A Short History of US Imperialism in Korea
Always ready to encourage serial killings in a new imperialist intervention, the bourgeois press agitates on a regular basis for a new war against North Korea. The popular portrayal of North Korea is a country whose people (who should be freed by Western imperialists) are enslaved and starved by an unpredictable and paranoid leader (that we should eliminate) who is allegedly preparing the first global atomic war. This discourse of an imminent threat would justify “our troops” going there to provoke a “regime change” no matter what it will cost in terms of human losses.
After Iraq and Afghanistan, and according to the mood of the moment, the next target for imperialism could be Syria, Iran, or North Korea. The bourgeois media, however, are careful not to speak of the previous imperialist interventions that are the main reason for the North Korean regime and its population’s hostility. Below we will examine, through a brief history of US imperialism, the nature of this threat.
Japanese Occupation and Resistance (1910-1945)
At the end of the 19th century, Korea, like many other parts of the world, was the victim of Japanese German, American, French, and British imperialists who were competing for control of the country. Japan finally won out and, in 1910, Korea was annexed by the Japanese Empire.
Under this occupation, the peasants were massively expropriated while workers suffered exploitation as they saw their food rations decreased by almost half. The people underwent continual exactions from Japanese settlers who were acting in almost complete impunity under the extraterritorial rights doctrine. 1 The situation worsened up until the Second World War when millions of Koreans were enslaved, many dying in the mines or sequestered in brothels reserved for Japanese soldiers.
It is in this context that a powerful resistance movement emerged, which would see one of its highest points in the March 1st Movement of 1919 that brought together more than two million people over three months in some 1,500 street demonstrations. Seven thousand demonstrators died at the hands of police officers, many under torture. Fifty thousand were put behind bars under Peace Preservation Law, 2 and thousands more escaped repression into neighbouring Manchuria, which soon was also occupied by the Japanese Army.
The unbridled exploitation of the peasant and working masses thus led the nationalist movement, initially limited to the old fallen nobility, to extend and radicalize, inspired by the wave started by the October Revolution and fed by the revolutionary struggles in neighbouring China.
The US Occupation of South Korea
• The “Liberation”
In August 1945, following the Japanese surrender to Allied forces, the Soviets, at the request of the Americans, halted their advance in the zones occupied by Japan. On September 8, US forces landed on the Korean peninsula and set up a military government south of the zone where the Soviet were stationed, north of the 38th parallel. But the Americans, despite being part of the war against Germany and Japan, recognized the Japanese as their natural allies in Korea since their objective was to contain the Communist progression.
Thus, on Sept. 9, 1945, John Hodge, head of the US military government in Korea, announced the restoration of the former colonial authorities. The widespread outcry that this decision aroused forced him to retract it, but he nevertheless appointed Japanese advisers to the Americans in management positions. The old colonial police was also rebuilt; a significant part of its new staff was recruited from the still active fascist youth leagues. Finally, in December 1948, the Peace Preservation Law was restored under a new name: the National Security Law. So-called “Liberation” was in fact the beginning of a new occupation.
• Phony Elections
In November 1947, in order to ensure a minimum of “democratic legitimacy” to their regime, the U.S. proposed that the UN oversee elections in Korea. But upon arrival, the UN observers voiced their concerns about the validity of the process. The Australian delegates warned that the elections were “appearing to be under the control of a single party”—the then Korea Democratic Party.
Despite opposition from France, Canada and Australia for the immediate holding of elections in Korea, the United States managed to get the support of other delegates.3 Elections were therefore held. The American military government had indeed planned the “democratic transition” in 1945 when they oversaw the formation of the Korea Democratic Party (Han-guk Minjudang), which consisted of large industrial magnates and landowners all closely related to Japanese interests. The Americans thus established an interim government in 1946 at the head of which the Han-guk Minjudang was placed; one year later, the same party was responsible for overseeing the elections.4
The opposition to the electoral process was global, from North to South and from Right to Left. The main political parties refused to participate, except the Han-guk Minjudang and Singman Rhee’s NARRKI. 5 To avoid a low turnout that could have affected the legitimacy to the future government, ration coupons that nearly 50% of the population needed for survival were only give to those who voted. 6 On May 10, 1948, Singman Rhee was elected President of the Republic with a participation rate of 95%. With the support of the Americans, he continued the same politics of systematic repression of political opposition.
