Below we are posting an analysis of the North Korean state, written by Mike McNair, first posted at:- 




On September 11 the United Nations security council adopted a new set of sanctions against North Korea (formally the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea), with the aim of forcing an end to its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile development. These are extended from the very extensive, already-existing sanctions, and now ban North Korean textile exports and the sale of natural gas to the country. But they are substantially less that the United States’ original proposals, which would have banned all exports of petroleum products to North Korea, imposed a full naval blockade, and authorised the use of force to enforce this blockade (1). Donald Trump said on September 11 that the new sanctions are “nothing compared to what ultimately will have to happen” (2).

The US administration’s bellicose statements thus do not indicate a present willingness to launch World War III for the sake of regime change in North Korea. Rather, they are leverage to force through an increase in what are very long-standing sanctions by threatening megadeaths. The result, if the US succeeds in bringing down the North Korean regime, will still probably be megadeaths, in the form of the destruction which has been rained on Iraq, Libya, Yemen and Syria – now imposed on a more densely populated area of east Asia.

The US has backed down in the face of clear indications from China and Russia that they would veto the original proposals. Alongside the diplomacy have gone naked threats of war from Trump and other senior figures in the administration. These, in turn, have been matched by Russian and Chinese troop build-ups on the border with North Korea in the spring (3) and in the Russian case by a display of airforce capability over the Korean peninsula in early September (4). The threatened veto is grounded on the fear that the full sanctions package the US proposed last week would either be a short prelude to war or result in a rapid, disorderly melt-down of the North Korean regime into state failure.

The political ideology of North Korea is the juche or ‘self-reliance’ doctrine. It is a curious blend of an extreme version of ‘socialism in a single country’ with pre-colonisation Korean Confucianism, which was similarly isolationist to try to keep a degree of distance from its big Chinese neighbour. The Stalinist ‘cult of personality’ of Kim Il Sung, Korean Workers Party leader from 1949 to 1994, had morphed by his death into something closer to the idea that the mandate of heaven had settled on the Kim family as a dynasty, with deification of the founder. The tag ‘Hermit Kingdom’ was applied to Korea before the Japanese colonisation of the country from 1910; since the 1990s, the western media has begun to apply it to North Korea (5).

The Russian and Chinese fear (and perhaps US hope) that extreme sanctions will bring down the regime illustrates precisely that juche is, as ‘socialism in a single country’ was, an untruth: North Korea’s economy and state have never been fully autarkic, and are nothing like autarkic at present. The regime was a product of geopolitical manoeuvres in the late 1940s. It has been preserved since then by its strategic situation, and survives today for the same reason: as a buffer state between China and far-eastern Russia, on the one hand, and the US and its dependent allies, on the other hand.

The other side of this coin is the very long-term core aim of the US state of ‘regime change’ in North Korea, which has persisted since the origin of the state with varying degrees of intensity. This persistent aim is apparently irrational – like the US’s recent regime-change operations in the Middle East – but has the same underlying ‘pseudo-rationality’ – of ‘making America great again’ or ‘defending the American way of life’ – as those operations.

Founding and war

The USSR declared war on Japan on August 8 1945, and rapidly overran Manchuria before the Japanese surrender on August 15. As a result, the USSR became entitled to a significant level of territorial gains and influence in east Asia under the Yalta agreement, and the US agreed to split the post-war occupation of Korea with the USSR at the 38th parallel. The Japanese colonial regime had developed industry more in the north, while old-style landlordism remained dominant in the south. Manoeuvres ended in two governments – the landlord-clerical southern Republic of Korea (ROK) and the Stalinist northern DPRK – being created in 1948. The UN, under US dominance, did not recognise the DPRK.

In 1950 war broke out between the DPRK and ROK (6) and the ROK forces initially collapsed; a large US army, under UN flags and with UN backing (7) threw the northern army back, and entered the northern zone. The Chinese now intervened (as well as the USSR providing air support); and eventually the front stabilised at the present border between North and South Korea. No peace treaty has ever been agreed and the US still does not recognise North Korea.

