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January 2003 • Vol 3, No. 1 •

North Korea: Why Bush Backtracked

By Nat Weinstein

South Koreans in an anti-U.S. protest in front of the main gate of a military airport in Sungnam in July, 2001. They opposed the planned visit of U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell. Photo by Yun Jai-hyoung (AP)

All last month the United States conducted a saber-rattling propaganda campaign demonizing North Korea for allegedly violating a treaty it signed with the U.S. The treaty required North Korea to halt its graphite technology nuclear program in exchange for two light water nuclear reactors and oil. Then to everyone’s surprise, President Bush appeared to backtrack before the month was out and the New Year had begun.

South Korean President-elect Roh Moo-Hyun’s announcement of plans to propose a compromise solution to the North Korean crisis is only a small part of what is worrying President Bush and his bipartisan government. The proposal the new South Korean president is expected to make, by the way, is only a mild reflection of that country’s views on the matter. It is merely a call on both Washington and Pyongyang to find a compromise that can end the confrontation between the two countries. It thereby spreads the blame evenly on both countries and is in itself no real threat to U.S. policy makers.

But the Bush administration rejects the idea, saying it will not give in to blackmail while it freely uses nuclear blackmail—both explicit and implicit—against North Korea, as well as against other countries.

Nonetheless, the mild statements by the new South Korean president in opposition to U.S. policy does not equal the far sharper opposition by growing numbers of Koreans. Most of these reports show that the Koreans place all the blame for the crisis on the United States. In fact, the new president, described as a “former labor negotiator,” and thus, outside the main corps of South Korean politicians, was elected because he had adapted to the deepening opposition by South Koreans to American imperialist threats to take “preemptive” aggressive action against North Korea.

The New York Times (December 29) for instance, reported that many young South Koreans said “they did not object to North Korea’s having a nuclear bomb.” The reporter quotes one Korean citizen, Shim Wan Kyu, a 31-year-old financial worker, who said, “I should not say this here, but I hope North Korea has nuclear weapons.” Asked about a nuclear threat to this affluent society, he replied: “They would not attack South Korea with it. It’s not for attack, it’s for defense.”

Another Korean interviewed by the Times reporter said, “A country that is threatened by nuclear weapons has the right to have nuclear weapons….” And, of course, the greatest fear of all Koreans is summed up in an observation reported in the same article: “If there is a clash on the Korean peninsula, it will be Koreans who are going to die.”

There are even deeper reasons for the growing opposition to U.S. policies in Korea. It has to do with the long history of struggle by the people of Korea against imperialist domination, which goes back at least 2,000 years. In 108 B.C., for instance, Korea was annexed to the Chinese Empire. But it is Korea’s more recent history of subjection by Japanese imperialism that helps explain the thinking of the Korean people today.

The suffering that began when Imperial Japan first sent troops to subjugate Korea in 1904 and formally annexed it to Japan in 1910 is still very fresh in the collective memory of Koreans. For 41 years, Japan ground the Korean people down under its imperialist heel until the end of World War II.

But the Korean masses had resisted Japanese imperialist exploitation and oppression throughout that period. In fact, all of Korea, north and south, was seething with revolutionary insurgencies led by various factions of communist and other workers parties. The real history of the post-war world in the Far East and Korea in particular has little to do with the crudely distorted and oversimplified version of events promulgated in the U.S. mass media.

The confrontation between oppressed and oppressor in Korea was portrayed in the mass media purely as a struggle between the Soviet “Evil Empire” against the forces of “freedom and democracy.” But the indisputable facts are that the Korean masses resisted Japanese rule from the outset—including armed struggle in collaboration with Communist guerrilla fighters against the Japanese in Manchuria, China and Korea.

Let’s take a look at what the post-World War II period in Korea was really like.

The post-war history of revolutionary Korea

When the Japanese were defeated in August 1945, Korean resistance forces were the power on the ground throughout Korea, north and south. These forces, mainly composed of workers and peasants, then turned all their attention on settling scores with their indigenous landlords and capitalists who had served as Japan’s appointed rulers of Korea.