• Decimating the Opposition
On September 7, 1945, on the eve of the US invasion of Korea, the Government of the People’s Republic of Korea was established and supported by a number of organizations that participated in the resistance. Anarchists, social democrats and communists participated in the formation of the government, establishing hundreds of people’s committees throughout Korea. In factories, in the countryside, cities and villages, workers and peasants were collectively deciding on matters related to their work and living conditions.
Among other things, the government announced its will to redistribute land to poor peasants, nationalize major industries, impose a minimum wage and the eight-hour day, defend and promote the equality of men and women, and ensure freedom of press and expression. Accusing them of being Soviet Union puppets, the Americans declared the government illegal. The Inmin Gonghwaguk continued its activities underground and reorganized itself as the Workers’ Party of South Korea (Namrodang) with more than 360,000 members. The repression, however, did not stop.
Located at 100 km of the Korean coast, the Jeju Island, where about 250,000 people were living, was then a bastion of Namrodang. In April 1948, large demonstrations were held opposing the elections. A series of events, including the refusal of two regiments to attack protesters, led to a one-year armed conflict. At the end, about one in three were considered dead or missing; houses and villages were destroyed. On May 19, 1949, the US ambassador to Korea notified Washington: “All rebels of Jeju Island were either killed, captured or converted.”
In 1949, the then President Syngman Rhee set up political rehabilitation program for “thought violators.” Communists, socialists and other critics of the regime were forced to enlist in this program. Called the Bodo League, 7 the group quickly included up to 300,000 members, who were constantly monitored by the police. In 1950, shortly after the outbreak of the Korean War, Syngman Rhee ordered the execution of all League members. The Army and the Korean police summarily executed between 100,000 and 200,000 people, including children. The Americans then had the audacity to film the mass graves to make a propaganda film in which they accused communists for this massacre. 8
• The Korean War
In 1950, the leader of North Korea, Kim Il Sung, decided the time had come to reunite Korea by relying on the support of the South Korean masses. South Korean troops would join the Korean People’s Army (Inmin Gun) en masse; behind enemy lines, numerous support strikes paralyzed the South Korean economy. In June 1950, the Inmin Gun crossed the border of the 38th parallel; in less than three months, they succeeded in repelling the South Korean and American armies to the coast at the southern end of the peninsula.
The US then appealed to the UN, who mobilized a special force of 230,000 men, including 26,000 Canadians, to defend the “Republic of Korea.” What could have been seen as a civil war became a real war of aggression, with a dozen foreign nations invading Korea.
As early as October 1950, UN forces recaptured Seoul and quickly reached the extreme northern border of Korea. China then engaged in the conflict with 270,000 men to support Inmin Gun and pushed the UN troops south of the 38th parallel. A protracted trench war followed for three years until the July 27, 1953 armistice that would set the borders of the two Koreas on the former demarcation line.
An atomic bloodbath was avoided several times, but the US/UN offensive was nonetheless a carnage: three million civilians dead, more bombs dropped than against Japan during World War II, and the use of more napalm than would be used in the Vietnam War. Six hundred thousand soldiers lost their lives, mostly Chinese and Korean. US generals would report that at the end of the war not a single city, nor a village or a building, rose higher than ground level north of the 38th parallel. It is estimated that, following the contamination of soil by bombing, 75% of formerly arable land was no longer usable.
• 40 Years of Military Regimes
From 1948 to 1987, the United States politically, economically and militarily supported the various authoritarian regimes that succeeded in South Korea. The Americans set up over 80 military bases and installations in South Korea; they maintained more than 30,000 garrison soldiers while keeping, since 1948, the military command of the South Korean Army. The Korean Central Intelligence Agency—a true political police created in 1961—engaged in the extortion, torture and murder of thousands of political opponents. Street and people’s protests were severely and systematically repressed—and still are.