This is, in fact, the origin of US economic sanctions against North Korea. They were initially imposed on June 28 1950, and added to in 1955, 1961, 1975 and 1978 under various pretexts before the current round of US and UN sanctions created by the ‘nuclear issue’ since the 1990s (8).

After 1953, in spite of sanctions, North Korea was relatively successful economically. Starting with a stronger industrial base inherited from Japanese development (though savaged by the war itself), it had prolonged success in the 1950s-70s through Chinese and Soviet support; down to the early 1970s, it was a more developed country than South Korea.

In the 1960s, however, US subsidies to South Korea, together with US permission to South Korea to maintain a mercantilist, protectionist system and still export to the US, had facilitated a South Korean economic take-off. Meanwhile, the normal process of Stalinist ‘planning’ methods, together with the very heavy military budget, had led North Korea’s economic development to slow down.

In the 1980s, first China under Deng Xiaoping and then Russia under Gorbachev and Yeltsin refused to roll over development loans which had previously been made to North Korea and demanded repayment. The 1991 fall of the USSR in particular triggered a deep-going regression of the North Korean economy, involving episodes of mass starvation (9).

These developments confirm the point already made. Juche was an illusion. North Korea under Kim Il Sung was deeply embedded in trade and financial relations with the ‘Soviet bloc’ and China. The disruption of these relationships had devastating economic consequences (as, it must be said, 1990s ‘shock therapy’ also had for the former Soviet Union and all its components).

Nuclear arms

After the fall of the USSR the North Korean regime in the first place attempted to develop its own nuclear weapons as a substitute for the Soviet nuclear umbrella, which had been held up for it previously.10 At the same time, it was clear that the regime was willing to ‘trade off’ this development against security guarantees and the relaxation of sanctions by the US; and such a deal was, in fact, reached in 1994.

The Clinton administration was, however, unable to deliver on its side of the deal due to Republican control of Congress. Then Bush in 2001 announced that North Korea was not compliant with it, and in 2002 listed North Korea as part of the ‘axis of evil’ together with Iran and Iraq (John R Bolton in 2002 added Cuba, Libya and Syria to this list).

The North Korean regime has understandably responded to these developments by pushing ahead with the nuclear and missile programmes as fast as it can. Even the ability to hit one US city with a warhead of the same yield as those of 1945 would be a serious tradable asset and deterrent against operations like those conducted against Iraq and Libya. How far it has got is open to question: both sides have an interest in exaggerating progress (11)

US dominance

This story is not about nuclear proliferation. Israel has had the bomb, with US tacit approval, since the 1960s. India has been a ‘declared nuclear weapon power’ since 1998, and Pakistan announced its capability in the same year. Neither attracted more than grumbling and token sanctions, later lifted.

Nor is it about the North Korean regime being a personal dictatorship run by a mad individual. In spite of its undoubted Stalinist-monarchical character and the idea of the dynastic ‘mandate of heaven’ (12) the actual decisions of the regime are perfectly rational. It should be remembered that the US has been committed to its overthrow since 1950, contemplated using nuclear weapons against it (and China) in 1950-51, and stationed battlefield and intermediate-range nuclear weapons in South Korea between the 1950s and 1991. The purpose of US economic sanctions against North Korea has always been regime change, and the US has never been willing to negotiate in good faith a normalisation of relations (13).

The irrationality – or rather rational-irrationality – is on the other side; as we can see from the fate of other members of the ‘axis of evil’. What is at issue is the defence of the status of the US as the world’s top-dog power; and how to do so under conditions where there is no longer a Soviet enemy to force ‘the west’ to cohere, and where, at the same time, the US is in relative decline as an industrial producer, though still absolutely dominant in financial and military affairs and in military technology.

Under these conditions, the US can no longer proceed to summarily ‘send in the Marines’ as it did to Latin American countries between 1905 and 1965. The US succeeded in imposing order in South Korea at a very heavy cost, and at the price of tolerating North Korea. It failed miserably in South Vietnam.

