The Nature of South Korean Imperialism and the Tactical Consequences for Revolutionaries (Theses)


Theses for discussion by the South Korean comrades of the RCIT


By Michael Pröbsting, International Secretary of the RCIT, 06.12.2019




1.             South Korea has become an imperialist state in the course of the 2000s. The main characteristic of this development is the fact that South Korea has become a highly advanced capitalist economy dominated primarily by a domestic monopoly bourgeoisie (the chaebols). This Korean monopoly capital has also joined the top league of global capital where it competes with corporations from the U.S., China, Japan, Germany and others.


2.             This development can be observed via a number of factors. South Korea has become the fourth-largest economy in Asia and the 11th largest in the world. Its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per head has reached the same level as Italy.


3.             The domination of the domestic market by the Korean monopoly capitalists is reflected by the fact that the top 10 chaebols alone own more than 27% of all business assets in South Korea. The largest five of them – Samsung, LG, Hyundai, SK, and Lotte – represent approximately half of the South Korean stock market’s value. Samsung Electronics, the largest Samsung affiliate, alone employs more than 300,000 people globally (more than Apple’s 123,000 and Google’s 88,000 combined). For the past decade it has accounted for more than 14% of South Korea’s GDP.


4.             The global role of the Korean chaebols and their strong position in the world economy is confirmed by the fact that it highly ranks among the top global corporations. For example, South Korea is ranked as No. 5 among the Forbes Global 2000 list respectively as No. 7 among the Fortune Global 500 (with 16 corporations – only one less than Britain).


5.             Another indication of the imperialist character of the Korean monopoly bourgeoisie is the enormous role of capital export. This means that South Korean capital plays a leading role in the world market and super-exploits the workers and oppressed in the semi-colonial countries. Between 2013 and 2018 the annual outflows of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) were always 2-3 as large as the inflows. The following figure reflects the transformation of South Korea into an imperialist state since the year 2000: While the FDI inward stock was more than double as large than the FDI outward stock in the year 2000 ($43.7bn - $21.5bn), this relationship has been turned upside down by 2018 ($231.4bn - $387.6bn).


6.             However, South Korea is a new imperialist state with a specific history which gives its capitalist nature a specific, complicated character. In fact, this specific nature is an important, albeit not the only, reason why most South Korean socialists fail to recognize the transformation of their country into an imperialist nation.


7.             In contrast to many other imperialist states, Korea does not have a historic past as a Great or colonial Power (like, for example, the European powers or Russia). Even China has a different history: while it faced increasing aggression and humiliation by the Great Powers from 1840 onwards until 1949, it was a Great Power before oppressing other people for many centuries (e.g. Muslim peoples, Tibet, Vietnam, Korea).


8.             Korea has a different history: it never oppressed other people and for a long time its ruling class – led by the famous Joseon dynasty – isolated the country from the outside world (the “Hermit Kingdom”). From the 19th century onwards, Korea experienced increasing aggression by the Great Powers and in 1910 it became a colony of Japanese imperialism. This occupation lasted until 1945 and resulted in the most brutal oppression. Soon after the collapse of the Japanese Empire, Korea faced a barbaric war which resulted in the death of millions of people. Since then South Korea was occupied by U.S. imperialism and became a semi-colony.


9.             South Korea became a front state in the Cold War against North Korea and its Chinese and Soviet allies. Washington and the South Korean bourgeoisie imposed several successive military dictatorships which ensured political loyalty to Western imperialism as well as the super-exploitation of the working class. However, being a “front state” in the Cold War, South Korea received a substantial amount of political support and financial and economic aid from the imperialist states (this resembles to a certain degree the Marshall Plan of the U.S. for Western Europe after 1948). The combination of massive super-exploitation of the South Korean working class, a series of military dictatorship until 1987, state-capitalist regulations and imperialist aid ensured exceptional circumstances which allowed for a rapid economic development of South Korean capitalism. In particular it helped to build a strong industry and the creation of monopoly corporations (the chaebols).


