East Asia South Korea

Korean Elections: Ending Partition?

By Lal Khan

South Korea’s newly elected president Moon Jae-in’s inauguration normally would have taken weeks. But he was sworn in within hours of his victory announcement. These are turbulent times not only in the in the Korean peninsula but their ripples are being felt in Beijing, Moscow, Tokyo, Washington and other major capitals across the globe. The United States followed the election with growing trepidation as the eventual winner was a labour lawyer before entering politics and his politics was not entirely to the liking of the US. Moon had demanded the United States to delay the deployment of the controversial (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) system known as THAAD that has been built by Lockheed Martin the US military industrial giant.  However, in the last few days of his election campaign, he wavered on this demand.

Moon Jae-in

Moon comes to power in an uncertain period heavily pregnant with the domestic and international crisis with the national economy struggling. South Korea has many problems, including the Asia-Pacific’s worst income inequality, rising youth unemployment and anaemic growth. Moon promised to put together a huge stimulus package, to create 810,000 public-sector positions and to reduce long working hours. Long hours and low wages also put extra burdens on the accessibility of jobs. About four million out of roughly 14 million are jobless. Young Koreans have nicknamed their country as, “Hellish kingdom.”

The aggravating tensions in the South China Sea, relation with Japan and the exacerbating chronic conflict with North Korea are also daunting the country on the foreign front. An editorial in a liberal South Korean paper recently warned, “A military clash on the Korean Peninsula would have disastrous consequences not only for North and South Korea but also for all neighbouring countries,” the newspaper went on to say. “That is why we will never agree with hardliners who are willing to go to war and who see war as inevitable. The brinkmanship of the U.S. and North Korea, which appear to be engaged in a battle of nerves, is tantamount to taking hostage the entire populations of North and South Korea.”

Moon has promised direct dialogue and negotiations with North Korea and a reopening of the economic cooperation. Moon portrays that it is his destiny to bring the two Koreas closer together after seven decades of partition. His parents immigrated from the North during the Korean war of 1950. Moon seems to have an attitude of engagement towards the North Korea’s Kim regime. He told Time, “The North and South were one people sharing one language and one culture for about 5,000 years… Ultimately, we should reunite.” He is obviously correct as we can see the situation in the subcontinent where the ordinary people of the south Asian subcontinent suffer from this chronic hostility between the rulerships of Pakistan and India. Similarly, the North and South Korean states are so close yet so far apart and hostile. With its burgeoning crisis Kim’s Stalinist regime in the North has started to relax his grip. Although dissent is still ruthlessly quashed, he has permitted a free market to take root. In his New Year speech in 2015, Kim Jong Un even said he was open to talks with the South.

But Moon’s economic cooperation is more for needs of a capitalist system in crisis that for nostalgic reasons. He wants to allow South Korean firms access to cheap North Korean labour, and renew cultural exchanges across the DMZ (Demilitarised Zone). He has pledged to reopen and expand the Kaesong Industrial Complex located inside North Korea where more than 50,000 North Korean workers were employed by the south Korean corporations. He told Time, “Economic integration will not only benefit the North but also will give the South a new growth engine, which will revive the South Korean economy.”

In the 1990’s the Pakistani’s bourgeois politicians, Nawaz Sharif in particular often cited South Korea and the other so-called Asian Tigers as role models for a modern capitalist Pakistan. However, after the crash of 1997, these economic miracles nosedived and South Korea is struggling to recover to the pre-1997 levels of high growth rates and industrial progress. The relative success of the Korean economy was mainly due to a high degree U.S. technical and financial support. In the aftermath of the Second World War it was under the jackboots of General Douglas MacArthur, the US commander on the Easter front that the tasks of the bourgeois revolution were forcibly carried out from the top in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and other split-off Eastern statelets from the mainland Asia. The imperialists were terrified of the red wave that swept across Asia particularly the abolition of feudalism and capitalism in China and other countries of the region.

Korea was the victim of the 1945 Yalta agreement between the US president Roosevelt, British wartime Prime Minister Churchill and Joseph Stalin who headed the USSR, as they had decided to partition the Korean peninsula on the similar pattern to other carve-ups in Europe and the rest of Asia in the post-war collaboration between Stalinism and Imperialists. North was taken into control by the Russian forces. However, in North Korea, the state soon initiated a number anti-capitalist measures including a radical land reform. The later evolution of the North Korean regime and its bureaucratic and authoritarian degeneration should not blind its early economic success. In the South U.S. military occupied South Korea on September 8th, 1945. On 9th of September, the U.S. Military Government in Korea (USAMGIK) was set up that lasted until 1948. A Korean CIA was created called KCIA (Korean Central Intelligence Agency). The Korean War started in June 1950, with the rapid advance of North Korean troops in the southern part of the peninsula. This war lasted for three years and brought the world to the brink of another world war. The war resulted in the loss of three million Koreans lives. During the war, the US puppet regime carried out a brutal repression against the South Korean left wing with over 100,000 executions and assassinations of the left activists and trade unionists. The reform and repression by the imperialists were simultaneously executed to prevent the spread of the Asian revolution.

