President Joseph Biden embarked on his first visit to South Korea May 20-22, where he and newly elected South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol announced plans to expand provocative joint war games and to push increased economic sanctions against North Korea.
Biden’s trip to South Korea, then Japan, was aimed at shoring up U.S. imperialism’s interests in the region and pushing back against Beijing’s drive to expand its influence.
Biden and Yoon’s announcement marks a shift from the Donald Trump administration’s attempts in 2019, backed by then South Korean President Moon Jae-in, to reach an agreement with Pyongyang to ban nuclear weapons from the Korean Peninsula. Trump sharply scaled back joint military exercises with South Korea in the course of face-to-face negotiations with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Biden and Yoon claim “their common goal is the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” But Biden also said Washington is committed to “using the full range of U.S. defense capabilities, including nuclear,” in any confrontation with North Korea.
The joint statement by the two presidents also challenged Beijing. It claimed they stood for “freedom of navigation” in the South China Sea and “a free and open Indo-Pacific.” But for decades the U.S. imperialist rulers have considered the South Pacific as one of the prizes of their bloody victory in the Second World War. They aim to push back Beijing’s efforts to establish new “security alliances” and bases in the region.
For all of Biden’s bombast against North Korea, Washington is the only government to ever launch nuclear weapons. In 1945 it dropped two atomic bombs on Japan, obliterating the overwhelmingly civilian cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing 110,000 people almost instantly and another 230,000 within five years. During the 1950-53 Korean War the U.S. military high command recommended using nuclear weapons again, but Washington decided the political cost would be too high.
The government of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has repeatedly stated that it would end its nuclear program if Washington signs a peace treaty to formally end the Korean War and pledges not to attack North Korea.
The Korean War grew out of the division of the peninsula into North and South by Washington following World War II, with the connivance of the Stalinist rulers in Moscow, despite opposition by the Korean people. Korean workers and farmers had risen up in mass struggles for independence and social gains after decades of Japanese occupation of their country.
U.S. troops countered with ruthless repression, installing the dictatorship of Syngman Rhee in the South. Before the start of the Korean War, Rhee’s regime had killed 100,000 workers and peasants fighting for land, unions and democratic rights.
In the North, working people ousted the capitalist landlords, placed factories under workers control and by 1948 brought to power a government of workers and farmers.
After the war began and the Korean people succeeded in nearly pushing U.S. forces off the peninsula, Washington launched a counterattack. Using carpet bombing and napalm to level large parts of the country, U.S. troops advanced almost all the way to China’s border.
With the aid of Chinese volunteers, the U.S.-led forces were pushed back to the 38th parallel. The war ended in a stalemate in 1953, the first military defeat of U.S. imperialism. Despite signing an armistice, the U.S. rulers have never agreed to sign a peace treaty and keep over 25,000 troops on Korean soil.
Increased rivalry, shifting alliances
The Biden administration’s moves occur amid increasing rivalry and shifting alliances between capitalist powers as the imperialist “world order” imposed by Washington after its victory in the second imperialist world war unravels.
Biden’s trip is a reflection that the Indo-Pacific region has become “a veritable chessboard where South Korea, the US and Japan, are facing off against North Korea, China and Russia,” wrote South Korean daily Hankyoreh.
In 2006 Washington pushed harsh sanctions on North Korea through the United Nations Security Council. This included banning the selling of coal, the country’s key export, or importing natural gas, on the pretext of forcing North Korea to get rid of its nuclear weapons. Similar strictures were passed over the next decade, with the complicity of Beijing and Moscow. Those measures threw thousands out of work and increased scarcities of basic necessities.
But on May 26 — on the heels of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine — Russian and Chinese representatives to the U.N. Security Council vetoed Washington’s latest resolution to strengthen sanctions, the first such veto in 15 years.
After his three-day stay in South Korea Biden headed to Japan for a meeting on moves against Beijing with government officials from Japan, Australia and India, the so-called Quad alliance.
Showing their displeasure with U.S. moves, Beijing and Moscow flew six bombers capable of carrying nuclear weapons into South Korea’s air defense zone in the East Sea between Korea and Japan on May 24, precisely while the alliance was meeting.