Tensions on the Korean peninsula are increasing, confronting millions of innocent people with the threat of nuclear war. The tensions spring from a combination of the ramping up of North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme, and US President Donald Trump’s “Wall Street” approach to international diplomacy.
Andrew Gamble sums up Trump’s diplomatic style: “Trump’s experience was as a reality TV host… He approaches relations with other leaders with an eye on how it’s going to play with his base and how he can make himself look good. He uses bluff and does outrageous things partly in the belief that this will enhance his ability to do deals. This is in itself a very unsettling way of conducting relations.”
Trump’s outrageous bombast has fed the North Korean crisis. Whether out of arrogance, parochial concern for his own ratings, or blundering, a stream of absurd threats, provocative military exercises and contradictory statements from the White House has raised the spectre of nuclear war.
The North Korean leadership – the obscene court of a Stalinist hereditary monarch — knows that the best guarantee for its continued despotic rule is to acquire nuclear weapons. The luxurious lives of the bureaucratic class surrounding the Kim dynasty rely upon being able to fend off any foreign attempts at regime change, as well as crushing dissent at home. With the development of missiles capable of reaching the USA, and the (rumoured) miniaturisation of nuclear bomb (a necessary step in delivering the bomb by long-range missile), the regime entrenches its defences against foreign interference.
The nuclear programme is expensive. In order to acquire parts, the regime has had to take extraordinary measures to get foreign currency, including converting munitions plants in Chongjin to commercial fisheries to raise cash. North Korean workers are being made to bear the brunt of their rulers’ nuclear drive. The regime’s major source of money is slave-trading: North Korean workers are commonly sent abroad to work in dreadful conditions for foreign capitalists.
The Norwegian sports journal Josimar investigated the conditions of North Koreans working on St Petersburg’s Zenit stadium. A subcontractor reported being approached by a North Korean agent: “He said he could provide 100 skilled North Korean workers who were prepared to work ‘around the clock’ until the end of the year. The price was six million roubles [£80,000]. Four million would be sent to the government of North Korea. The rest would be split among his company and the workers. The workers would be paid 600 roubles [£8] daily.” A Russian site worker described the life of workers on the job: “They are like robots. All they do is work, work, work. They work from seven in the morning until midnight. Every single day. They are never off. They are very good workers, but they look unhappy. They have no life.”
Escaped workers describe how their pay is often seized by secret police minders or foreign middlemen; and how foreign work teams are under constant surveillance by secret police informers on the job.
Vladimir Putin’s World Cup vanity project is not the only destination for trafficked North Korean workers. The Malaysian press recently reported the disappearance without trace of 176 North Korean workers from their barracks in Sarawak state. It is believed that at least 100,000 such workers have been exported around the world.
The horror and waste of the nuclear programme is not lost on North Koreans. At the start of August, a source for Radio Free Asia reported the jailing of seven North Korean railway shock-workers in Yanggang Province who had been overheard criticising the missile launch: “While they were playing their game, a report of the missile launch was being aired over and over again on television […] This annoyed them, and they said, ‘If I had the money to make missiles, I would rather buy more construction equipment.’”
The people of Korea, North and South, are unwilling chips in a poker game played between various ruling classes. None of the big imperialist players — America, China, Russia —– are remotely interested in ending the enslavement of the North Korean people. They all want to reach a more convenient arrangement with their Stalinist rulers.
China sponsors the Kim dynasty’s state, supplying it with oil and diplomatic cover. Neither the rulers of China nor of South Korea want to deal with the wave of refugees that would likely follow the collapse of the Kim regime. Seoul doesn’t want to foot the bill for reunification. Beijing doesn’t want a united Korea. America’s dealings in the region are motivated by a desire to maintain strategic dominance over China.
The only civilising force that can and should put a stop to the criminal nuclear gambles of these governments, and end the calvary of the North Korean people, by bringing down the Kim regime is the political pressure and solidarity led by the international workers’ movement.