Afterwards, under the Carter administration, it ceased to attempt to impose order. But the US is still necessarily committed to punishing those who have in the past defied it in any way, and their descendants to the nth generation. If it fails to do so, like any protection racketeer (which US foreign policy increasingly resembles) it will lose ‘turf’ and be ‘dissed’ more and more. Instead of attempting to impose order, which is beyond its capabilities, it merely punishes those who defy it with chaos, US-sponsored terrorists, destruction and state failure. Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen are merely the most recent examples of a litany which began with 1970s interventions against Mozambique, Angola, Cambodia, Afghanistan …

North Korea is undergoing the punishment in the form of siege warfare, euphemistically described as ‘sanctions’.14 But the US is not satisfied with the results: they have not yet produced regime change and the state failure and chaos which will follow. It wants more (and it initially proposed, but did not get, a form which would allow UN-backed military action).

China and Russia have rightly resisted this proposal; but, remaining within the framework of ‘international law’, and the United Nations, they necessarily allow the US to tighten the screws towards the death and destruction which will result from the attainment of its aims.

This is not a matter of Donald Trump’s supposed narcissism, any more than the ‘axis of evil’ was a matter of George W Bush’s supposed stupidity. Preserving the ‘American way of life’ actually requires preserving America’s global top-dog status. That is also the coded meaning of ‘making America great again’ and the open meaning of the ‘new American century’. Restoring American industrial dominance is no more possible than restoring Venetian or Genoese shipping dominance was in the 17th century or Dutch in the 18th, or British industrial dominance in the early 20th. What remains possible is to preserve US financial dominance through military dominance, by spreading destruction across the world.

Just as juche was illusory, so are all forms of nationalist separatism in response to this global threat. The struggle posed is one for the overthrow of capitalist rule as such, in the US as much as everywhere else.



  1. New York Times September 11.
  2. The Independent September 12.
  3. Daily Mail April 20.
  4. CNN, September 3:
  5. It appears to be seriously misleading; see, for example, a couple of accounts by foreigners more or less friendly to the regime: F Abt, A capitalist in North Korea Tuttle 2014; A Lankov Daily life in North Korea NK News 2015. Both no doubt in a sense see ‘Potemkin villages’, rather than the worst aspects of the regime; but they also see that behind the facade there has actually been substantial movement towards Chinese-style ‘economic reform’ and access of the North Korean middle classes to external information sources.
  6. Standard sources characterise the beginning of the war as a North Korean invasion, reflecting the US-UN point of view. Bruce Cumings (The Korean war: a history New York 2011) and other authors have argued that what was involved was in fact a civil war which was already underway.
  7. Front-line troops were contributed by Australia, Belgium, Britain, Canada, Colombia, Ethiopia, France, Greece, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Philippines, South Africa, Thailand and Turkey.
  8. S Chang, ‘A chronology of US sanctions against North Korea’, S Chang and SH Kim (eds) Economic sanctions against a nuclear North Korea Jefferson 2007, chapter 2.
  9. TF Cargill and E Parker, ‘Economic reform and alternatives for North Korea’, SH Kim, T Roehrig and B Seliger The survival of North Korea Jefferson 2011, chapter 6.
  10. The prior developments listed in Wikipedia, etc are pretty clearly research projects in nuclear power production rather than in nuclear weapons production.
  11. See, for example, from some time ago, B Cumings, ‘Wrong again’ London Review of Books December 4 2003; the point is not that Cumings was necessarily right then, but the fact that North Korean capabilities are likely to be exaggerated by various interests and mechanisms.
  12. Eddie Ford commented in this paper, on the occasion of the funeral of Kim Jong-Il, on the similarities between this cult and the British cult of the royal family: ‘Of kings and Kims’ Weekly Worker January 12 2012.
  13. Indeed, the episode of 1994-99 illustrates the point, visible elsewhere (recently in Trump’s denunciation of the Paris climate agreements), that the US political system makes it constitutionally unable to negotiate international agreements in good faith.
  14. There is a useful discussion in R Frank, ‘The political economy of sanctions against North Korea’ Asian Perspective Vol 30, No3, 2006, pp5-36.

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