"We want fire" - Class struggles in North Korea

Riots and workers' struggles are common place in South Korea. It is only a matter of time before they spread to North Korea and bring down the Stalinist regime.

The world watches the coronation of Kim Jong-Un and the mass outpouring of grief for Kim Jong-Il in the outcast state capitalist regime of North Korea with a mix of fascination and horror wondering how a country with 200,000 living in gulags could ever enter the 21st century of global capitalism, parliamentary democracy and media unlimited. The tight control of society the state regime exerts creates "gulags of the mind" that mirror the Soviet-style prison camps which Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn described so well in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.

Yet even as the regime projects an image of stability during an orderly transfer of figurative power economic problems continually drive the Stalinist ruling cabal into conflict with the working class and force the state capitalist elite to intensify efforts to integrate their regime into capitalism. Yet the pariah traditions of the North Korean state ensure that the integration is lopsided and partial. The North Korean state capitalist economy is increasingly being opened up to integration within the circulatory system of global free market capitalism.

As Tony Cliff described the problem facing the Russian state capitalists in 1991; "They have to raise the productivity of labour. That’s why all of them accept the need to move away from the command economy. But they are trapped because the command economy is not yet dead and the market economy is stillborn. So they get a combination of both systems." These combination of state capitalism and the market economy only increase the slide towards class conflict.

Capitalist Islands
Despite professing to be a Communist country the North Korean regime is building islands of transnational capitalist exploitation within its territory in an attempt to generate foreign funds to prop up its regime.

One of these areas is the Kaesong Industrial Region on the border with South Korea where some 48,000 North Korean workers generate US$50 million in revenue for the dictatorship. Despite the tension between the two Koreas the numbers of northern workers being employed here continues to grow each year feeding the demand by South Korean capitalists for super-exploited labour and North Korea's need for cash. Cash is then spent by the regime on luxury goods such as watches, gold and liquor (or even beef from New Zealand) which is distributed amongst members of the North Korean ruling class. Mostly however it is used to fund the bloated military, police and administrative bureaucracy needed to control society.

These capitalist islands also tie the South Korean capitalist class to the survival of totalitarianism in the North which becomes a necessary element in low wage competitiveness for production worth nearly a billion dollars a year. The Kaesong industrial zone is also a real threat to the wages and jobs of the manufacturing working class in South Korea as corporations outsource to the state capitalist belt where wages are 95% lower.

Negri and Hardt wrote in their influential Empire, "The spatial divisions of the three Worlds (First, Second and Third) have been scrambled so that we continually find the First World in the Third, the Third in the First, and the Second almost nowhere at all." What we see in Kaesong is an evil paradise of neo-liberalism which ruthlessly marries Stalinist state control of workers with the access to the post-Soviet, unfettered uber-capitalism.

Guest Workers
As well as allowing capitalist enterprises to operate inside its territory, North Korea exports its slave labour system across the Middle East, Asia and Eastern Europe to earn millions of dollars in extra revenue. According to HRW,
The US government's Trafficking in Persons Report 2009 states North Korean workers employed overseas "are subjected to harsh conditions, with their movements and communications restricted by DPRK (North Korea) government 'minders' and face threats of government reprisals against them or their relatives in North Korea if they attempt to complain to outside parties." The report further says "worker salaries are deposited into accounts controlled by the North Korean government, which keeps most of the money for itself, claiming fees for various "voluntary" contributions to government endeavors. Workers only receive a fraction of the money paid to the North Korean government for their work."

The report further notes the countries in which North Koreans reportedly work through such arrangements include Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, Russia, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Kuwait, Yemen, the United Arab Emirates, Libya, Angola, China, Mongolia, Malaysia, Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos. They include some 10,000 to 20,000 North Koreans who have worked in the logging industry each year in the Russian Far East since 1967
In 2006 some 400 North Korean workers were working as seamstresses for a company in the Czech Republic before objections from US customers, anti-trafficing organisations and the late Czech President Vaclav Havel put an end to the practice.

