There is no shortage of coverage in Western media of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK. This coverage is almost wholly negative. This is not surprising, given as the United States has imperialist ambitions in the region. Their long-standing sabre-rattling in the form of war-games should be evidence enough of that. Despite the DPRK’s obvious status as a target of US imperialism, many supposed leftists are still unwilling to lend their support to it. This is usually done on the basis that the DPRK is not in fact democratic, but rather an absolute monarchy that violates the human rights of its citizens. In the first section of this essay, I would like to argue that we should show solidarity with the country even if these assertions are true. The DPRK is waging a progressive national liberation struggle. This should be supported regardless of whether the country is democratic or socialist (though, to be clear, it is both of these things).
As Stalin argued in Marxism and the National Question, “The revolutionary character of a national movement under…imperialist oppression does not necessarily presuppose the existence of proletarian elements in the movement, the existence of a revolutionary…program of the movement, the existence of a democratic base of the movement.” The determining factor in the revolutionary character of a national movement is whether it “weakens, disintegrates, and undermines imperialism” . That which is being waged by the DPRK is an example of just such a struggle. It objectively works against the interests of imperialism, the greatest enemy of proletarian revolution. As such, it should be unapologetically supported and defended.
In order to substantiate these assertions, we need to go back in time to 1910. It was here that Japan colonized Korea. The country became an invaluable source of profits for the colonialists, both in the form of raw materials and (crucially) labor. Untold numbers of Koreans were forcibly shipped to Japan and effectively enslaved. Many performed hard labor, while others were coerced into becoming “comfort women.” Japan carried out these atrocities with the help of wealthy Korean landowners and industrialists, who, just as they had found favor with their Japanese masters, would find favor with the US occupation government and later fill key positions in the south Korean state .
Throughout this period, Japan and the United States both sought to dominate the countries of the Pacific Rim so that they could lay sole claim to the riches of these countries. Tokyo followed an aggressive and expansionary foreign policy, backed by the gun, to drive other imperialist powers from the region. The US, already with a dominant position in the Philippines, Guam, Hawaii and Samoa, sought an open door for its exporters and investors in China. With both sides seeking a dominant role, it was inevitable they would sooner or later come to blows .
Following the Pearl Harbor attack and the United States’ entrance into World War Two, this conflict came to a head. Washington knew that if Japan were defeated, its colonies would pass to the United States. They could then be managed, perhaps not as outright colonies, but as territories in which the US would have a dominant voice. In other words, a successful conclusion to the war would present the US with everything it had sought before the war. Thus, the US State Department began toying with the idea of establishing a post-war trusteeship in Korea. Debate raged over whether a trustee arrangement would give Washington enough influence in post-war Korean affairs. The idea of a multilateral trusteeship of Korea was presented to the British and French in 1943, but both countries declined, fearing the arrangement would weaken their own empires .
This is the context in which the division of Korea took place. It wasn’t Koreans who bisected the Korean peninsula at the 38th parallel. It was the Americans. On August 10th 1945, with the Soviets having crossed into the Korean peninsula from the north two days earlier, two US Colonels, Dean Rusk and Charles Bonesteel, were ordered to divide Korea into two occupation zones: one American and one Soviet. They chose the 38th parallel as the dividing line. It would give the US control of the capital, Seoul. Rusk explained how he came to the decision this way:
“Neither Tic nor I was a Korea expert, but it seemed that Seoul, the capital, should be in the American sector. We also knew that the US Army opposed an extensive area of occupation. Using a National Geographic map, we looked just North of Seoul for a convenient dividing line but could not find a natural geographic line. We saw instead the 38th parallel and decided to recommend that” .
This is a vitally important point. There was no natural geographic barrier between the territory that would become North Korea and that which would become the South. The division was based on nothing other than a desire to further American interests.
The choice to divide the country at the 38th parallel, incidentally, goes a long way in explaining the food insecurity of much of the North Korean population. The Northern half of Korea was an industrial area, used primarily for mining. The vast majority of the nation’s arable land (which makes up only 18% of the total to begin with) is located on the Southern part of the peninsula. The two sides depended on one another prior to the American division. This is one reason why reunification efforts are just.