10.          The fall of the military dictatorship in 1987 and the collapse of the Stalinist rule in the USSR and Eastern Europe in 1989-91 created new conditions for South Korean capitalism. The crucial period of 1987 and the years after saw a series of important class battles with many heroic strikes and occupations. However, in the end they failed to defeat the bourgeoisie. In fact, for the reasons outlined above, South Korean capital was strong enough to defeat the workers vanguard not by re-imposing a military dictatorship but via democratic-counterrevolutionary means. This means that they succeeded to defeat the workers movement without abolishing the limited bourgeois democracy which emerged after 1987. This was related to the fact that the Korean monopoly bourgeoisie was able to create and bribe a certain labor aristocracy.


11.          This development was already an indication that the South Korean bourgeoisie was no longer a weak, semi-colonial capitalist class. The decisive test of South Korea’s transformation was the fact that it succeeded in overcoming the devastating consequences of the financial crisis in East Asia in 1997-98. The South Korean state – under pressure of the world market – restructured the chaebols and their relationship to the financial market. It also opened the domestic market for foreign capital and, at the same time, supported Korean monopoly capitalists to increase their exports and investments in markets abroad. Likewise, most chaebols created alliances with foreign capitalists – a process which has been taken place in many other imperialist countries in the period of Globalization (e.g. Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi, Fiat-Chrysler, etc.). However, in most cases, the leading Korean families of the chaebols succeeded in retaining their dominant influence in their corporations.


12.          Obviously, emerging South Korean imperialism is marked by the specific characteristics of its history. Hence, while it is in a strong economic position, its political role remains overshadowed by the dominant influence of U.S. imperialism since 1945. This is not an exceptional phenomenon for an imperialist state. A similar constellation exists in Japan since its defeat and occupation at the end of World War II. The presence of U.S. troops and bases in Okinawa and the enforced “pacifist” character of Japan’s constitution still reflect the limited political and military autonomy of Japanese imperialism. A similar situation existed in Western Germany until 1990.


13.          However, the trade war between South Korea and Japan which started in 2019 reflect the decaying domination of U.S. imperialism as well as the increasing political independence both of South Korean and of Japanese imperialism.


14.          Hardly any organization of the South Korean workers movement and left recognizes the transformation of South Korea into an imperialist state. Most consider the country as a neo-colony or semi-colony of US imperialism (the so-called “National Liberation” current which stand for a Stalinist and nationalist policy). Some characterize the state as “sub-imperialist” but not imperialist.


15.          There are several important reasons for this failure. First, as mentioned above, South Korean monopoly capital has been able to create and bribe a labor aristocracy. This layer constitutes a crucial material basis for the trade union bureaucracy and the reformist parties. Reformism, as we see in many other imperialist countries, opportunistically adapts to its “own” bourgeoisie and preaches social-patriotic support for its “fatherland”. It is in the objective interest of the South Korean bourgeoisie to utilize nationalist sentiments and to direct popular hatred against its imperialist rivals (like Japan and the U.S.) by claiming that the country still suffers from the discrimination and pressure by other Great Powers.


16.          Secondly, there is a strong historical-ideological reason. As mentioned above Korea has never been a Great Power but, quite the opposite, has been repeatedly humiliated and oppressed by foreign powers. Only in the past two decades has South Korean monopoly capital been able to overcome this situation. However, for this reason, there is a strong historic consciousness of the popular masses that Korea has always been oppressed and, hence, nationalism is a legitimate answer to this evil. Furthermore, it is difficult to recognize for many that Korean capital has now become an oppressor itself.


17.          Finally, when it comes to the political left-wing organizations, one has to recognize the strong influence of Stalinism and its mechanistic ways of thinking. Stalinism – as all petty-bourgeois ideologies – is organically incapable of analyzing social developments in a dialectical-materialist way. However, without a Marxist scientific approach it is impossible to recognize that South Korea in 2020 is qualitatively different from South Korea in 1980, i.e. that it is no longer a capitalist semi-colony but an imperialist state.