However the US imposed land reform carried out and a 25-year period during which the industrialisation model based on import substitution was gradually converted into export substitution, with capitalist state control of the banking sector, strict management of currency exchange rates and military expenses were financed by the U.S. Imperialist experts developed the country’s capitalist economy with an iron hand and grafted the upstart Korean capitalist class. Between 1960 and 1980 the social structure was modernised and came closer to that of the industrialised countries.

In the first few decades, the South Korean masses had to suffer brute dictatorships supported by the US. These despotic regimes banned the organising of genuine trade unions. One of the mechanisms of the Korean ‘miracle’ was the incessant exploitation of workers. But the students and workers have challenged the Korean regimes and the system with courageous defiance throughout its modern history. A vicious new dictatorship was imposed after the bloody repression of May 1980 supported by Washington and Tokyo. But since 1985 the Americans gradually modified their strategy by imposing controlled and moneyed democracies as their imbedded military dictators were costing them more and often turned roguish. But above all the repressive dictatorships also provoked mass revolts that potentially could develop into revolutions capable of demolishing capitalism.

Hundreds of thousands march against Park Geun-hye in Seoul, South Korea

But in spite of the democratic façade introduced in South Korea in 1987 the movements have been periodically erupting. On 26 December 1996, the first general strike since 1948 almost shut down the country. The workers came out in protest against a reform in the labour code that would make layoffs easier. After 24 days on strike, they got their main demands accepted and the ruling class had to beat a retreat. But the major gains won by the workers were hit with the Asian crisis of 1997 and the elite started to take its revenge by dismantling the benefits the workers had won. A working class that developed an advanced consciousness with the modernisation of technology and industry has fought numerous battles of the class struggle in South Korea. Mass protests and demonstrations against successive regimes have erupted regularly in the last two decades. In the last few years, the crisis of the Korean society and economy has intensified. The country has been rocked by the scandals of the ruling politicians and the corporate bosses especially in the Korean electronic multinational corporations. More than a million marched in Seoul in November last year against the corrupt and crony capitalist regime of president Park Geun-hye.

Park Geun-hye arrest

In April this year, Ms. Park was arrested on charges including extortion, bribery and abuse of power. Due to the tremendous pressure of the mass revolt the National Assembly had impeached Park in December 2016. Similarly, Lee Jae-Yong, the boss of Samsung, South Korea’s largest company is in behind bars for giving money to Ms. Park’s companies in return for corporate restructuring clearances. This imperialist implanted ‘miracle’ capitalism seems to be unravelling. The crisis that president Moon faces both on the domestic front and in relations with North Korea, China and other regional powers is intense. The Trump administration’s pressure will be another millstone around his neck.

However, Moon apparently is not worried about Trumps bluster and sending naval warships to the area. He says. “I recall him once saying that he can talk with Kim Jong Un over a hamburger…In that sense, I believe we will be able to share more ideas, talk better and reach agreements without difficulty.” It’s true that on May 1, Trump had told Bloomberg that he “would be honoured” to meet Kim. But with the underlying crisis exacerbating things can get rough suddenly. Military strike or intervention by the U.S. also seems unlikely. Daniel Pinkston, an East Asia expert at Troy University in Yongsan, South Korea commented, “Aside from possible North Korean retaliation, any strike would certainly shred the U.S.’s Asian security alliance and push the region closer to China. How would the U.S. or anyone else be better off…It’s just insane.”

China has its vested interests and strategic designs in a region and far beyond.  In the case of a collapse of the Kim regime, China will be the foremost country faced with the accommodation of a huge influx of refugees that would emanate from the crisis. There are 28,500 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea, and reunification might put them right on China’s border. Hence Kim is confident that China would never pressurise enough to encourage its collapse. “It’s like trying to bluff at poker when the other players can see your cards,” says John Park of the Harvard Kennedy School.

On the relations and unification with the Northern half of the peninsula, interests of the big powers and the ruling class will daunt Moon Jae-in. Neither China nor the US would ever want a unification of the two Koreas. Other main regional stakeholder’s vested interests are not much different.

When the country was officially divided by the world powers of the time in 1948 a large majority of the country’s peoples were against it. Deep down in the womb of the society there is a yearning desire of the masses for an end to this cruel partition that has divided families and massacred millions. Moon tried to attract those desires during the election campaign. “My mother is the only one [of her family] who fled to the South,” Moon said. “[She] is 90 years old. Her younger sister is still in the North alive. My mother’s last wish is to see her again.”

An American journalist commented, “It’s a wish that resonates with countless ordinary Koreans — on both sides of the battle lines.” But the ruling bourgeois in the south and the bureaucratic regime in the north promote the so-called ‘existential dangers, thrive on the hostile atmosphere and the division with military threats for the perpetuation of their rulerships. It’s only the proletariat and the youth that can unite Korea by a revolutionary transformation. This will also put an end to capitalist drudgery and bureaucratic repression that the ordinary Koreans suffer on both sides of this dividing line based on this hypothetical geographical line the 38th parallel.