Since the very first task of the Soviet and U.S. armies that defeated Japan had been to organize the expulsion of Japanese troops, it gave the Korean revolutionary fighters the opportunity to fill the power vacuum that had resulted. In the north, Soviet troops also disarmed and detained the Korean police which had been the main indigenous repressive force assisting Japanese rule.

The big question in the minds of the Korean masses, however, was how the Russians and Americans would respond to efforts by revolutionary workers and peasants to sweep away Japan’s Korean collaborators, which were the comprador landlords and capitalists of that long-suffering nation. Its logic, of course, would lead, at the very least, to the establishment of a government independent of American imperialism.

The revolutionary fighters, to be sure, knew that there was a big difference between Soviet Russia and imperialist America. But even those who considered themselves Communists were divided over how far they could trust the Soviet Union to back their struggle, not only for political independence, but also for the revolutionary social and economic demands advanced by a majority of Korea’s workers and peasants.

But most of the latter had good reason to maintain their independence from Soviet Stalinism. Many, in fact, looked to the Chinese Stalinists as a more reliable ally than were the Soviet Stalinists.

Although the Soviet regime was certainly capable of taking advantage of small and weak countries that were allied to the Soviet Union, and they did, their system dictated a friendlier stance toward the Korean people’s aspirations than the American system of “profits uber alles” (over everything). This is because the Soviet economy was not based on production for profit. Therefore, the Soviet Union was not in the least bit interested in acquiring or confiscating private ownership of land, factories and the other means of production in Korea and other colonial countries.

(Stalin, however, in his relations with nations allied to the Soviet Union, did such things as order his troops to dismantle some factories—in Red Army-occupied Eastern Europe, for instance—and transport them to the Soviet Union to make up for factories destroyed by German bombers and artillery during the war.)

But the revolutionary uprising by workers and peasants that erupted from one end of Korea to the other following Japan’s surrender, like all colonial revolutions in the 20th century, tended to be both anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist, as we shall document.

Thus, while the Americans were busily suppressing the revolutionary upsurge of Korea’s peasants and workers, the Russians sought to win them to their side.

(In fact, since the successful Russian Socialist Revolution set an inspiring example, peasants and workers in the colonial world have tended to be both anti-landlord and anti-capitalist. Moreover, as has been noted, workers in Korea had a special hatred for their own capitalists and landlords, since virtually all of them served as well-paid agents of Japanese imperialism.)

U.S. policy in post-war Korea was to mercilessly repress hungry, landless peasants seeking a piece of land and was actively hostile to workers seeking a living wage. And contrary to its claim to uphold the principles of “freedom and democracy,” the U.S. was also adamantly opposed to granting Korea even nominal independence in the first years. But in sharp contrast, the Soviet forces in the north gave aid and comfort to workers and peasants in their settling of accounts with their bosses and landlords, as well as actively supporting Korean independence from the outset.

In other words, the Cold War began in Korea a little earlier than elsewhere. And the relationship between the Korean people and the Soviet army in the north, and the Koreans and the U.S. army in the south, was typical of such relationships everywhere during the entire period of the Cold War.

However, while the policy of the Soviet Stalinists was to support the struggles of workers and farmers against their class enemies, it tended to bar the road to socialist revolution everywhere.

(It was only when threatened by imperialist attack and the indigenous capitalist governments they had placed in power became a fifth column in Eastern Europe, that they bureaucratically mobilized the workers to overthrow their capitalist governments and their states.)

Stalinist revolutionary rhetoric was strictly for the purpose of gaining enough influence with militant workers and peasants to use them as bargaining chips to trade off to imperialism in exchange for “peaceful coexistence”—that is, a promise by imperialism to not transgress the borders of the Soviet Union. In other words, it was a “peace” based on the Stalinist pledge not to violate the world imperialist/capitalist status quo beyond their own borders.

Meanwhile, of course, U.S.-led world imperialism relentlessly conducted its sometimes hidden, sometimes open war against the world’s exploited and oppressed.

Korean communists understood that they could not depend on Stalin to support their struggle through to the end. That’s why they did not follow the Stalinized Soviet Union slavishly; and from time to time, actively resisted the latter’s hostile acts.