BBC exposed in 2009 in a riveting video report available online, the exploitation of North Korean workers in Russia by a corporation owned by British businessmen. As the documentary shows not only are the workers exported to be exploited by multinational capitalists but the entire North Korean state capitalist administrative, thought police and propaganda system is exported in miniature and reconstructed thousands of kilometers away from North Korea.

In 2011 when the North African uprising broke out in Libya some 200 North Korean doctors, nurses and construction workers were stranded after Pyongyang refused to allow them to return home fearing a spread of the democracy contagion.

In October 2011 the Independent broke a story of North Korean forced labour working in Mongolia making garments that are sold on the UK High Street. Around 3000 workers in 2011 could have earned around £7 million in revenue for the regime, as there wages are paid directly to a bank account of the North Korean embassy.

The labour export system in 2007 was estimated to annually send out 70,000 North Koreans around the world and the US State Department revised that to 100,000 recently. Under tight totalitarian control the North Korean guest workers are a sought after labour force celebrated by capitalists around the world for their obedience and productivity. “I remember an 18-year-old North Korean girl who had injured her hand and kept on doing grueling leather work, producing twice more than her Czech, Ukrainian, or Mongolian peers. That is precisely why the Czechs are always willing to welcome North Korean workers."

Yet even as the North Korean Workers' Party ruling elite exports its proletariat around the world it creates its own gravediggers. As Tony Cliff explained in The Nature of Stalinist Russia,
The historical task of the bureaucracy is to raise the productivity of labour. In doing this the bureaucracy enters into deep contradictions. In order to raise the productivity of labour above a certain point, the standard of living of the masses must rise, as workers who are undernourished, badly housed and uneducated, are not capable of good production. The bureaucracy approaches the problem of the standard of living of the masses much in the same way as a peasant approaches the feeding of his horses: “How much shall I give in order to get more work done?”

But workers, besides having hands, have heads. The raising of the standard of living and culture of the masses, means to raise their self-confidence, increase their appetite, their impatience at the lack of democratic rights and personal security, and their impatience at the bureaucracy which preserves these burdens. On the other hand, not to raise the standard of living of the masses means to endanger the productivity of labour which is fatal for the bureaucracy in the present international relations, and also to drive the masses sooner or later to revolts of despair.
Increasingly cracks are beginning to show in the North Korean regime as the working-class begins to find new ways to resist the barbaric dystopia they live in. Although protests and outbreaks of violence directed at the regime are rarely reported, observers have noted increasing restlessness in the wake of the Arab spring.
Timeline of recent resistance (clipped from regional news sources)

December 2009 - Riot by merchants over currency change in the eastern city of Hamhung. Twelve ringleaders executed by the regime.

January 2010 - Residents, including war veterans aged in their 70s or 80s, protested last month outside a city hall in Danchon, North Hamkyong province and that authorities rushed to release 1,000 tons of rice to placate them.

February 2010 - One person was killed by armed guards on Feb. 16 when a group of people attempted to rob a food train at Komusan Railway Station in Puryong-gun, North Hamgyong Province, defector group North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity said. The attack came on North Korean leader Kim Jong-il's birthday after a disastrous currency reform sent food prices skyrocketing. The train was loaded with rice imported from China, the group said. Workers, outraged over the death, attacked armed guards with ploughs and police and military were called in.

February 2011- A North Korean resident in Chongjin, North Hamgyong province, told RFA that an unidentified group of assailants stoned the city's former inspection chief to death this month, amid an increasing level of food thefts and anti-government acts. In a most telling sign of the breakup of social control, Chosun said even solders, hungry for food, were joining the protests.

Radio Free Asia reports that signs of resistance are emerging, including the murder of the former chief of public security in Chongjin, North Hamgyong Province. It quoted a local as saying the man was killed by several assailants who threw stones at him as he rode his bicycle home at night. "It seems to be an act of revenge," the source added. The man had earned a bad reputation during 14 years of ruthless rule in the city, sending residents to labor camps regardless of their situation if they were caught violating rules. Early this year, one villager in the province apparently killed three government inspectors who confiscated wood he had gathered to build a fire.

