The story of North Korea

<> on December 10, 2015 in Norfolk, Virginia.

Secretary Of Defense Ash Carter


The U.S. government’s hysterical campaign against North Korea is likely to escalate as the Kim Jong-un regime works toward perfecting a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile. The Trump administration is considering its military options to try to stymie the tests, including missile strikes against North Korean missile bunkers and re-arming South Korea with nuclear weapons.

The U.S. has already taken harsh measures to isolate and punish the North Koreans. The Pentagon, for example, has ordered frequent cyber and electronic strikes against North Korea’s missile launches. The New York Times reported in its March 4 edition that U.S. sabotage efforts, in a program begun by the Obama administration in 2014, appear to have caused a large number of the country’s rockets to explode or veer off course. The failure rate of its intermediate-range Musudan missile is 88 percent.

Of course, as the drums of war beat ever louder, North Koreans remember that the U.S. even considered dropping an atomic bomb on them in the Korean War of the early 1950s. In the article below, a version of which appeared in Socialist Action newspaper in 2012, we look more closely at Korea’s history.

To understand the current conflict, you have to understand something about Korea’s history. The story of the Korean people is a long and rich one, but one of the prevailing themes of their history has been their centuries-old struggle against foreign domination. To many Koreans, the current stand-off is yet another chapter in a long book of foreign meddling.

For centuries, the Koreans have fought to free their country from the rule of their more powerful neighbors, namely China and Japan. While originally China was the main aggressor, in modern history it was Japan that most actively sought to colonize the Koreans.

Japan’s first major invasion of Korea took place in 1592. However, it wasn’t until the early 1900s that Japan was able to definitively conquer Korea. By this time Japan had become a rising industrial power, and in the wake of its defeat of Tsarist Russia in the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, Japan was given the nod by the other imperial powers to gobble up Korea as war booty.

By 1910, Japan had subjugated Korea, and turned it into a colony. While a small layer of the Korean elite were groomed to be local lackeys for the Japanese occupiers, the vast majority of Koreans were treated like mere slaves—forced to grow food, mine minerals, and manufacture cheap goods for the Japanese homeland.

This brutal occupation was met by a number of popular rebellions that, unfortunately, were all ultimately unsuccessful.

In 1925, in the wake of the inspiring Bolshevik revolution of 1917, the Korean resistance gave birth to an embryonic communist movement. Forced to work underground, many of its early activists were killed by the Japanese occupiers. The brutal repression by the authorities forced the young communist movement to take up arms in self-defense. Small bands of revolutionaries around the country came together to try and defend their communities, and from time to time to strike out at police and military installations.

The Japanese response was to organize sweeping military offensives that drove many of these revolutionaries to the far north of the country, and over the border into the neighboring Manchuria region of China.

While hundreds of thousands of Koreans found themselves in Manchuria, it provided no refuge, as the advancing Japanese imperialists were hot on their heels. Using the deposed ruling family of the old Chinese empire as their puppets, the Japanese set up a puppet state in Manchuria that they dubbed Manchukuo. The presence of hundreds of thousands of Japanese soldiers, and a government filled with Japanese rather than Manchurian officials, made clear who really ruled “Manchukuo.”

The Korean resistance to Japanese occupation continued, however, both within the Korean peninsula and in Manchuria. Within Manchuria Korean communists, soon found themselves not only hounded by the Japanese, but also often by the Chinese Communists, who looked on Koreans as possible collaborators of the Japanese, and who killed thousands of them in various purges. Despite this, the Stalinist-led Communist International insisted that the Korean communists submit to the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, and as a result, the bands of Korean resistance fighters in Manchuria came under Mao Zedong’s nominal control.

One of the most important leaders of these Korean resistance bands was Kim Il-Sung—the future leader of North Korea. While Kim Il-Sung’s feats were later grossly exaggerated when he become North Korea’s leader, it is true that he led one of the more successful bands of revolutionaries, and engaged in a number of armed actions with the Japanese.

By the end of the 1930s, Kim Il-Sung and most Korean communist leaders found themselves forced to take refuge in Soviet Siberia after a series of massive Japanese military offensives against them. Here the Korean fighters would sit out most of the rest of the Second World War, as the Soviets were hesitant to anger the Japanese by letting the Koreans use the USSR as a base of operations. Not until the Soviet Union declared war on Japan in August of 1945 did Kim Il-Sung and company get to cross the border again, and then it was as part of the baggage train of the Soviet armies that quickly occupied Manchuria and the northern part of the Korean peninsula in the final few weeks of the war before Japan surrendered.

