Tuesday 29 November 2011

Crisis in Korea

When quizzed about what drew them to political activity, friends my age often bring up the sanctions against Iraq as an example of a world event that forced them into action. It was hard, observing that ongoing criminal brutality through my teenage years, and, later, learning of Madeleine Albright’s obscene justification of that cruelty, not to see in these figures a symbol for all that was wrong with US power and privilege. Hundreds of thousands of children dead was an acceptable price for a proponent of ‘humanitarian intervention’ to pay. What did she purchase for this price? The results of that are visible to this day.

The sanctions against North Korea, though, receive far less attention and draw far less outrage; it’d do us well to ponder why, and to consider consequences. Until the early 1990s, when they were still, loosely, part of the world around the Soviet Union, the North Korean economy was in something like a reasonable shape. Isolated following the Soviet collapse, and in the face of a programme of US-drive sanctions, the results for ordinary people in the North have been catastrophic. Almost 18% of North Korean children are malnourished. The regime of sanctions, unsurprisingly, and like elsewhere, serves no purpose other than hurting the weak, the poor, and the vulnerable – in a grisly irony, though, this piece of US war by other means is in turn used now to justify further US threats and interventions, all bolstered by claims that the North is a ‘failed state’ unable or unwilling to feed its own people. Having denied the possibilities for trade and food that might lift living standards in the North, the US now uses the misery it has created as a spur to further aggression and threats.

The political class in the West, in other words, whilst happy to circulate decontextualised and well-nigh racist accounts of North Korea as a ‘bizarre’, ‘secretive’ rouge state, plays an active role in the region’s subjugation. The Koreas are still at war, and the tragic history of colonialism, imperialism and occupation on the Korean peninsula plays and active, and determining, role in shaping its deformations and sorrows. And yet one could read great stacks of works about the peninsula, putatively scholarly as much as journalistic, and never learn anything of this historical and geopolitical context.

Tim Beal’s important new book, then, Crisis in Korea: America, China, and the Risk of War, is especially welcome. This book is insightful, careful, and considered – rare enough qualities in commentary on Korean affairs – and I have learnt a good deal from reading it. For some decades now Beal and a small group of co-thinkers have been compiling reports, documents and analysis trying to give a sober view of the dynamics of the Korean Peninsula, and this latest book is an intervention into a situation Beal sees, convincingly in my view, as extremely dangerous. That this work is carried out from the obscurity of New Zealand is nicely appropriate, New Zealand having played, after all, a grubby and bloody role both in the Korean War and in the oppression and sometimes forced removal of Koreans from Japan after World War Two.

Crisis in Korea describes the North as an “autocratic Confucian state”, one that survives because it is “an expression of Korean nationalism”. Opposing wilder stories of Kim Jong-Il as an unpredictable evil genius, Beal shows that the North’s ruling class are trying to do what ruling classes around the world try to do; survive, trade, and stay secure. The North – with tens of thousands of US troops at its borders, and facing the hostility of the world’s largest nuclear-armed state – can have nothing beyond defensive ambitions. Beal documents how, when faced with compromise from Washington, Pyongyang has in turn compromised; when faced with aggression, however, they have responded in turn.

Two factors complicate this situation now, though, and in worrying ways. One is the rise of China. Beal writes that “in the long term, especially with the reconnection of rail and road links, ROK-China economic interaction will be to the benefit of the DPRK” (2005, 73), and it is obvious how direct land links between Seoul, China and the European continent would suit capitalists in all three areas. It’s precisely this prospect, though, that encourages hawks in Washington. If there is to be a confrontation between a declining US hegemon and a rising Chinese one, the Korean peninsula is the obvious place for this confrontation to take place. That’s an obvious tragedy for the Koreans, north and south.

Another complicating factor Beal ponders is how Korea fits in the Obama administration’s plans. George Bush had a coherent, if terrifying, Korea policy – he and John Bolton talked up the prospects of war, included the DPRK in the “Axis of Evil”, and generally pursued the grand strategy of the American Empire via provocations and swagger. This was a disaster for the peninsula, undoing many of the gains worked up slowly through the years of the ‘sunshine policy’, but it did have a kind of narrative coherence and clarity. Bush chose Korea as one of the places a neoconservative US imperialism could gain the edge over its Chinese rival.

The Obama years, in contrast, Beal argues, have been characterised by “strategic paralysis.” Distracted by domestic opposition, and bogged down in an unwinnable war in Afghanistan, Obama and Clinton have, on Beal’s reading, offered little in the way of Korean policy. In this gap Lee Myung-Bak has pushed an aggressive, and confrontational, line, for his own political ends and geopolitical ambitions. South Korea, like Japan, may have started out as a client state of US imperialism – Beal shows how its economic growth spurs some in its ruling circles to imagine moves that may benefit them without the US overlords being as keen.