In May 1980, after big demonstrations in Gwanju, the Carter administration urged the South Korean government to regain control of the situation, by force if necessary; between 1,000 and 2,000 demonstrators were slaughtered. It was not until 1988 that the regime experienced a small democratization, but the National Security Act is still in force. Amnesty International reported that in 1998 alone, nearly 400 people were arrested for opinion offenses, including a student who was sentenced to eight months in prison for having published an article from the Trotskyist Chris Harman online.
More recently, in 2002, a South Korean man was sentenced to two years for accusing the US government of being the main instigator of the partition of Korea. In the portion of Korea they occupied, with their repression of the people’s movement and the support they gave to the most reactionary forces, the US imperialists highly contributed to the growth of the two opposing regimes’ dynamics in the North and South. The latent state of war that ensued then served, on both sides of the border, as an excuse for suppressing the legitimate struggles of the popular classes by fierce security policies. Today, Americans and their allies are the main obstacle to the reunification of Korea that is widely desired by Korean people.
- 1. The extraterritoriality rights grant citizens of another country full legal immunity. They were mostly imposed on a State by the colonialist powers for the benefit of their own nationals. Although the latter remained subject to the laws and justice of their own country, those were generally more tolerant if not lenient with respect to crimes committed in the colonies.
- 2. In force from 1894 to 1945, the Peace Preservation Law of the Japanese Empire significantly restricted the freedoms of assembly, of speech and press. By 1900, labour unions were targeted and banned; strikes, too, were forbidden. Then from 1928, Left organizations were targeted, so that anyone disputing the right of private property was liable to the death penalty.
- 3. Chiang Kai-shek’s China, El Salvador, India and the Philippines supported the resolution, while Syria abstained.
- 4. The Han-guk Minjudang indeed detained 12 of the 15 seats at the National Electoral Committee.
- 5. Fervent anti-communist, Singmann Rhee was probably the only nationalist figure to be supported by the US. His party, the National Alliance for the Rapid Realization of Korean Independence, yet broke out into two sections, one supporting the electoral process, the other boycotting.
- 6. During the Japanese occupation, rice production had been fully centralized. Upon arrival, the Americans decided to replace it by free market. A complete disorganization of the production followed; South Korea yet considered the “rice bowl of the peninsula” was on the brink of starvation. Narrowly avoiding a humanitarian crisis, Americans brought back a centralized rationing system.
- 7. Bodo means “Support and Guidance.”
- 8. The Massachusetts School of Law. (Nov. 26, 2011). The Korean War: A History Part 2 – Bruce Cumings [online video]. Available at http://mslawmedia.org/2011/12/cumings-korean-war-part-2/
A Socialist Regime, Really?
Some people and organizations that are nostalgic for the existence of a “socialist camp” under the leadership of the social-imperialist Soviet Union cling to North Korea as one of the last “socialist states” in existence. According to them, this is the reason why the Bush administration put North Korea on the “Axis of evil” list of countries following 9/11. However, neither the Islamic Republic of Iran nor Saddam Hussein’s Iraq are socialist and they also found themselves on this list along with the DPRK.
For Maoists, the regime established on the territory known as North Korea has never been socialist. It came from a legitimate national liberation struggle which, like many other movements that erupted at the same era, triumphed in the context of the Cold War, when there was in fact a socialist camp that was counterweighting the old colonialist and imperialist powers.
Founded in 1945, the Workers’ Party of Korea first introduced itself as Marxist-Leninist. After Stalin’s death and the coming to power of Khrushchev in the Soviet Union, North Korea adopted a similar line as Romania and North Vietnam, refusing to sever its relationship with either the Soviet or Chinese parties at the time of the Great Debate that split the international communist movement. The Workers’ Party of Korea then made sure to maintain formal and cordial relationships with both protagonists.
Juche: an Anti-Marxist Ideology
This desire to maintain its independence has always characterized the ideology promoted by the North Korean regime. The Prime Minister, Party Secretary and founder of North Korea, Kim Il Sung, is officially the author of the “Juche” ideology (a term often translated as “self-reliance”); in 1972, Juche officially replaced Marxism-Leninism as the state’s official ideology in the country’s constitution.