The reactionary import of the Stalinist slogans, “Peaceful Coexistence” and “Socialism in One Country” was socialism nowhere not even in the Soviet Union. This is because it is impossible to achieve socialism without first developing the capacity to produce in abundance; that is, a level of productivity at least equal to that in the most advanced capitalist countries.

One backward country or even many, such as were all the Soviet bloc countries, cannot achieve that level of productivity without the extension of the socialist revolution to one or more advanced industrial countries.

In fact, even in a country like Cuba, with a government extraordinarily faithful to the best interests of its people, isolated as it is from free access to the world marketplace, cannot achieve such a level of abundance as to realize the socialist economic principle: From each according to their ability and to each according to their needs.

A bourgeois historian describes post-war Korea

Tracy Woodward, in his short history of post-war Korea, “The National Division and the Origins of the DPRK,” captured the essence of the roles of the U.S. and the Soviet Union in Korea in the period preceding the Korean War. The following is excerpted from Woodward’s straightforward account of the opposing stance taken by the two world powers toward the Korean revolution:

The United States military command, along with emissaries dispatched from Washington, tended to interpret resistance to United States desires in the south as radical and pro-Soviet. When Korean resistance leaders set up an interim “people’s republic” and people’s committees throughout southern Korea in September 1945, the United States saw this fundamentally indigenous movement as part of a Soviet master plan to dominate all of Korea.

Radical activity, such as the ousting of landlords and attacks on Koreans in the former colonial police force, usually was a matter of settling scores left over from the colonial period, or of demands by Koreans to run their own affairs. But it immediately became wrapped up with United States-Soviet rivalry, such that the Cold War arrived early in Korea—in the last months of 1945.

Once the United States occupation force chose to bolster the status quo and resist radical reform of colonial legacies, it immediately ran into monumental opposition to its policies from the majority of South Koreans.

The United States Army Military Government in Korea (1945-48) spent most of its first year suppressing the many people’s committees that had emerged in the provinces. This action provoked a massive rebellion in the fall of 1946; after the rebellion was suppressed, radical activists developed a significant guerrilla movement in 1948 and 1949.

Activists also touched off a major rebellion at the port of Ysu in South Korea in October 1948. Much of this disorder resulted from unresolved land problems caused by conservative landed factions who used their bureaucratic power to block redistribution of land to peasant tenants.

North Koreans sought to take advantage of this discontent, but the best evidence shows that most of the dissidents and guerrillas were southerners upset about southern policies. Indeed, the strength of the left wing was in those provinces most removed from the thirty-eighth parallel—in the southwest, which had historically been rebellious (the Tonghaks came from there), and in the southeast, which had felt the greatest impact from Japanese colonialism.

Woodward describes Soviet/U.S. relations in the first months of their occupation of Korea:

The Soviets did not set up a central administration, nor did they establish an army [of North Korea]. In retrospect their policy was more tentative and reactive than American policy in South Korea, which moved forward with plans for a separate administration and army. In general, Soviet power in the Asia-Pacific region was flexible and resulted in the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Manchuria in early 1946. Whether in response to United States initiatives or because most Koreans despised the trusteeship agreement that had been negotiated at the end of 1945, separate institutions began to emerge in North Korea in early 1946.

In February 1946, an Interim People’s Committee led by Kim Il Sung became the first central government. [Recognized only in the north for obvious reasons.] The next month, a revolutionary land reform took place, dispossessing landlords without compensation. In August 1946, a powerful political party, the North Korean Workers’ Party, dominated politics as a result of a merger with the Korean Communist Party; in the fall the rudiments of a northern army appeared. Central agencies nationalized major industries that previously had been mostly owned by the Japanese and began a two-year economic program based on the Soviet model of central planning and priority for heavy industry. Nationalists and Christian leaders were ousted from all but pro forma participation in politics, and Cho Man-sik was placed under house arrest. Kim Il Sung and his allies dominated all the political parties, ousting resisters.

Thus the U.S. prepared for the conquest of all Korea by unilaterally creating the Republic of Korea (ROK) on September 9, 1948. Three weeks after the ROK had been formed in Seoul, the various revolutionary Communist and other workers’ parties in Korea—north and south—rejected the ROK as a mere phantom government, independent of the U.S. in name only. No one could mistake it for other than a puppet regime sitting on the knee of an American general and supported by a hated Japanese-trained police force, a newly created ROK army and, of course, by U.S. troops as its only effective and dependable military force.

