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What’s behind the Escalations in Korea?

For the first time in five years, tensions in the Korean peninsula are escalating. This comes in the context of a U.S. military buildup in the Pacific, driven by greater capitalist competition between the United States and China.

Samuel Karlin

October 7, 2022
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On October 4, in response to ongoing U.S. military buildup in the Pacific, North Korea fired missiles that flew over Japanese airspace — putting an end to five years of relative stability on the Korean peninsula. The United States responded by firing four missiles off the east coast of the peninsula. At the time of this writing, tensions will likely continue to escalate, but it’s unclear by how much. 

The U.S. action was taken in close coordination with the militaries of Japan and South Korea. In September the United States and South Korea began their first large-scale joint military exercises since 2017. Large South Korean anti-war protests in opposition to these war games were ignored by corporate media outlets, which are now fearmongering over North Korea’s actions. This latest coordination between the U.S. and South Korean militaries and the regional tensions it is inciting can be understood in the context of U.S. strategy in the Asia-Pacific — centered on economic competition with China — that is bolstered by the provocative military buildup.

Capitalist Competition and Militarization in the Pacific

Biden was elected with the task of restoring U.S. capitalist stability and U.S. global hegemony. Given that China poses the biggest challenge to restoring this hegemony, restricting a competitive China is the top priority of U.S. imperialism.

U.S. capitalists and their foreign policy analysts continue to debate what the economic relationship between the United States and China should look like: how to delink the two economies, the costs and benefits of continuing to use China for cheap manufacturing, how much Chinese influence in various regions can be tolerated, and so on. While U.S. imperialism explores these questions, the United States is pursuing military containment of China in the Pacific to signal one thing that U.S. capital agrees on: China must stay in the lane that the United States deems acceptable.

The economic competition with China and military containment strategy both rely heavily on close U.S. relationships with South Korea and Japan — the United States’ sixth and fourth biggest trading partners, respectively. In addition to long-standing economic and diplomatic ties with these countries, the United States has new opportunities to expand its military containment of China, given that new allies in right-wing governments were recently elected in Japan and South Korea. Both of these new regimes are open to more aggressively confronting and containing China’s growth in the region.

South Korea’s president until earlier this year, Moon Jae-in, had balanced the country’s relationship with the United States and China. He also pursued diplomatic relations with North Korea, bringing the peninsula closer to reunification than at any time since the Korean War. Additionally, Trump’s more unilateral approach to foreign policy took a toll on the relationship the United States and South Korea had long enjoyed.

With Biden in office, the relationship is on the mend. The election of the new president, Yoon Suk-yeol, in March further reinforces U.S. influence and changes the regional dynamics. Yoon promised a break with his predecessors’ foreign policy, vowing to directly confront North Korea and China and to help build up U.S. militarization of the Pacific. He is delivering on that promise, and the United States is taking advantage of this new opportunity to restore its regional power. But Yoon’s plans to deregulate industries, thereby further liberalizing South Korea’s economy, are even more advantageous to U.S. imperialist expansion.

While the shift to a more right-wing administration in South Korea is significant, U.S. and Korean economic interests have been closely tied even when the two countries were more distant diplomatically and militarily. The KORUS Free Trade Agreement, which had its 10th anniversary in March, has given the United States a lot of access to South Korean markets, and in July Korean firms pledged to invest $22 billion in the U.S. economy around key technology sectors. U.S. capital’s foothold in South Korea was always secure, but now the United States has even more opportunity to keep China out of South Korea’s economy, ensuring that the United States can profit as much as possible.

But South Korean capital and the country’s new regime are far from stable. Much as Trump did, Yoon rallies his supporters with anti-immigrant and anti-women rhetoric. Overall, he is unpopular. Korean media referred to the 2022 presidential race as “the unlikable election” because both Yoon and his opponent were so unpopular. Given South Korea’s dynamic labor movement and the crises that the country’s capitalist class face, there is an opportunity for workers to fight the new regime with a socialist perspective and to organize a fight against capitalism.

U.S. Buildup and Its Escalations

The United States’ move toward confronting China through heavy military buildup is fueling long-standing regional conflicts, all of which are rooted in competition between U.S. and Chinese capital. We saw this in August, when Nancy Pelosi’s provocative trip to Taiwan escalated the conflict with China. We have certainly not heard the last in escalations over Taiwan, since it is a key producer of semiconductors for the U.S. market, which provides an essential edge in the U.S.-China competition.

Now we see escalations in the peninsula as the South Korean, Japanese, and U.S. military buildup threatens North Korea. As the confrontation with China heats up and fuels regional conflicts, it confirms that we are in a new epoch of crises, wars, and revolutions. This increase in competition between the world’s great and emerging powers will only bring more misery and violence for the working class and oppressed around the world. The need for working-class internationalism to resist capitalist competition becomes more essential by the day.

An Anti-imperialist Perspective for the Pacific

There are already seeds of resistance to imperialism throughout the Pacific. As noted earlier, many South Koreans mobilized just last month against the U.S. military’s expanding role in the country. This can be strengthened if a working-class resistance to the Yoon regime links its domestic fights against South Korean capital with the anti-war movement.

As for Japan, rearmament is widely unpopular in that country, and dynamic protests could emerge as the government seeks to rewrite its pacifist constitution. Already, there are communities in Japan fighting the harm that U.S. bases impose.

These struggles in Japan and South Korea must also unite with the many Indigenous struggles against U.S. military occupation of the Pacific, primarily in Okinawa, Hawai‘i, and Guam. The role of the working class is essential in developing anti-imperialism. This means that an anti-war movement must unite workers in the various countries that are in conflict, especially in China and the United States.

While there is a basis for a dynamic anti-war movement in the Pacific, it is essential that the U.S. working class take up the struggle against U.S. imperialism’s escalatory role in the region. This is not just a moral task. The capitalists always seek to shift the burden of their competition and its consequences onto the working class, as we saw when Trump’s trade war with China fueled economic crisis for U.S. workers. No doubt the forces of nationalism will use these crises to pit workers against one another and blame other countries. But it is capital as a whole that divides the world with wars and nationalism and makes workers everywhere suffer in the process.

The renewed escalations among Pacific powers show that greater conflict is on the agenda. How the international working class will respond to these conflicts is an open question. The answer will largely define the outcome.

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Samuel Karlin

Samuel is a socialist with a background in journalism. He mainly writes for Left Voice about U.S. imperialism and international class struggle.

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