In short, Juche is defined as “a new philosophical thought which centres on man” and allows him to “solve all problems mainly by [his] own efforts.” Initially, Juche was introduced as a “creative application of Marxism-Leninism,” in continuity with it. Eventually, however (in 1998, specifically), any reference to Marxism-Leninism was removed from the North Korean constitution. In 2009 the very notion of “communism” was discarded, replaced three years later by Kimilsungism-Kimjongilism, in reference to the father and his son who successively ruled over the land until the death of the second in December 2011.
In the words of Kim Il Sung, the Juche boils down to “organize and mobilize the entire people in building a sovereign and independent State… without being influenced by established theories or foreign experiences.” 1 As for the goal of communism—that was still officially on the agenda in his time—the leader suggested that it will be reached mainly by “developing the productive forces” and “revolutionizing, working-classizing and intellectualizing all members of society and thus transforming them into communist men of a Juche type.” Like Khrushchev’s revisionism in the USSR, Juche affirms the end of antagonistic contradictions between classes, and thus the end of class struggle as the motor force of history. The “entire people” share a common if not a unique interest, more fundamental than any other one: that of “defending the fatherland.”
Officially, the Workers’ Party of Korea recognizes the existence of three different classes in North Korean society, whose unity is also symbolized by its logo: the working class, the peasantry and the samuwon—the so-called class of intellectuals and professionals. In this scheme, there is neither a bourgeoisie nor antagonistic classes: the enemy is to be found outside of North Korea; otherwise he is necessarily in connivance with foreign countries.
Juche is the opposite of the Marxist-Leninist-Maoist understanding of classes and class struggle under socialism as systematized during China’s Cultural Revolution. The GPCR was aimed at revolutionizing society and moving forward towards communism through the collective mobilization of the masses in waging class struggle; it had nothing to do with revolutionizing individuals in a moral sense.
As conceived by Juche, Ideological Revolution is totally different from Maoist Cultural Revolution: according to Kim Il-sung, “learning party members and other workers to enjoy work is an important objective” of this revolution. Here we are very far of what the dictatorship of the proletariat and the concrete exercise of power by the working masses might look like. In this regard, Juche is similar to the conception that Enver Hoxha and the Party of Labour of Albania were promoting in the 1960s and 1970s when they were trying to counterbalance the Chinese Cultural Revolution (or to avoid such a revolution in Albania) with a campaign to revolutionize individuals.
From One Kim to Another
After the death of Kim Il Sung in 1994, his son, Kim Jong Il, succeeded him. From there, the North Korean regime abandoned any claim to continuity with, or at least some connection to Marxism-Leninism. In a 1996 speech, 2 Kim Jong Il insisted: “The Juche philosophy is an original philosophy which has been evolved and systematized with its own principle… which is fundamentally different from the preceding philosophy.” Interestingly, he openly criticized North Korean social scientists who were still attempting—painstakingly, we must say—to present Juche as a development of Marxist dialectical materialism.
According to Kim Jong Il, Marxist dialectics was limited and imperfect because it neglects “the essential qualities of man—the best qualified and most powerful being in the world… who is the master of everything and who decides everything.” He advocated that there is “a universal law of social movement” that is independent of the “general law of the development of the material world.”
He added that “the history of social development is the history of development of man’s independence, creativity and consciousness.” In short, it is the ideas and consciousness that are leading the world… and these ideas should be no other than that of the party: “We must accept the Party’s ideology as the absolute truth, defend it resolutely and keep it as a revolutionary conviction, and thus understand, interpret and propagate the Juche philosophy correctly.” Here again, we are quite far from the Cultural Revolution and Mao’s call to “dare to go against the tide” and “bombard the headquarters!”
As for Kim Jong Il’s successor, Kim Jong Un (who assumed office after the death of his father in December 2011), the few documents or speeches attributed to him are going in the same direction, promoting patriotic and national unity and culminating with the idea of a fusion or amalgamation of the people and the party.
In a speech he made to support the nomination of his father as “Eternal General Secretary” of the WPK, 3 the young Kim presents the party as a mother who must ensure the well-being of its children: “As a mother does not abandon her child, even though he or she is uncomely or mischievous, but is more nervous and concerned about him or her, Party organizations should ensure that all the people are embraced by the Party and feel the affections of the General… so as to turn our society into a large, harmonious family united single-heartedly.”
