Earlier this year rs21 members interviewed a South Korean revolutionary socialist about workers’ struggles and feminist campaigns, as well as the international situation in east Asia and the growing tensions between China and the USA. The first part of the interview was published in March – this is the second part of the interview covering the international situation.
South Korea-USA joint military exercises. Photo by ROK Armed Forces used under CC licence
rs21 Can we begin by asking more about how the South Korean left sees North Korea, and how difficult is it to oppose official government anti-communism while also being critical of the North?
Winnie Lee It’s very difficult. The majority of the left are nationalists because since the 1980s they have regarded South Korea as being dominated by American imperialist colonisation. And so they have opted to follow the Stalinist strategies and tactics for emancipation from the USA’s domination, as they see it. For a minority of the left that meant directly supporting Stalinist Russia, the old Soviet Union, and they didn’t see North Korea as a traditional communist state. So sometimes they did defend North Korea, but more often they condemned the North Korean leadership, using liberal or even right-wing arguments. That division persists today, with the majority of the left taking a ‘national liberation’ position and the minority more of a liberal democratic position – both sides were supporting Stalinist policies but looking to a different country for inspiration.
rs21 So the ‘national liberation’ tendency is closer to China and North Korea, while the liberal democrats are closer to the USSR?
WL Not quite, because the nationalists tend to support North Korea against China while the left liberals looked to both the USSR and China, so the Maoists are now also to be found on the liberal side.
rs21 As another South Korean friend told me, you can find every single left-wing tendency in the world there.
WL So the reality is that only a very small proportion of the left supports a state capitalist or other critical view of North Korea. And the far left who are critical of North Korea have sometimes been attacked because they have defended the left nationalists against attacks from the South Korean state. Since 2006 North Korea has had nuclear weapons, and the left nationalists of course support that. Of course the far left opposes North Korean nukes, but sees them as a result of the pressure on North Korea from US imperialism.
But even that position is too much for some of the liberal democrats – including the Maoists – who say that we have to condemn the nuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, in part because they are heavily influenced by the anti-nuclear movement in Japan. The Maoist position isn’t too surprising given that the Chinese ruling class from Mao onwards has always been strongly opposed to North Korea getting nuclear weapons, or starting any military adventures. And of course South Korea is currently one of China’s biggest trading partners in East Asia. But we shouldn’t fall into the trap of seeing China as somehow better than US imperialism, especially in the context of Korea.
rs21 That leads us on to the next question about what’s happening more generally in East Asia, with the USA stepping up military and political pressures on China and seeing South Korea as a critical ally in this. How does that impact on politics in South Korea? And have there been any mobilisations opposing the American military buildup?
WL The USA’s main ally has always been Japan rather than South Korea because of Japan’ssize and economic status. Korean capitalists always wanted to be an American partner in the same way because the alliance would be beneficial for them, but that has changed in the 21st century because of China’s economic growth. So there is now a two-track strategy, with national security depending on the US military presence and economic growth on the Chinese market. And as the conflict between the USA and China has sharpened, there is the danger for them that they have to choose. For the South Korean state, the priority has always been the US alliance.
But there is also a potential tension because the CCP wants South Korean investment and capital. And for some of the big tech-based conglomerates China looks more attractive than the USA. And from the USA’s point of view, they can’t fully trust South Korea to act in American interests because it is different from Japan. South Korea’s military are focused on North Korea and China, and the defence of the border, whereas Japan having no border and a smaller army means that their military are likely to be more guided by American interests. If South Korea had to choose between the USA and China, it would be the USA, but it is a very complicated and contradictory situation.
rs21 One of the complications in that situation is, as you said, American strategy in East Asia relies very heavily on Japan. But there are very longstanding tensions between South Korea and Japan. So part of the American project involves trying to ease the tensions between South Korea and Japan. What are the origins of these tensions first of all, and how likely is the USA to succeed in easing the tensions?
WL The historical tensions between Japan and Korea go back centuries, and of course the memory of the Japanese occupation [between 1910 and 1945] is quite recent, so mainstream Korean nationalism is to a large extent defined by being anti-Japanese. But there are more recent divisions as well, in particular over two small islands that we know as Dokdo and Japan calls Takeshima, and possible resource extraction from the seas around them. It is like the dispute between Japan and China (and Taiwan) about the Diaoyu Islands (Senkaku in Japanese), halfway between Taiwan and Okinawa, or Japan’s dispute with Russia over the Kuril Islands (Kuriru in Japanese).
But the dispute about the Dodko Islands also raises unresolved issues, for example the widespread use of Korean women as sexual slaves during the Second World War, and Korean forced labour in mining as well as construction on Pacific islands. Back in 1965 South Korea’s rulers accepted a ‘normalisation’ agreement with Japan, against widespread opposition, in which they gave up claims to compensation for Japanese war crimes. The agreement was pushed through under American pressure, but also because Park Chung-hee (dictator from 1961 until his assassination in 1979) was very pro Japanese, and wanted capital and technology from Japan. And so he rushed through this ‘normalisation’ agreement, which effectively then created decades of still-festering problems, because it never resolved the issues remaining from the war and the preceding colonisation period.
rs21 It’s interesting that every time there’s a right-wing government in South Korea, like now, they try to improve the relationship with Japan and somehow resolve these issues like forced labour or sex slavery. And this time they are attempting to do it by saying that the South Korean government will pay compensation to the survivors. Do you think this will succeed?
WL From the government’s point of view, it is possible they could get away with it, because the survivors are now quite old and can’t carry on fighting forever. The sexual slavery survivors have long been well organised, and they have consistently defended their claims, but the same isn’t true of the forced labourers – they don’t have their own organisation. So the government could get away with it, but it won’t be at all popular. They will probably try to justify it by talking about the ‘threat from China’, that the need for an alliance with the USA against China means we need to be closer to Japan.
There has been a shift in popular consciousness over this in the last 20 years. In 2002 a survey was carried out asking which country South Koreans saw as the biggest threat, and over half the respondents said the USA. But in 2022 a similar survey saw 70% naming China. There has been a real growth of populist anti-Chinese sentiment, especially among the young, encouraged by the press and by politicians talking about the threats from China’s economic growth and territorial disputes [over Taiwan and in the South China Sea]. To me it’s very worrying.
Some politicians from the People’s Power Party [the main conservative party] have become hardline anti-Chinese, but it’s still not their official line, because of the extent to which South Korea still relies on the Chinese economy. They’re not going to try a ‘Chexit’ and detach from the Chinese economy, much as the USA would like them to. And it’s not just manufacturing capital that wants to keep the links – students from China are increasingly important to South Korean universities, because the student-age population is shrinking and the universities are dying, so they are looking to China for both students and investment.
To sum up, there’s still a high level of volatility, because you have on the one hand these right-wing ideas which to some extent contradict the immediate economic interests of South Korean capital. But even though popular opinion is turning towards the anti-Chinese arguments, there is still a relatively high level of strike activity. So it’s not as simple as the country just moving towards the right – there are real contradictions here, and plenty of battles ahead.
 In the Sino-Soviet split, North Korea at different times sided with China or tried to remain neutral between the two.
 Japan first invaded Korea in the late 16th century, a six-year occupation which ended with a Chinese counter-invasion.
 Known in English as the Liancourt Rocks (after a French ship that was almost wrecked on them), the rocky islands are roughly the area of London’s Finsbury Park.