February 2011 - Small pockets of unrest are appearing in North Korea as the repressive regime staggers under international sanctions and the fallout from a botched currency reform, sources say. On Feb. 14, two days before leader Kim Jong-il's birthday, scores of people in Jongju, Yongchon and Sonchon in North Pyongan Province caused a commotion, shouting, "Give us fire [electricity] and rice! "

A North Korean source said people fashioned makeshift megaphones out of newspapers and shouted, "We can't live! Give us fire! Give us rice!" "At first, there were only one or two people, but as time went by more and more came out of their houses and joined in the shouting," the source added.

The State Security Department investigated this incident but failed to identify the people who started the commotion when they met with a wall of silence. "When such an incident took place in the past, people used to report their neighbors to the security forces, but now they're covering for each other," the source said. The commotion started because the North Korean regime had diverted sparse electricity from the Jongju and Yongchon area to Pyongyang to light up the night there to mark Kim's birthday on Feb. 16.

"Discontent erupted because the regime cut off electricity that had been supplied to them only a few hours a day, and they had hard time putting food on the table due to soaring rice prices." A North Korean defector said the Jongju and Yongchon area "has long been a headache to the regime due to the spirit of defiance of the people there."

June 2011- Leaflets calling for the overthrow of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il's regime were scattered in Hoeryong, North Hamgyong Province in mid-June, the Asahi Shimbun reported Friday. North Korea deemed the incident a threat to national security and launched an intensive investigation to find out who printed and distributed them after collecting scores of leaflets between June 24 and 25, the Japanese daily said. "The General is not the bright sun of the 21st century, but has only brought us darkness," it quoted the leaflets as saying. "Let's end the age of Kim Jong-il. We want rice." North Korean authorities believe the leaflets were printed and distributed in the North rather than by South Korean civic groups. They have incinerated those that were found and dispatched an entire unit of security agents to find out whether any locals still have them. "Sources said the fliers indicate a growing dissatisfaction with Kim among the North Korean population," the Asahi added.

December 2011 - Eight armed North Korean soldiers defected last month across the Apnok (or Yalu) River separating North Korea and China, prompting security to be tightened around the Chinese border town of Dandong, the Daily NK reported Wednesday.
Tony Cliff, one of founding members of the Socialist Workers' Party and International Socialist Tendency, pioneered theories of state capitalism in an attempt to explain the situation in Stalinist Russia. Cliff sought to describe the difficulties faced by the Russian proletariat but also to suggest, correctly, how workers would inevitably bring down Stalinism; "The class struggle in Stalinist Russia must inevitably express itself in gigantic spontaneous outbursts of millions. Till then it will seem on the surface that the volcano is extinct."

We want fire
Crisis in North Korea catalyses exodus. As HRW has noted, "Hundreds of thousands of North Koreans have crossed the border into China since a famine hit the country in the mid-1990s." As technology shrinks the world North Korean workers find new ways to breach the Chinese walls erected by thoughtpolice to sterilise them from global culture. CDs containing South Korean TV dramas are smuggled into the country and widely circulated amongst North Koreans. Out of 18,000 students at a regime university 2,000 were reported to have subversive videos when their CDs and USBs were searched in 2009. In May 2010 the regime worried that underground activists in the Yangang province were setting fires to buildings to destabilise the regime.

As the need to maintain a vast military and police state able to survive in a capitalist world creates more and more pressure on the North Korean elite to raise new surplus through increasingly allowing outside capitalist exploitation of its workforce it will be driven into terminal crisis. As Cliff observed of the Stalinist ruling class of Russia in 1991, "The rulers find themselves in such a cul-de-sac, they can’t go back and they can’t go forward."

The voices of the working-class return again to haunt the bureucracy as the cry is heard in the streets, "We want fire!"

-Sam Lee, SA


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