In the same way, here is the role that Kim Jong Un assigns to North Korean women: “Our women constitute a powerful force that pushes ahead one of the two wheels of the revolution. Party organizations should provide Party guidance to the women’s union organizations efficiently so as to ensure that women fully discharge their duties for the prosperity of the country and the amity and happiness of society and their families and continue to exalt their honour as the flowers of the era.”
We could go on to quote the Eternal President (Kim Il Sung), the Eternal General Secretary (Kim Jong Il) or the one who sooner or later will become the “Eternal Supreme Commander” (Kim Jong Un), but it is quite clear to us that the Workers’ Party of Korea has nothing to do with genuine communism and that it is little more than a remnant of modern revisionism—like all these sclerotic parties that have proven caricatures of a political and social project that should be dedicated to the emancipation of the oppressed and exploited.
Socialism or State Capitalism?
It is not surprising that organizations that are nostalgic for the USSR of Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko and all these bureaucrats who disappeared after being victims of a “cooling,” embrace North Korea as the new flagship of socialism. After all, these organizations were already acting as apologists for the state capitalism that existed in the USSR before the arrival to power of Mikhail Gorbachev and the transition he led to private capitalism.
For Maoists, socialism cannot be anything other than the dictatorship of the proletariat, that is to say, the actual exercise of power through councils (soviets) and other similar bodies controlled from bottom to top by the proletarian masses. Socialism is first and foremost a transitional society—a more or less long period during which the proletariat must lead a conscious and collective struggle to destroy the vestiges of capitalism and prepare the conditions for the transition to communism and a classless society.
Those for whom socialism is essentially defined by legal form of ownership—by the fact that private ownership of means of production has been replaced by collective (state) ownership—can certainly see the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea as a “socialist country” (although the economic reforms implemented over the past ten years have seriously undermined the state model). However, this does not render service to the world proletariat, who need the greatest clarity on these issues, nor to the legitimate struggle of the Korean people against US imperialism—which has never abandoned its goal to control the Korean peninsula.
To be clear, it is possible and necessary to oppose US provocations against North Korea, and support the right of the DPRK to defend itself by all the means at its disposal against hostile manoeuvres of this or that imperialist power, without thereby having to lie about the reality of the regime that prevails there. Rejecting the lies the bourgeois media tells about the DPRK is not the same as lying about its socialist nature.
The bureaucratic bourgeoisie around the army and in the state apparatus is the real ruling class in North Korea. It oppresses the proletarian and peasant masses as it maintains a lead weight on them and collectively benefits from the exploitation of their labour, without even giving them any possibility of autonomous organization. Only the revolutionary struggle of the proletariat of the whole peninsula will allow for the establishment of a free Korea stripped from any form of imperialist domination whatsoever—whether US, Russian, or Chinese.
- 1.Quotations from Kim Il Sung come from a report issued on October 9, 1975 for the 30th anniversary of the Workers’ Party of Korea [our translation]. An official French version is available at http://juche.v.wol.ne.jp/pdf/fkimilsung200803.pdf
- 2.“The Juche Philosophy is an Original Revolutionary Philosophy,” discourse published in Kulloja, theoretical magazine of the Workers’ Party of Korea, July 26, 1996. On line: http://library.uoregon.edu/ec/e-asia/readb/108.pdf
- 3.Kim Jong Un, “Let Us Brilliantly Accomplish the Revolutionary Cause of Juche, Holding the Great Comrade Kim Jong Il in High Esteem as the Eternal General Secretary of Our Party,” talk to senior officials of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea, April 6, 2012. On line: http://www.uk-songun.com/index.php?p=1_304_Let-Us-Brilliantly-Accomplish-the-Revolutionary-Cause-of-Juche-Holding-the-Great-Comrade-Kim-Jong-Il-in-High-Esteem-as-the-Eternal-General-Secretary-of-Our-Party-. In this speech, Kim Jong Un goes on to explain: “Holding him up [his father Kim Jong Il] as the eternal General Secretary of the WPK is never symbolic in itself. It means having him at the post of General Secretary of the Party invariably.”