Neither did it have any significant support in the population, north or south, beyond a handful of discredited landlords and capitalists who had shamefully done the bidding of their Japanese overlords.

The Soviet’s decisions in North Korea contrasted strongly with Soviet policies in Eastern Europe. North Korean Communists were a different breed from most of their West European counterparts. The North Korean army included tens of thousands of Korean soldiers who had fought alongside the Chinese guerrilla army against the Chinese capitalist government from 1945 to 1949 and with Manchurian guerrillas against the Japanese in Manchuria. These battle-hardened revolutionary guerrilla fighters returned to Korea after the Japanese surrendered and were not so easily tamed by Soviet Stalinists.

Kim Il Sung, by 1948 had established himself as Korean Stalinism’s most powerful leader after a series of factional struggles in the Korean Communist Party. Like some Stalinists—Tito in Yugoslavia, for one—who had built a solid independent base of seasoned revolutionary fighters, Kim was for that reason capable of defying Soviet Stalinism, and later Chinese Stalinism, when his caste interests diverged from theirs. And more often than not his caste interests at the time coincided with the class interests of Korea’s workers and peasants.

The Korean War

The beginning of conventional war in 1950 was precipitated by the ROK’s U.S. puppet ruler, President Syngman Rhee who fronted for U.S.-inspired provocations and the resulting outbreaks of shooting between opposing armies of the North and the South at the thirty-eighth parallel, the border dividing the two Koreas. It appeared inescapable, at the time, to any reasonably informed observer—and certainly to the North Korean government—that the first pretext that could be manufactured by the U.S. government and its capitalist news media monopoly would ultimately be the rationale provided U.S. “public opinion” for an assault on the Korean workers’ state by American forces.

Kim sought Stalin’s military aid and other assistance in preparation for an inevitable U.S. attack. The most he got from the Soviet government, however, was the outmoded World War II weaponry that was of no further use to the Soviet Union. Moreover, Stalin made the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK) pay for it in gold and raw materials.

In contrast, the Chinese were said to have provided far more significant support to the DPRK. And, as we now know, the Chinese provided decisive military assistance when all seemed to be lost for North Korea.

Moreover, as the American imperialist momentum toward war was building up, Stalin ordered Soviet troops to leave North Korea! (So much for the myth propagated by the U.S. mass media, that the DPRK government was a puppet of the Soviet Evil Empire!)

In accord with widely accepted historical norms, North Korea made an entirely justified preemptive assault to drive U.S. military forces of occupation out of a land that for more than two millennia was one country, not two. It was truly a war of liberation from imperialist domination, like the American revolutionary war against British domination and military occupation.

According to Woodward’s short history:

Within a month of the start of the invasion, North Korean forces had seized all but a small corner of southeastern Korea anchored by the port city of Pusan. Repeated North Korean efforts, blunted by heavy United States Air Force bombing and stubborn resistance by the combined United States and South Korean forces on the Pusan perimeter, denied Kim Il Sung forceful reunification of the peninsula.
The fortunes of war reversed abruptly in early September [1950] when General MacArthur boldly landed his forces at Inchon, the port city for Seoul in west central Korea. This action severed the lines of communication and supply between the North Korean army and its base in the north. The army quickly collapsed, and combined United States and South Korean forces drove Kim Il Sung’s units northward and into complete defeat.

When MacArthur’s forces reached the Chinese border and threatened to cross over the Yalu River into China the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army crossed the border and together with the North Korean army counter-attacked and pushed United States and South Korean forces out of North Korea within a month.

Although the war lasted another two years—until the summer of 1953—it was the first time in history that the United States failed to win a war, and was forced to accept a stalemate, that left the border between the North and South where it was at the war’s start, at the 38th parallel.

However, by the time the armistice was signed in 1953, North Korea had been devastated by three years of bombing attacks by the world’s most powerful military juggernaut that had left almost no modern buildings standing.