Even according to the US Army,
“Only about 18% of the total landmass…is arable. The major portion of the country is rugged mountain terrain. The weather varies markedly according to elevation, and lack of precipitation, along with infertile soil, makes land at elevations higher than 400 meters unsuitable for purposes other than grazing. Precipitation is geographically and seasonally irregular, and…as much as half of the annual rainfall occurs in the three summer months” .
We can conclude from this that American imperialism is literally starving the Korean people to death. It is the willful malevolence of the United States that results in famines, not the socialist economy of the DPRK. As communists, it is our duty to fight against hunger and want. We can only do this by opposing American imperialism, and we can only oppose US imperialism by supporting the national liberation struggle of the DPRK. This support is based on an objection to genocide and starvation. Anyone unwilling to lend it has no right to call themselves a communist.
A government organized by Koreans for Koreans, headquartered at Seoul, was founded within weeks of Japan’s surrender. It called itself the Korean People’s Republic, born of the Committee for the Preparation of Korean Independence, and the People’s Committees rooted in the countryside. Despite its pretensions to be a champion of democracy, the United States refused to recognize the government and actively worked to repress it. For the Americans, the Korean People’s Republic had two strikes against it: The first was that ) it wasn’t answerable to Washington, and the second was that it had strong communist influences .
Instead of allowing the newly created indigenous government to flourish, the United States established what it had been planning from 1943: a US military occupation regime. The government, which lasted until 1948, was overwhelmingly opposed by local residents, who were tired of foreign occupation and wanted an independent, unified Korea, not an artificially bisected one occupied in the south by a foreign power that was going to insist on having a major voice in Korean affairs .
The US spent the first year of its occupation suppressing the locally formed People’s Committees. US General John Hodge recruited Koreans who had served in the Japanese Imperial Army to staff an English language officers’ school. By 1948, a south Korean army was in place, comprising six divisions, led, to a man, by officers who served in the Japanese Imperial Army. One of the officers, Kim Sok-won, had been decorated by Hirohito for leading campaigns against Korean guerrillas in Manchuria. Hodge also put together a police force, 85 percent of whose personnel were former members of the colonial police, and set them to work in smashing the government of the locally formed Korean People’s Republic . From the beginning, the Americans were more than willing to violently impose their will on the Korean people, just as the Japanese had done years earlier.
This would be further demonstrated when a rebellion broke out in the South, coinciding with a strong guerrilla movement. By 1948, most villages in the interior were controlled by the guerrillas, who enjoyed widespread popular support. In October 1948, the guerrillas liberated Yosu, sparking rebellions in other towns. The People’s Committee was restored, the north Korean flag was raised, and allegiance was pledged to the north. A rebel newspaper called for land redistribution, the purge of Japanese collaborators from official positions, and a unified Korea. While the US military government nominally allowed membership in left-wing organizations, the police regarded rebels and leftists as traitors who were best imprisoned or shot. In 1948, the draconian National Security Law was used to round up 200,000 Koreans sympathetic to the north and communism. By 1949, 30,000 communists were in jail, and 70,000 were in concentration camps, euphemistically dubbed guidance camps. The south, in its repression of leftists, was beginning to resemble Italy of the 20’s and Germany of the 30’s. The resemblance would soon grow stronger .
A crackdown on the rebellion was organized by the US, whose formal control over the south Korean military had, by this time, been ceded. However, by secret agreement, command of the south Korean military remained in US hands. Even today, command of the ROK military remains with the US in the event of war . This is a very clear example of US imperialism.
Korea had been a severely class divided society, with a small landed elite, that collaborated with the Japanese occupation, and a large population of poor peasants. The United States intervened on behalf of the landed elite and against the majority of the population, perpetuating the elite’s privileges.
The CIA noted in a 1948 report that south Korea had become divided by conflict between a “grass-roots independence movement, which found expression in the establishment of the People’s Committees” led by “communists who based their right to rule on the resistance to the Japanese,” and a US-supported right-wing that monopolized the country’s wealth and collaborated with Imperial Japan .
