Editorial from the September 2017 issue of the Socialist Standard
When the Russian bloc collapsed, it was widely believed that the Cold War had ended and that the danger of a global nuclear war had passed. Since the 9/11 attacks, the received wisdom is that the threat to humanity lies not so much in a war between the major powers, but in acts of terrorism carried out by groups, such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda.
Yet, here we are, in the 21st Century, facing a nuclear confrontation between the United States and North Korea. Much of the discussion has focused on the volatile behaviour of the two protagonists. In response to threats made against the US by Kim Jong-un, the North Korean president, Donald Trump's reply -- 'fire and fury like the world has never seen' -- signals that he is prepared to nuke the country with the potential loss of millions of lives. Kim Jong-un has countered by threatening to fire four missiles towards the sea around Guam, a US territory.
However, this is more than a tale of two narcissistic psychopaths. The trading of threats and insults between the two countries is nothing new. In January 1968, North Korea seized a US spy ship, Pueblo, and held the crew prisoner for eleven months, and in June 1994, President Clinton drew up plans for a pre-emptive strike against the country.
The origin of this conflict can be traced to the end of the Second World War, when Russian forces occupied the northern part of the Korea peninsula and American forces occupied the remainder, thus ending thirty-five years of Japanese rule. In 1950 the North, with the backing of Russia and China, launched an invasion against the South, and the US and its allies, including Britain, retaliated by sending in troops to beat back the North Korean and Chinese forces. Fighting continued until a truce was declared in 1953.
The Korean Peninsula became a focal point for the geopolitical struggle between the Russian bloc and the Western states for the control of global markets, which defined the two countries. North Korea emerged as a state capitalist dictatorship, fraudulently claimed by its rulers to be Socialist. South Korea is an openly capitalist state, backed by the US, which stations thousands of troops there.
After the USSR collapsed, North Korea became more reliant on its remaining ally, China. With its increasing international isolation, the state has become less able to provide for its workers, many of whom are on the verge of starvation. Thus the ruling class relies more heavily on a repressive and well armed state, and its provocative military manoeuvres are partly designed to rally the population against what they define as the outside enemy, the US, but also to send a warning that the regime cannot be overthrown in the way that Saddam Hussein and Col Gaddafi were. It is this context that has driven the North Korean state to develop nuclear weapons.
To seek a solution to this crisis, we should be concerned less with the sanity of Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un, but more with the insanity of the capitalist system that creates the fertile ground for such crises.