The 1994 Crisis and the US/North Korean truce

From 1953 to 1993 an uneasy truce had existed between the United States and North Korea. The crisis that began and was temporarily reconciled in 1993-94 has erupted again. Rather than review that crisis which is relatively fresh in the memory of most of us, let’s take a look at how the 1994 crisis was reconciled. And since, the power of the mass media to misinform is so monstrously effective, let’s try to find out who it was that really violated this treaty.

The big lie we heard repeated endlessly all last month is that it was North Korea that violated the treaty signed in 1994. (The treaty was signed by representatives of the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK)—the official name of North Korea—and the United States.) The news media focused exclusively on the alleged violation of that treaty by the government of North Korea. Let’s take a look at the main terms of the treaty, which goes by the peculiar name of the “Agreed Framework.” The following are the first and main points covered by this agreement.

Excerpts from the ‘Agreed Framework’

1.) Both sides will cooperate to replace the DPRK’s graphite-moderated reactors and related facilities with light-water reactor (LWR) power plants. [Emphasis added.]

2.) In accordance with the October 20, 1994 letter of assurance from the U.S. President, the U.S. will undertake to make arrangements for the provision to the DPRK of a LWR [Light Water Reactor] project with a total generating capacity of approximately 2,000 MW(e) by a target date of 2003.

3.)The U.S. will organize under its leadership an international consortium to finance and supply the LWR project to be provided to the DPRK. The U.S., representing the international consortium, will serve as the principal point of contact with the DPRK for the LWR project.

(Readers can find the treaty on the Internet by searching for “Agreed Framework.”)

The parts of the agreement which have been honored and adequately reported in the mass media are these: The DPRK would shut down its graphite-moderated reactors and related facilities and the U.S. agreed to supply oil to “offset the energy foregone due to the freeze of the DPRK’s graphite-moderated reactors and related facilities, pending completion of the first LWR unit.”

US first to violate 1994 agreement

But never mentioned in any of the reports and in-depth analyses in the capitalist media monopoly, is the failure to produce and deliver after 8 years the two nuclear Light Water Reactors promised to the DPRK as a central part of the “Agreed Framework” treaty.

This fact has, for all practical purposes, been kept secret from the American people. But the Koreans, north and south, know all about it. They know that the U.S. was the first to violate the 1994 treaty by cutting off the supply of oil, according to terms of the agreement, which is desperately needed by oil-starved1 North Korea. This arrogant violation, compounded by lying U.S. propaganda intended to make the victim the criminal, contributes heavily to the growing sense of solidarity in both parts of Korea.

Furthermore, all Koreans know they are not two, but one country and one people. And their aspirations for the realization of unification is rapidly growing. These facts help explain why Bush and his hawkish “dove,” Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, have such a hard time explaining why they are backtracking and that they really always did, and still, “seek a diplomatic solution.” But, Bush has said that he “will not negotiate” because that would be “giving in to North Korean nuclear blackmail.” However, diplomacy, as everyone knows, is impossible without dialogue. Thus, no one should depend on this being anything more than diplomatic double talk that is typical of capitalist diplomacy. (In this case, Bush is being super-hardnosed because he knows that taking on North Korea at the same time he begins the U.S. war on Iraq would be deadly foolishness.)

Though we have not yet found a smoking gun proving that there has been a conspiracy of silence on the part of the American news media concerning the U.S. government’s failure to live up to their part of the 1994 treaty, its silence is in itself revealing. While there have occasionally been very brief passing references to that part of the treaty, nothing has been said recently on the progress of the U.S. commitment to supply two light water nuclear reactors to North Korea. And, you would think that when the headlined reports of North Korean violation of the treaty were splashed all over the mass media last month, a few words might have been said on the status of that very important part of the agreement.

Also, an interesting reference to this matter appeared in the letters section of the January 4 New York Times refuting the charge that North Korea had violated the Agreed Framework by extracting plutonium from spent nuclear fuel rods and building or working to build nuclear weapons of mass destruction. It is reproduced below:

To the Editor:

Re “Bush Plays Down Rift With Allies Over U.S. Stance on North Korea (front page, Jan. 3.)
President Bush says that North Korea “was in violation of the ’94 agreement” by developing nuclear weapons based on enriched uranium. But in the 1994 “Agreed Framework,” North Korea agreed only to freeze the graphite-moderated reactors that produce plutonium and to put its fuel rods and plutonium separation facilities under International Atomic Energy Agency control.
There is no evidence that North Korea violated this agreement before we violated it ourselves by suspending oil shipments. (North Korea may well be in violation of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, from which it has threatened to withdraw.) The big surprise is that North Korea has built weapons from enriched uranium, using technology not covered under the agreed framework. The new reality is that almost any nation can do the same.