Owing to the right-wing’s unpopularity, it was impossible to put forward its representatives for election. So the US looked to non-communist exiles, whose absence from the country had allowed them to escape the taint of collaboration. The fiercely anti-communist Syngman Rhee was eventually brought to power. Rhee had lived in the US 40 years, earned a PhD from Princeton and married an American wife, a background very different from that of Kim Il-sung, north Korea’s founder, who was active from the early 30s as a prominent leader of the resistance to Japanese occupation. Korea expert Bruce Cumings notes that “for nearly four decades (south Korea was) run by military officers and bureaucrats who served the same Japanese masters that Kim and his friends spent a decade fighting in the 1930s” . What we can draw from this is that resistance to US occupation was characteristic of both the North and the South.
The DPRK and the Republic of Korea exist as two separate countries, but the Korean people meet all of the characteristic features of a nation; “a historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a common culture.” . Understanding that Korea is not two separate nations is essential to placing the actions of the DPRK in their appropriate context.
Fearing the widespread popularity of the Korean revolution in both the north and the south, the US continued to militarily occupy the Republic of Korea after World War II. Koreans were left out of the decision to divide their country and despite promises of fair nationwide elections aimed at reunification, the US intervened in the South Korean elections on behalf of the Western-educated, right-wing nationalist, Syngman Rhee.
Many bourgeois scholars and critics of the DPRK argue that the Korean People’s Army (KPA), centered in the north, initiated the Korean War by crossing the 38th parallel, the act that is often cited as the start to the Korean War. While the KPA did send troops into South Korea on June 25, 1950, calling this an act of aggression by one sovereign state towards another implicitly legitimizes the imperialist division of Korea at the Potsdam Conference in 1945. Richard Stokes, the British Minister of Works, put it this way in a 1950 report on the origins of the Korean war:
“In the American Civil War, the Americans would never have tolerated for a single moment the setting up of an imaginary line between the forces of North and South, and there can be no doubt as to what would have been their re-action if the British had intervened in force on behalf of the South. This parallel is a close one because in America the conflict was not merely between two groups of Americans, but was between two conflicting economic systems as is the case in Korea.” .
Much like the American Civil War, any so-called aggression by the North was actually an attempt to re-unite a nation partitioned by a foreign imperialist power. Any critics of the actions of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in initiating the conflict would have to also condemn US President Abraham Lincoln and the Union Army for sending supplies to reinforce Fort Sumter at the onset of the American civil war, which was where the conflict began.
The atrocities committed by the United States in this war cannot be stressed enough. Three Million Koreans lost their lives. More bombs were dropped on Korea than were used in the whole of the European theater of World War Two, and the entire North was leveled to the ground, with Pyongyang left completely flattened .
There was, in fact, germ warfare used against North Korea during the Korean War. A report was authored in 1950s on what this warfare consisted of, The International Scientific Commission Report on Bacterial Warfare during the Korean War. . Here is what the Korean Central News Agency reports on the issue:
The U.S. imperialist aggression forces who had put the northern half of Korea under their temporary occupation during the June 25 war were beaten back by the Korean People’s Army and took to flight when they spread in a crafty manner a number of contagious disease germs including smallpox in many areas including Pyongyang, Yangdok County of South Phyongan Province, and Kowon and Jangjin counties of South Hamgyong Province between November 29 to December 8, 1950.
A top secret document dated September 21, 1951 which ordered the “large experiment of specified pathogens in actual situation to see their effects for germ warfare in operational situation” was discovered at the U.S. national archives in 2010.
In November 1951 the U.S. imperialists dropped the first germ bomb in the areas north of the River Chongchon and south of the River Amnok and in Yangdok, Hamhung and Wonsan with the involvement of the U.S. third bomber wing in the Kunsan air base and the 19th bomber wing under the command of the U.S. air force in the Far East based on Okinawa.
Entering 1952 they began an all-out germ warfare, massively dropping germ bombs in all areas of the northern half of Korea.
They made no scruple of using even internationally banned chemical weapons, to say nothing of germ weapons.
During the indiscriminate bombing of Nampho City on May 6, 1951, the U.S. spread toxic gas, killing 1,379 inhabitants. On July 6 and September 1 it dropped tear, asphyxiating, and other toxic gases in the area of Wonsan and several areas of South and North Hwanghae provinces, poisoning and killing many people.