18.          Such a failure is by far not unique. Many German Marxists could not believe that their country had become imperialist in the decade before 1914 given the, by and large, absence of colonialism in its history. In the 1920s and 1930s many Japanese socialists considered their country as “semi-feudal” and not as a capitalist power. The Stalinist “Japanese Communist Party” strongly denies since 1945 until today that Japan is an imperialist state and justifies their social-patriotic position by referring to Japan’s subordinated position to U.S. imperialism in the political and military field. Likewise, most Russian Stalinists and leftists shamefully deny the imperialist character of their state. In short, social-patriotic denial of the imperialist character of their own country is not a unique feature of the Korean left but a general phenomenon of reformism and centrism. However, as history has demonstrated, such failure always results in social-chauvinist capitulation to its “own” imperialist bourgeoisie and the betrayal of the interests of the international working class.


19.          Recognizing the imperialist character of South Korea has profound programmatic and tactical consequences for revolutionaries. It is completely impermissible for Marxists in South Korea to support the struggle for the country’s “national liberation”. In an imperialist country like South Korea, “national liberation” means nothing but social-patriotic support for the domestic imperialist monopoly bourgeoisie! Likewise, revolutionaries must not support the boycott campaign against Japan – an imperialist rival of South Korea – or any other form of chauvinism. Such reactionary campaigns only serve to subordinate the workers behind the ruling class. We call for international unity of the workers of South Korea, Japan and globally. We stand for the Leninist program of revolutionary defeatism which is based on the principle “The main enemy is at home!


20.          Naturally, this does not mean that revolutionaries should ignore the legitimate concerns of Korean citizens (and their families) who survived the Japan’s barbaric regime of forced labor and sex slavery imposed during World War II. Contrary, they must support their demands for compensation by Japanese corporations resp. the Japanese state. However, it is crucial that revolutionaries explain in a popular and agitational way that the struggle for the legitimate demands of the Korean victims of Japan’s war crimes must result in compensation for these families but not in more profit for the chaebols. They must explain that the boycott campaigns do not serve the interests of the Korean citizens but only the interests of Samsung, LG and Lotte which can gain a larger market share at the cost of their Japanese rivals via such campaigns!


21.          Revolutionaries should emphasize that these legitimate claims of the Korean victims are only a pretext for the escalation of rivalry between the two countries. If the South Korean state would have been seriously interested in getting compensation for its citizens why is it acting only now – nearly 75 years after these tragic events took place? The reason is obvious: in the decades after World War II, South Korea and Japan were closely bound together as politically subordinated allies of U.S. imperialism in the Cold War. In the past as well as today, the legitimate interests of the Korean citizens have been subordinated to the political goals of the ruling class!


22.          Likewise, the demands for the withdrawal of all U.S. troops, the dissolution of the U.S. military bases and the removal of the THAAD missile defense system retain their importance. Such campaigns should be combined with the call for the defense of North Korea against any imperialist aggression by the U.S., Japan, South Korea or by any other Great Power. Hence, revolutionaries oppose the sanctions against North Korea and call for the military defeat of its enemies in case of a war. Naturally, such defense must go hand in hand with resolute opposition against the bureaucratic, state-capitalist dictatorship in Pyongyang.


23.          Such tactics are part of our strategy for the revolutionary unification of Korea and the struggle for the overthrow of the South Korean bourgeoisie as well as of the North Korea Stalinist-capitalist ruling class.


24.          In conclusion, it is impossible to fight for a program of socialist revolution in Korea without recognizing the imperialist character of the South Korean state and without applying the Marxist principles of revolutionary defeatism. The struggle for such principles are a precondition for the healthy construction of a revolutionary workers party in South Korea and internationally. The RCIT and its comrades in South Korea are fully committed to this goal!