Creation of North Korea

Once the war ended, the Allied powers decided to divide the Korean peninsula between the North, which would be occupied by the Soviets, and the South, to be occupied by the United States. No consideration was given to the will of the Korean people, and despite their decades of heroic resistance against the Japanese, they weren’t even nominally consulted on the matter.

Both the Soviets and the U.S. quickly set about creating puppet governments in their new protectorates. Unlike the U.S. though, the Soviet army soon withdrew from North Korea, leaving a new regime headed by Kim Il-Sung in place.

Kim Il-Sung’s regime in many ways resembled the new Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe. Ostensibly they were multi-party “people’s democracies” in which the Communist Parties were simply part of coalition governments, but in reality the Stalinists were in firm control.

The other parties that made up the North Korean government, such as the Chongdois Chongu Party and the Social Democratic Party, were soon reduced to hollow shells with little autonomy and even less influence. They became little more than window dressings. Similarly, within the Korean Communist Party (later renamed the Korean Workers’ Party), Kim Il-Sung quickly pushed out any potential rivals and assumed undisputed control of the party and the government.

Despite the growing repressiveness of the Stalinist regime in the North, the Communist Party continued to have broad support in the U.S. puppet state in the South. The Communist Party counted hundreds of thousands of members and sympathizers, and despite the U.S. occupiers‘ best efforts to ban and repress the party, it continued to grow. Already beginning in 1945 it was organizing armed resistance in a number of parts of the country. Some of these guerrilla battles involved up to tens of thousands of South Korean revolutionaries taking on U.S. occupation forces and attacking pro-Japanese landlords and other collaborators.

Back in the North, with Stalin’s active support, Kim Il-Sung was rapidly building up his military forces. In 1950, in a bid to re-unite the Korean people, the North Korean army invaded the South. This attack came on the heels of a series of skirmishes and incursions between the North and South Korean militaries.

At the same time that the North invaded, hundreds of thousands of South Koreans rose up against the U.S. occupation. The result was the near total collapse of the Syngman Rhee regime in Seoul, which was forced to flee while the U.S. military itself was nearly ejected from the peninsula. Within the span of only a few weeks, U.S. forces had been pushed back to a tiny corner of the peninsula around the city of Pusan.

While one can criticize the tactics used by the North Koreans to re-unify their people, the fact remains that re-unification was nearly universally supported. The Syngman Rhee regime, comprised of numerous Koreans who had collaborated with the Japanese occupation, was extremely unpopular. It ruled only through U.S. military backing. The rejection of the majority of the South Korean people of this state of affairs was powerfully demonstrated by the popular uprising in support of the Northern invasion, and the large-scale defections of many South Korean soldiers to the North.

The will of the Korean people, however, mattered little to the imperialists holding court in Washington, D.C. President Truman and his generals quickly mobilized reinforcements for the beleaguered troops trapped in Pusan, and then launched a massive amphibious landing behind North Korean lines, forcing the North Koreans to retreat.

The U.S. military, joined by a number of other pro-imperialist armies (British, South African, Turkish, French, Canadian, Australian, Greek, Dutch, Thai, Belgian, New Zealander, Luxembourgian, Columbian, Ethiopian, and Filipino) under the guise of the United Nations, pursued the North Koreans past the former border and into the North.

Aided by devastating carpet bombings and massive use of napalm, the United Nations forces devastated the North. Its cities were literally leveled—with whole neighborhoods left with no buildings standing. Tens of thousands were killed, and hundreds of thousands fled in terror before the advancing U.N. forces.

Intending to completely conquer North Korea, the imperialists were dealt a stunning blow in 1951 when an army of Chinese soldiers came to the aid of the North Koreans, and changed the course of the war yet again. U.S. and UN forces were pushed back down the peninsula, back to a line near the original border—where the war would drag on for another two years in the form of bloody trench warfare.

In the end the imperialists had to cry “uncle” and agree to a ceasefire. This represented a partial victory for the Korean people—but the cost in lives and destruction had been astronomical and the peninsula and its people were left divided.

In the wake of the war, the U.S. poured significant resources into rebuilding South Korea, and supported a string of brutal dictators who vigorously repressed the labor, socialist, and student movements. The North Koreans, in comparison, received far less reconstruction aid from the Soviets and Chinese.