They even made no scruple of mixing poisonous substances in sweets, biscuits, taffy, toasts, canned food, shellfish and other foodstuff and banknotes before dropping them from planes.
The U.S. imperialists used prisoners from our side as guinea pigs for germ and chemical warfare in wanton violation of international agreement on treatment of POWs and killed them in a barbarous way .
Marxist-Leninists should support the re-unification efforts of the North in both the American civil war as well as the Korean war because they were historically progressive and revolutionary. Korea was occupied by a foreign imperialist government at the time of the KPA’s incursion into the south, just as Japanese colonizers had occupied the nation for the previous 35 years. As such, the KPA’s ‘invasion’ of southern Korea was a campaign in the larger, protracted struggle for national liberation that began as an anti-colonial struggle against imperial Japan .
Foreign occupation of Korea continues today, and Marxist-Leninists must evaluate the actions of the DPRK within the framework of an ongoing national liberation struggle. The 28,000 US troops permanently stationed in the Republic of Korea attest to the continued imperialist domination of the southern half of the Korean nation .
It is clear why north Korea’s fight for sovereignty and economic rights is opposed by the ruling class-dominated foreign policy of the United States. The interests of the two clash. But there is no comparable clash of interests between north Korea and the bulk of people who live in the advanced capitalist countries. The coolness, if not outright hostility, of the greater part of the left in these countries requires explanation. Patriotic intoxication and lack of class consciousness — the idea that we have more in common with the ruling class that dominates foreign policy in our own country than with Koreans, of the south and north, who fight for sovereignty and economic justice — is part of it. So too is the regular, law-like propensity of the leaders of the soft left to barter away principle for votes and respectability, to sacrifice fundamental goals for immediate gains, a reason for self-defeating coolness toward the DPRK. In other words, even leftists in leadership roles have been ‘bought off’ by imperialism, and are thus unwilling to oppose it. In order to build a truly socialist movement, it is the responsibility of committed communists to break the influence of these leaders.
Ignorance is a part of the explanation too. Many Western leftists are unaware of both the history and of the government in the north, but also of the distorting, unpleasant and dystopian effects of the policies of war, intimidation, and economic strangulation the United States has pursued to bring an end to north Korea. It’s not pleasant to have too little to eat, to be conscripted into the army for an extended period of your life and to be forced to live your whole life under threat of nuclear war, but these are not conditions north Koreans have freely chosen for themselves. They have been imposed from the outside as punishment. The United States does not want the Korean people to control their own destiny.
North Korea is the product of its history: its colonization by the Japanese, the guerilla wars of the 30s, its attempts to unify the country and drive the post-WWII occupation regime out the south, the holocaust the United States delivered upon it under a UN flag in the early 50s, and its daily struggle with the United States for survival, now intensified in the wake of the dismantling of the Soviet Union. Add to this Washington’s unceasing quest for world domination and you have a sound explanation for the supposed misery of north Korea. Whatever its faults, we ought to support it because of its role in the broader geopolitical landscape. It weakens US imperialism, and in so doing, furthers the cause of the international proletariat.
- Prosveshcheniye, Nos. 3-5, March-May 1913, Carl Kavanagh, “Marxists Internet Archive.” https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/stalin/works/1913/03.htm
- Bruce Cumings, “Korea’s Place in the Sun: A Modern History (Updated Edition),” W.W. Norton & Company, 2005; p. 404.
- Bruce Cumings, “North Korea: Another Country,” The New Press, 2004.
- Hugh Deane, “The Korean War: 1945-1953,” China Books & Periodicals, San Francisco, 1999.
- Bruce Cumings, “North Korea: Another Country,” The New Press, 2004. Op. Cit.
- New York Times, August 13, 2003.
- Bruce Cumings, “Korea’s Place in the Sun: A Modern History (Updated Edition),” W.W. Norton & Company, 2005; p. 404. Op. Cit.
- Prosveshcheniye, Nos. 3-5, March-May 1913, Carl Kavanagh, “Marxists Internet Archive.” https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/stalin/works/1913/03.htm Op. Cit.
- Bruce Cumings, North Korea: Another Country, The New Press, New York, 2004. Op. Cit.
- Bruce Cumings, North Korea: Another Country, The New Press, New York, 2004. Op. Cit.