Central to these recent years, and to this tension between a distracted White House and an ambitious Blue House, was the sinking of the Cheonan. This has been widely reported as an open-and-shut case of DPRK aggression, motivated by the succession issue. Beal unpacks the detail of the sinking, and its aftermath, and shows how unlikely this explanation in fact is: the DPRK has scarce motive for carrying out the attack (it has cost the North millions, Beal reports, in lost revenue as a result of sanctions following the sinking), and the circumstances of the sinking are unclear and confused. Some of Beal’s reviewers have painted him a conspiracy theorist, but this is unfair: Crisis in Korea doesn’t posit a villain for the Cheonan incident. What it does, rather, is show how suspicious – and swift – the apportioning of blame was, and whose interests it served.

Besides, why, if they wanted to use the incident to bolster Kim Jong-un’s credentials and threaten its neighbours, would the North then deny they were responsible?

This book – like his North Korea: the Struggle Against American Power – makes for difficult reading. In part this is due to the subject matter, which is complicated in upsetting ways and full of examples of useless suffering and the needless waste of empire. Beal’s a pedestrian stylist at best, too; what makes the book so difficult, though, is also what makes it important. He has set himself the task of generating a kind of anti-narrative, unpacking the assumed wisdom and detail of the mainstream reports of the DPRK, insisting on the complexity and context underneath all the fervid speculation about Kim Jong-Il’s consumption tastes or fairy tales about a rogue state set on world war. Where other books might be breezier and easier to follow, Beal’s work insists on stray details, difficult or unsatisfactory explanations, and complex motives. If, at times, this feels like reading a book of marginal glosses and commentaries, that may be no bad thing: if the conventional account has this many inconsistencies and problems, what does this tell us about the standard of mainstream reporting?

Those fairy tales have consequences: 52% of Americans surveyed in 2009 felt that North Korea posed a “very serious threat” to America’s security. The very great virtue of Beal’s book is that, if read carefully, it demolishes each and every assertion on which that fear and concern has been generated.

The agonies of the Korean Peninsula, in almost Beckettian ironies, reflect the absurdity and grisly strangeness of the global order. Were the stated goal of the US military presence in the South to be realised – a peacefully united Korean peninsula – this would generate a crisis for the US itself, undermining the justification for its mass of bases in the region and bolstering its rival China. The north’s most vociferous opponent – George Bush Jnr – who made so much of his enemy’s dynastic succession, himself is part of a political dynasty. The South was long ruled by Generals eager to take up civilian titles as Presidents; the North has a leader and leader-in-waiting who both have military titles but no experience as leaders of armies. The US possesses weapons of mass destruction, and has used them, and produced a concoction of lies to justify invading Iraq, but the North’s weapons, and the strange bombast of its public statements, are used as reasons for US aggression.

These ironies fit a more sinister pattern, for, as Beal argues “those who want an authoritarian society in the South also want one in the North to justify it and they also want a continued state of tension” (2005: 165).

This book is an essential resource for those who want to understand, and argue against, that state of affairs. It’s in imagining the alternatives to the present, though, that I’m in least agreement with Beal. He taught for many years in a business school, and this current work – deeply informed, useful, and scholarly – reflects that background in good ways as well as bad. At one point he remarks that “only the left uses the term ‘imperialism’, and since the left does not remotely influence US foreign policy there is little point spending much time on it here.” (2011, 59). He goes on to remark that imperialism is “ultimately the most important construct for analysing America’s interaction with the world”, but the tension is evident.

Most of Crisis in Korea documents the history and geopolitics of the peninsula as seen from above, from the corridors of power. But what of the self-activity of ordinary Koreans, of the workers’ movement and so on? The great developments of recent Korean history – democratisation, the end of the rule of the generals, the rise in social movements that could sustain the Sunshine Policy – all came about through mass mobilisations, and through political formations determined to, as the saying went, be realistic and demand the impossible. Those dynamics will be, hopefully, as significant in any resolution of the Korean War as the machinations from above.

In Beal’s conclusion from his last book, though, a conclusion this latest book only reinforces, I’m in full agreement:

We can hope that peace, and prosperity, will prevail, but we cannot be confident. All we can be sure of is that the decision will be made in Washington. Not without outside constraints and influences, to be sure, but ultimately the power for Korean peace or war, for continued privation or for economic growth and transformation, lies with the United States. And that is where the responsibility rests as well.


You can buy both Crisis in Korea (2011) and North Korea: the Struggle against US Power (2005) here. A radical publisher like Pluto faces all sorts of business constraints and challenges, and we need more heterodox and dissident voices on Korea being heard, so, if you can’t afford to buy this book, I would try and get it into your local library. Beal’s an important critic, and I’m glad his work is available.

1 comment:

  1. I don't know if I find this consoling, however, it does put the 'Korean situation' in a different light. Thank you.