Nevertheless, the North was able to slowly rebuild. Benefiting from having most of the peninsula’s mineral resources, and having been the site of most of the industries that the Japanese had built during their occupation, the North Korean economy was able to boast significantly higher growth and output compared to the South throughout the 1950s, ’60s, and into the 1970s.

North Korea was also careful to remain neutral in the political rift that developed between the Chinese and Russian Stalinists during the Sino-Soviet split that began in the late 1950s.

It was during this time (1955) that Kim Il-Sung and his cohorts first put forth their famous “Juche” theory. Juche preached self-reliance and independence at all costs. It made a virtue out of autarky. While initially it was described as a Korean addition to Marxist thought, by 1972 Kim Il-Sung had replaced all references to Marxism-Leninism in North Korea’s constitution with Juche, and it was soon described as having “superseded” Marxism-Leninism.

While still referring to themselves as socialists, the North Korean Stalinists rejected Marxism and Leninism as European notions. In essence, Juche became the ideological framework for a particularly nationalistic, and even xenophobic, form of Stalinism.

Despite what it called itself, though, North Korea remained a deformed workers’ state. Capitalism had been expropriated, but the workers had been denied democratic control of the society by a self-serving, parasitic bureaucracy surrounding Kim Il-Sung.

North Korean famine

By the 1980s it had become clear that South Korea had economically surpassed North Korea. By brutally repressing labor and students, often at gunpoint, the South Korean ruling class had succeeded in turning their country into an up and coming economic power—one of the so called “Asian Tigers.” South Korean capitalists, taking advantage of cheap labor, generous U.S. aid, and Japanese investment, were able to become major producers in the field of steel, ship-building, automobiles, and electronics, among other things.

Meanwhile, North Korean industry was unable to advance beyond a 1960s level of technology. Internationally isolated, things went from bad to worse when the Soviet Union collapsed at the end of 1991. Cut off from the subsidized oil that the Soviets had provided, energy poor North Korea went into a serious crisis. Many factories were idled for lack of energy, and electricity blackouts became common.

Agriculture was similarly affected by a decrease in the amount of fertilizer and other chemical inputs that North Korea’s failing industries were able to provide. But these problems would be dwarfed by the natural disasters that were to follow.

In 1995, a devastating series of floods destroyed thousands of acres of cropland and knocked out roads, dams, and railroad tracks. There was a drop of 50% to 75% in the nation’s harvest, and matters were made worse by an ensuing drought. Food, which had already become scarce in the early 1990s as a result of the economic crisis, now became almost impossible to obtain. By 1996 the country was in the grip of famine, and it’s estimated that between 1996 and 1999 anywhere from 200,000 to 3 million people died.

The response of the international community was slow and woefully inadequate. The U.S. likes to brag that when news of the famine hit, only China stepped forward and offered more aid than it did. But given that the total amount of aid given in 1995 amounted to only $8 million, less then the cost of half a dozen cruise missiles, the U.S. should be ashamed. Despite their claims to the contrary, the slow and checkered reaction of the imperialists to this devastating human catastrophe was clearly a case of using food as a weapon.

Nuclear & missile stand-off

Kim Il-Sung, who had ruled North Korea since its founding, died in 1994 at the beginning of the crisis. He was succeeded by his son, Kim Jong-Il, who continued his father’s absurd cult of personality, which reached such extremes that it would have made even Joseph Stalin or Mao Zedong blush.

Kim Jong-Il inherited a state in near total economic ruin. The state-run economy had broken down to such a point that the state no longer even bothered to try to nationally distribute food, requiring instead that each local area become completely self-sufficient in food production or starve.

Kim Jong-Il’s response to this crisis was to rely almost exclusively on the military. He put forth a new ideology called Songun. Songun, which is meant to supersede the old Juche philosophy, is based on the notion that the military, not the working class, is the revolutionary foundation of the state, and that all resources necessary should go to it.

It was during this time that North Korea began to accelerate its nuclear program. Having begun in the 1980s with a small Soviet research reactor, the North Koreans went on to build their own primitive reactor in Yongbyon in an attempt to reduce their need to import petroleum.

