North Korea’s latest ballistic missile tests have exposed growing tensions between the U.S. and Chinese ruling classes. On March 6, a week before U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson began his tour of Asia to build support in the region, North Korea launched four ballistic missiles that landed within 200 miles of Japan’s coastline. On March 19, North Korea announced the successful test of a new high-thrust rocket engine that “could help with the country’s development of ICBMs—intercontinental ballistic missiles” with the potential to reach targets in the United States (cnn.com, 3/19). Despite pledges to “cooperate” between Tillerson and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in containing North Korea’s military ambitions, recent developments show how these major powers are building toward war (New York Times, 3/19).
U.S. Aim: Defend South Korea or Attack China?
The Korean Peninsula, a historic buffer and invasion route in East Asia, lies at the convergence of vital imperialist interests of the United States, China, Russia, and regional power Japan. The aggressive U.S. response to North Korea’s missile tests represents an escalated threat to a 60-year nuclear balance of power. Stating that “all options are on the table,” including military force, Tillerson made it clear to both North Korea and China, North Korea’s main ally, that the U.S. is moving beyond negotiations and economic sanctions (Bloomberg, 3/17). The U.S. immediately started deploying its Terminal High Altitude Area Defense System (THAAD) in South Korea, the U.S. proxy in the Peninsula since 1948.
According to China’s capitalist media, THAAD’s radar capabilities are designed to spy on China’s missile systems and military movements and undermine its self-defense against a potential U.S. preemptive strike (CNN, 3/7). China sees the “defense” system as a provocative “attempt to hem in its strategic position—and as a betrayal of the closer ties it has developed with South Korea over the last five years” (Foreign Affairs, 2/8). As South Korea’s largest trading partner, China has retaliated by attacking the South Korean economy. The Chinese bosses have imposed a travel ban to South Korea, resulting in billions of lost revenue, and have targeted the South Korean Lotte Group, which owns the land where THADD is being built. Citing code violations, China has shut down over half of Lotte stores in China (Bloomberg, 3/8).
Meanwhile, North Korea’s missile test has opened the door for Japan, China’s main regional rival and the main U.S. ally in the region, to participate in U.S.-South Korean joint military drills, which North Korea considers “a rehearsal for invasion” (NYT, 3/5). Japan plans to send its Izumo helicopter carrier on tour for the first time through the South China Sea, the shipping route for $5 trillion in annual global trade and a looming flashpoint between Chinese and U.S. imperialists.
China is also looking to exploit U.S. President Donald Trump’s rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which had been negotiated by Barack Obama to bolster U.S. economic power in China’s backyard. Predictably, China is moving to fill the void. Both China and South Korea are joining signatories to the blocked TPP in trade talks in Chile. Chinese bosses will be pushing their alternative trade alliance, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (Reuters 3/13). U.S. rejection of the TPP may alienate Japan, which was counting on the partnership to boost its
economy. It could also lead a number of U.S. allies to hedge their bets in the sharpening inter-imperialist competition.
At present, subduing North Korea is in the interest of both Chinese and U.S. rulers. At the moment, neither the U.S. nor China is prepared for a direct conflict. In an attempt to avoid giving U.S. bosses another pretext to increase their military influence in the region, China disciplined North Korea by suspending all coal imports, which account for nearly 40 percent of North Korea’s total exports (NYT, 2/18). But China’s bosses are reluctant to push North Korea too hard and risk triggering regime change and further destabilization on the Peninsula.
South Korean Instability Threatens U.S.
THAAD may not be a permanent fixture. The recent impeachment of South Korean President Park Geun-hye, who welcomed the system, could lead his successor to reconsider it. Already hurt by economic pressure from China, South Korean businesses are weighing their options.
Despite its strength as the 11th-largest economy in the world, South Korea is facing a crisis of unemployment, particularly among its youth. In February, its unemployment rate among 15-to-29-year-olds exceeded 12 percent (Business Times 3/15). According to the South Korean daily newspaper Hanyoreh, sellout unions are willing to agree to lower wages and cut hours to provide more work for youth (3/15).
Thousands of workers in South Korea are protesting in front of Lotte stores against THAAD—and the capitalist warmakers’ willingness to sacrifice workers’ lives. Many are first-time fighters; a large number are women. One farmworker said, “These rallies and such I had never done in my life. I believed that politics had nothing to do with me. All I have to do is vote for someone who can represent my region and country and that’s it…Now my perspective has changed a lot.” (Foreign Policy in Focus, 2/8).
These workers illustrate the ability of our class to fight back and seek class-conscious leadership. Protesting the South Korean government or U.S. imperialism is a good first step. At a time when billions of workers could be threatened or conscripted by the next world war, winning these workers to a communist line is more important than ever.
Regardless of the future of THAAD, it is clear the U.S. will push back against China in this pivotal region. From the Caribbean to the Mediterranean to the South China Sea, it is becoming harder for the bosses to conceal their buildup to war. As they advance in their preparations, we must continue to prepare as well—for communist revolution.
North Korea: No Friend to Workers
At the end of World War II, in the wake of its occupation by the defeated Japanese fascists, the Korean Peninsula was “temporarily” divided into North and South. Former fascist collaborators controlled the South in alliance with the Japanese, who were now protected by U.S. rulers. The North was led by anti-fascists who had fought these collaborators.
In June 1950, a war erupted between North and South. The U.S. said the North invaded, a claim open to dispute. On June 25, the early editions of the New York Times ran an Associated Press dispatch reporting that the South’s troops had crossed into North Korea. But later editions dropped that story and launched a full-scale media offensive claiming the North had initiated the clash.
Whatever actually happened, the conflict became a proxy war between the Soviet/China-backed North and the U.S.-backed South. For three years, the Cold War became hot; one million Koreans lost their lives. The U.S. drove the North’s army toward the Chinese border. Commanding General Douglas MacArthur wanted to cross into China, but the tide turned when massed Chinese volunteers drove the U.S. forces back into the South. U.S. President Harry Truman fired MacArthur, and eventually the U.S. ruling class decided it had no choice but to settle the conflict at the original North-South dividing line. That line stands to this day, with 30,000 U.S. troops still massed in the South.
By the late 1950s, the Soviet Union—having kept many capitalist features, including the wage system—abandoned the struggle for communism and regressed into a state capitalist regime. The North Korean leadership, caught up in the Cold War against the U.S. and its South Korean puppet, became a Soviet puppet. Following the Russian example, it developed into its present state.
Workers throughout the Korean Peninsula, on both sides of the bosses’ line, are suffering under the capitalist yoke. Only communism will free them from exploitation and the constant threat of imperialist war.