Bob Hemphill,
Gaithersburg, MD, Jan. 3, 2003

This treaty, as has been widely and repeatedly reported, ended a previous confrontation between North Korea and the United States in 1994. Korea attempted then as now to solve two of its most pressing problems in exchange for shutting down its nuclear power plants.

First, North Korea has no oil and gas to fuel its conventional electric power plants—without which any country today cannot exist, much less develop a modern industrial economy.

Secondly, North Korea has good reason to believe that unless they open their country to imperialist economic penetration, imperialism will sooner or later carry out its threats of preemptive action against North Korea—if it thinks it can get away with it without losing more than they gain.

Kim Jong Il, North Korea’s leader, has every right to hope that with a few nuclear bombs in his country’s arsenal and his formidable military machine, he can convince Bush that Korea will not be a pushover because these bombs can result in thousands of dead American soldiers—not to mention countless civilian casualties in North and South Korea.

Two wars at the same time?

A reporter asked Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld last month: Can America handle a war in Iraq and Korea at the same time? Rumsfeld answered in the affirmative as though all that was involved was whether the U.S. had enough planes, rockets, tanks and what-not to defeat the two countries it has targeted.

But that was not really the question. Ever since the U.S. nuclear-bombed the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, America’s capacity to defeat any country or number of countries militarily is no longer in question. (Of course that doesn’t include Russia or China or any major power with as many as a few dozen nuclear bombs and the means for their delivery. In that kind of contest no one can win.) The real question went far beyond U.S. military capability. In the final analysis, the real question that Rumsfeld should have answered is: Will the American people stand for it?

Now, we know that it took years of ever-larger mass protests to force the American ruling class to stop the killing of Vietnamese and those of our own young men who were sent to do the killing. But the world has changed since the 1960s and ’70s. Today even before the second war on Iraq has been formally launched (there has been a one-sided war by the U.S. and Britain against Iraq going on since the end of the first), there have already been mass demonstrations on American soil that dwarf those occurring in the first two of the 12-years of the Vietnam War!

Consequently, if even one of the two wars contemplated by Rumsfeld and his gang of evildoers goes on longer than he hopes, and if there are sizeable casualties, American imperialism may get more than it bargained for from the people of America and the world.

That’s why, those that hate war, especially infamously unjust wars, such as the U.S. is now threatening, should join the protest demonstrations on January 18 in San Francisco and Washington D. C. and wherever in the world they can act to stop wars against Iraq or North Korea before they begin.

Ten million people are expected to join a worldwide protest against an impending war on Iraq next month. Antiwar activists are organizing marches across Europe, America and the Middle East in what could be the biggest demonstration ever staged.

Here in the United States mass antiwar demonstrations will occur in Washington and San Francisco and in several other cities on January 18. And as President Bush reaffirmed his determination to invade Iraq, a global day of action, described by campaigners as “the last chance to stop the war,” is planned for Saturday, February 15 in San Francisco and New York.

1 Korea has no oil fields of its own. Moreover, the reopening of the graphite-moderated reactor, is because North Korea, deprived of both the promised light water nuclear electric generation plants and the oil that was part of the 1994 deal, needs to complete work on several big graphite-moderated nuclear plants that had been under construction and shut down by the agreement. The small five megawatt plant is primarily designed for experimental purposes. It was largely constructed for the purpose of gaining the skills needed for the operation of the other nuclear plants urgently needed for the generation of electric power—its capability for producing plutonium for bombs notwithstanding. 

Political leaders and organizers cut barbed wire across railroad tracks as a symbol of their desire to end hostility with communist North Korea during a ceremony marking the first anniversary of the summit between the leaders of the two Koreas in Seoul, South Korea, June 15, 2001. Photo by Ahn Young-joon (AP)