games, for example, when South Korea and the US weren’t talking to North Korea, Abe Shinzo set up talks with the North about Northern abductions of Japanese citizens in the 70s and 80s.

All of these points help explain the inconsistency of US policy toward North Korea. In fact, the US doesn’t have North Korea strategy; it has an Asia-Pacific strategy. The strategy includes:

— strengthening and updating US alliances;

— gaining access to resources and cheap labor in the Asia Pacific;


— undermining China’s ability to make alliances and blocking their access to resources and cheap labor.

North Korea is a consideration in this strategy, but the approach to the North really hinges on US relations with more-important countries — in a period when those relations have been in flux. US policy toward North Korea is thus quite pliable, and it’s always an afterthought, except for those times when the North Korean regime does something to make the US pay attention.

The lack of attention is a further source of US inconsistency. US officials, especially presidents and political appointees, are generally ignorant about Korea and tend to make stupid choices in dealing with the DPRK. The upshot is that we can expect the US to keep stumbling through its relations with the North while other countries, especially South Korea and China, keep deepening their relations with the North.

Korean self-determination

It’s more than a century since Japan colonized Korea, and more than sixty years since the emerging Cold War superpowers split the country in two. Colonization made Korean national self-determination into an urgent question, and partition made it into several questions. We need to look at these issues from at least three angles.

The obvious angle right now is the confrontation of US imperialism with North Korea. There’s no doubt that the DPRK is a noxious hereditary dictatorship, so the subordinate classes in North Korea have every reason and every right to overthrow the Kim dynasty. Barack Obama, however, does not have that right, and neither do his clients in South Korea. If progressives in the United States give any support to hostile policies toward the North, we’d be reinforcing the intensity of North Korean nationalism. Nationalist opposition to US imperialism has been a crucial tool of the dictatorship in securing a measure of popular support. Take away the US threat, or diminish it, and North Korean workers will have an easier time focusing their anger on their own regime.

In other words, our job is to get the US out of their business.

The second angle on Korean self-determination involves US domination of South Korea. In this case, American anti-imperialists have some identifiable allies in Korea — those who have stood up against the US military presence and against their own rulers’ subservience to the US. This includes a significant part of the labor movement, which was so important in bringing down the South Korean dictatorship in the 80s. It also includes those who have campaigned to shut down (and stop the expansion of) US military bases.

That means that those in the US who support Southern self-determination need to make the withdrawal of US troops our first demand. This demand also works in relation to North Korea, of course, and the general point remains: We need to get the US out of their business.

A third angle on self-determination involves reunification. The American left needs to oppose anything that stands in the way of the freedom of Koreans, north and south, to reunite if they want to. Nevertheless, workers in Korea have a difficult line to tread, because they could easily fall in behind the drive for reunification that their own rulers have pursued. Reunification from above would not be about ending imperialism or exploitation. It would be about giving a united ruling class more freedom of action in a region that’s dominated by greater powers.

Unfortunately, the working classes of North and South are not prepared to control a process of reunification at any time soon. That means that a Korean left needs to start small and establish a current that can oppose imperialism without giving in to the Korean nationalism that binds workers to their masters. Partition has made this task especially tricky. Even if Koreans in North and South feel hostility toward their own rulers, the hostility can take the form of idealizing the regime on the other side. Northern workers who yearn for the prosperity of the South may yield uncritically to a Southern takeover. At the same time, much of the Southern left is Stalinist in origin and expresses sympathy for the Kim regime of the North.

As a result, those who want to build an anti-imperial current — one that’s also independent of both Korean ruling classes — have their work cut out for them. The more that we in the US can do to weaken imperialism from our side, the easier it will be in Korea to build a movement that is independent and internationalist.

Activists in the US also have to start small, by building our own current from the grassroots that can stand up against US imperialism. We need to take some concrete steps, modest steps to begin with, in solidarity with our Korean brothers and sisters. It’s easiest, of course, to start building connections with forces in the South. This would include expanding the American left’s collaboration with the South Korean left and labor movement. We also have a chance to connect with the Korean activists fighting to close US military bases — who may or may not identify as workers or leftists — and begin to mount solidarity actions here in coordination with their actions there. Whatever steps we take in the medium and long run, we need to keep our focus on the main task of the day: Get the US out of their business.

– – – – –

Bruce Cumings, North Korea: Another Country. The New Press, 2004.

Gilbert Rozman, Strategic Thinking About the Korean Nuclear Crisis: Four Parties Caught Between North Korea and the United States. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

2 thoughts on “Where empires intersect

  1. My sense is that a large part of this does not give adequate weight to the included statement that the North is a “noxious hereditary dictatorship”, to which I would add “consistently internally brutal and sometimes externally crazy (as when kidnapping actors for performances in the North, or ordinary citizens off the streets of Japan, or talking to Dennis Rodman). If, at the end of the Stalinist regime in Russia, the North had decided to adopt democracy, or make the attempt, the whole issue which gives rise to the criticism of US policy since then would have gone away. The situation might still be complex, but “noxious hereditary dictatorship” would be gone, the people would have avoided famine, and gone also could have been the US hostility. Yes, a short term rational lessonfrom Iraq, was that a state that is hostile to the US must have nuclear weapons to be protected against attack. The existence of those weapons is our fault, and they make the situation far more complex. (But we blew our wad on Iraq/Afganistan, so the conclusion is pretty much passe.) But still, N. Korea should be talking about these weapons as “necessary for defense”, not about first strikes against Japan and the US. No nation should be talking, in a serious sounding way, about launching nuclear attacks, even if everyone thinks they can’t be serious. Those big maps and launch threats are crazy.
    It is rational for the whole world to think, as by and large it does, that everyone would be better off, beginning with the North Koreans, if a smooth regime change to something less extreme could occur. That conclusion is due to the ongoing behavior of the “noxious hereditary dictatorship” more than to anything else. When other nations chose to move away from related forms, N Korea doubled down.

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