Korea in the firing line

South Korea corruption 

The threat to use US military force against North Korea made by the new US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, on his visit to South Korea on 17 March 2017 and the US deployment of an anti-missile system in South Korea earlier in the month have ratcheted up tensions in the Asia-Pacific region. While the US states that its purpose is to defend South Korea and Japan from missile attacks by North Korea, China and Russia are also threatened. With the recent impeachment on corruption charges of South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye, after 134 days of candlelit mass mobilisations involving millions of people, the 9 May presidential election will have South Korea’s sovereignty and relations with North Korea, China, Japan and the US at the centre of the campaign. If South Korea yields to US bellicosity it stands to suffer substantial economic losses from Chinese retaliation.

US-led military exercises involving 320,000 troops, aircraft carriers and fighter bombers have been conducted every year since the Korean War ended in 1953 and another one was due in March. The US retains 28,500 soldiers in South Korea and approximately 54,000 in Japan. On 6 March, North Korea tested four ballistic missiles, firing them into the Sea of Japan/East Sea. North Korea’s government explained that their missiles were ‘tasked to strike bases of the US imperialist aggression forces in Japan’. It added that they were in response to the US-led military exercises. The following day the US transported the first components of its Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (Thaad) missile defence system from Texas to South Korea. After the 2001 attacks on the US President George W Bush declared North Korea to be part of the ‘axis of evil’. The North Korean government believes the security and independence of the country depends upon adequate military defences against a prospective US-led attack, such as were launched against Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. North Korea has tested more than 25 missiles and two nuclear weapons since 2015.            

In 2011 former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the US would ‘pivot to Asia’. Since then the US has added to its military installations surrounding China. US officials justify the increased US presence in the Asia-Pacifica region as protecting freedom of navigation, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and other US allies. In Europe, the US has stationed anti-missile systems in Poland and Romania, ostensibly to protect Europe from Iranian missiles. Qatar and Japan have both said that they are considering deploying the Thaad system. Meanwhile, over the past decade the US has increased spending on nuclear submarines, stealth bombers, aircraft carriers and nuclear weapons, all aimed at Russia and China. The Trump administration says it intends to develop space-based missile systems. The US imperialist’s intention is to make the US invulnerable to retaliation, so that it can launch a first-strike attack on potential challengers to its global and regional hegemony.

The US is increasing the Thaad system’s radar detection range from 600 kilometers to 2,000 kms; Beijing and Vladivostock are less than 1,000 kms from the South Korean capital Seoul. Thaad intercepts missiles at altitudes of 40kms to 150kms; making it useless for dealing with North Korean missiles or missiles fired at low angles. Also, as Russian President Putin pointed out, the apparently defensive role of the anti-missile systems could be a disguise, as the defence missiles could be converted for attack purposes. China’s foreign minister Wang Yi responded to the proposed deployment of Thaad saying, ‘The monitoring and early-warning radius of Thaad reaches far beyond the Korean peninsula and undermines China’s strategic security.’ Russia said the deployment could have ‘irreparable consequences’. North Korea said the deployment was part of a pre-emptive attack plot.

China demonstrated the potential cost to South Korea of hosting the US anti-missile system by banning Chinese tour groups from visiting the country. Over eight million Chinese tourists visited South Korea in 2016. South Korea’s fifth largest conglomerate, Lotte, provided the land for the Thaad system. Lotte’s premises in China have been subjected to a range of health and safety checks and tax inspections and by 8 March some 40 Lotte stores had been closed. China is South Korea’s biggest market; South Korea sells over twice as much to China as it does to the US, with China buying about a quarter of the country’s exports. Samsung, Hyundai, LG, almost every major South Korean company, depends on sales to China. In February 2017, South Korean manufacture recorded its seventh consecutive month of contraction. Chinese school children have pledged to boycott South Korean products. China can force the South Korean ruling class to choose between its economic interests and its ideological and military ties to US imperialism; the May election will reflect these tensions. China’s neighbours have little interest in being drawn into a US-led confrontation with China; China accounts for nearly 40% of Taiwan’s trade and 20% of Japanese trade.          

China’s foreign minister compared the renewed military tensions between the US and North Korea to two oncoming trains on a collision course and proposed that North Korea end its weapons testing in return for the US and South Korea stopping their annual military exercises. The US and South Korean governments rejected the Chinese proposal.

It is in this context that the South Korean masses may prove decisive. On 10 March 2017 South Korea’s constitutional court upheld the National Assembly vote in December 2016 to remove President Park Geun-hye from office and her immunity from prosecution. This followed months of protests across South Korea against the president for bribery, influence peddling and abuse of power. Park had been in office for four years, during which time political opponents were repressed, and journalists, artists and celebrities who were critical of the government were condemned, excluded from working and put under secret service surveillance. The left wing United Progressive Party, which advocated détente with North Korea, was accused of ‘calling for a revolution with a view to installing a communist regime, as in North Korea’ and shut down.

Currently, the favourite to win the 9 May presidential election is the opposition Democratic party leader Moon Jae-in. Moon says that the deployment of the Thaad system did not follow due legal process and he has called for talks with North Korea. Between 1998 and 2008 South Korea pursued a so-called Sunshine Policy towards North Korea, promoting reconciliation and economic cooperation. Park opposed this. Many South Koreans reject their country being used to maintain US regional domination.

The US government wants to make China impose sanctions on North Korea, to force North Korea to give up its weapons testing and military defences. China accounts for 70% of North Korea’s trade and in February China stopped importing coal from North Korea. North Korea responded saying China was ‘dancing to the tune of the US’. However, the Chinese government knows it is also the target of the US pivot to Asia and that it will have to confront the US provocations. The US is launching an arms race in the Asia-Pacific region. If the US does not remove its Thaad anti-missile system from South Korea, expect Chinese nuclear submarines patrolling the Pacific Ocean and the US to increase arms supplies to Taiwan.

Trevor Rayne