It was also during this time that the North Korean regime dramatically ramped up its arms sales. North Korea had built up a significant arms industry way back in the aftermath of the Korean War. While much of their output was of obsolete Soviet and Chinese designs, much of it reverse engineered with little support from either, they came to produce a wide range of military equipment—from small arms all the way up to tanks and even submarines. They also succeeded in reverse engineering old Soviet Scud missiles, from which they went on to produce a whole family of single and multi-stage missiles.

While crude by modern standards, North Korean missiles were cheap, and available to any regime willing to pay for them. As a result, during the 1990s the North Koreans became one of the world’s leading exporters of short and medium range ballistic missiles, with many of them going to countries on the U.S. bad side, like Iran and Syria.

The combination of North Korea’s developing a nuclear industry, together with ballistic missiles, sent Washington into a tizzy. Nothing infuriates imperialists more than when third-world countries dare to arm themselves with weapons that might actually be able to deter imperialist bullying. Despite the fact that the U.S. has for decades openly kept nuclear weapons in South Korea, and on naval vessels in the region, the U.S. hypocritically denounced the North Koreans for their nuclear program.

The North Koreans insisted that they had the right to defend themselves, and indicated that what they were after was a non-aggression pact from the U.S., a nuclear-free Korean peninsula, and energy aid.

For our part, Socialist Action agrees that North Korea has the right to develop nuclear energy, and nuclear weapons for that matter, as much as we find both things distasteful. Given the threat that the U.S. poses, North Korea has the right to defend itself, and to create a deterrent to possible aggression.

After a series of United Nations resolutions and attempts to further isolate North Korea economically and diplomatically, in 1994 the Clinton administration finally agreed to sit down with the North Koreans and work out a compromise. Frustrated by its inability to stop the North Korean regime, the U.S. imperialists offered them a deal. In exchange for shutting down their nuclear reactor, and agreeing to allow inspectors in, the U.S. would provide a certain amount of petroleum and assistance in providing alternative nuclear technology that could be used for generating electricity, though not weapons-grade material.

This deal held for several years until the U.S. broke it. The U.S. began to reduce the amount of oil delivered to North Korea, and under the Bush administration the spigot was cut off completely. The North Koreans then restarted work on their reactor and in 2006 tested a nuclear bomb.

What has followed since then has basically been a broken record, in which the U.S. screams and hollers, and the North Koreans holler back. Very little new is ever said or proposed. Since 2009 the North Koreans have tested another bomb and test fired a number of missiles, and the U.S. has responded with more efforts to tighten the noose around North Korea’s neck.

The U.S. campaign against North Korea

The recent escalation [in 2012] has resulted in the U.S. and UN saying that they will begin boarding and searching North Korean ships suspected of transporting arms for export, which the UN sanctions now prohibit. The North Koreans have stated that any boardings of its ships will be taken as a declaration of war.

Meanwhile, back home, American workers are being fed a steady diet of anti-North Korean horror stories. While careful to never mention the U.S. violations of its agreements with North Korea, or the presence of U.S. nukes in the region, a steady torrent of stories about North Korea’s threats and deceptions bombards us. A considerable degree of fear is being drummed up about North Korean missiles, and a possible nuclear attack, reminiscent of the war mongering carried about against Iraq in 2001, and against Iran today.

There is no denying the fact that North Korea is indeed a brutal Stalinist dictatorship, which represses its own people and puts the interest of the ruling bureaucracy and its armed forces above all else. Nevertheless, it is not the job of the United States to police the Korean peninsula.

The world’s major manufacturer, distributor, and user of weapons of mass destruction—of the nuclear, chemical and biological varieties—has no standing in our view to make demands on any nation. It has no right to dictate the internal policy of any country. Only the Korean people themselves have the right to determine their country’s policies, and to overthrow their government—both North and South. It is the Korean people alone who can create a just solution to the problems they face, on both sides of the DMZ.

The bully tactics of U.S. imperialism are not meant to improve the lot of the Korean people, or to protect them from nuclear war. Rather, its policies are geared towards increasing its own power and position in East Asia to the detriment of the working people of the region.

While we do not lend any political support to the North Korean regime, Socialist Action unconditionally defends North Korea against any and all U.S. aggression. We reject the notion that imperialism has any role to play whatsoever in the region. We call on all antiwar activists to join us in opposing all U.S. and UN military, economic, and diplomatic moves against North Korea. Hands Off North Korea! Self-determination for the Korean People!

Photo: U.S. aircraft patrolled near North Korea in 2016. Mark Wilson / Getty Images

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