The escalation in the war of words between US president Donald Trump and North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, has already produced many hysterical headlines about the threat of a nuclear war - and, even, of a new world war. And indeed, this is precisely what would appear to be the implication of Trump's reactions to North Korea's ostentatious missile launches and nuclear experiments, if they were to be taken at face value - for instance, his promise to respond "with fire and fury like the world has never seen". Especially so, as all rich countries' governments have been unreservedly lining up behind Trump's condemnations, including those which expressed some timid reservations about his bellicose threats.
But then, what seems to be a rather insane overbidding between the two leaders is one thing - but real world politics is quite another. So, while American UN ambassador Nikki Haley, was dutifully upholding Trump's line by accusing North Korea of "begging for war" and stating that "the time for talking is over", Trump's secretary of state Rex Tillerson, was declaring to the media that the US administration was in direct contact with North Korea through multiple channels. And although Tillerson's statement was immediately disowned by Trump, tweeting that he was "wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man" and asking him to "save your energy, Rex, we'll do what has to be done", Tillerson's admission was probably a more accurate reflection of what is really happening behind the scenes.
Indeed, whatever their rhetoric, neither Trump nor, of course, Kim Jong-un, has any interest in triggering a war, which would be politically costly for the former and suicidal for the latter. Nor is the present stand-off simply due to the "loose cannon" policy underpinned by Trump's aggressive "tweets", or Kim Jong-un's alleged "paranoia".
In the meantime, however, a raft of new UN sanctions have been slapped on North Korea, adding even more misery to the already dire conditions of its population.
That said, in and of itself, this stand-off and the overbidding which goes with it, is nothing really new, either. There have been many similar crises involving North Korea in the past. Today, Trump is merely continuing, in his own "style", the policies of his predecessors, who, for several decades, have all used the North Korean regime as a convenient scapegoat, in order to serve their imperialist agenda in the region.
There is, however, one difference between the present crisis and the previous ones - and it is a significant one. It is the fact that today's crisis is taking place against the backdrop of a deep, on-going worldwide economic crisis, with no end in sight, which is increasing the bitterness of the competition for profits, natural resources and markets, between the rival imperialist capitalist classes and their multinationals. And this could potentially result in a minor political crisis, like this one, having far more unpredictable consequences - as has already been the case, time and again, in the past history of capitalism.
A by-product of the imperialist Cold War
In fact, it should be recalled that the existence of North Korea itself was the result of a political crisis which began to develop in the immediate aftermath of World War II, leading to what came to be known as the Cold War.
Once their victory looked certain, the leaders of the victorious imperialist block led by the USA, decided that the time had come for them to end their wartime alliance of convenience with the Soviet Union and to prevent it from consolidating the sphere of influence it had built during the war. These imperialist leaders had never ceased to see the existence of the Soviet Union as a major threat to their world order, if only because of the fact that, despite its bureaucratic degeneration under Stalinism, it remained the living proof of the capacity of the working class to overthrow the propertied classes and to take over the running of society. What's more, the continuing existence of the Soviet regime prevented the imperialist multinationals from plundering the natural and human resources of the world's largest country. As a result, as soon as the war was over, the Soviet Union returned to its past status of imperialism's Enemy Number One and this was to shape Korea's artificial division.
In theory, the future of Korea, a Japanese colony since 1905, had been settled by the Allies at their February 1945 Yalta conference. To secure Stalin's co-operation in the war effort against Japan and in the postwar restoration of the imperialist order, US president Roosevelt had suggested that Korea should remain under the "joint trusteeship" of the US, Britain, USSR and China for 20 to 30 years. However, on 11 August 1945, following Japan's collapse, Roosevelt unilaterally declared that Korea would be "temporarily" split into two occupation zones, along the 38th parallel. The Northern zone, with about one third of the population, would come under Soviet control and the Southern zone under US control.
In September 1945, a conference of the Committees for the Preparation of Korea's Independence (CPKI), which had been set up by the anti-Japanese Korean resistance, was held in Seoul. It proclaimed an independent Korean People's Republic. But, despite the CPKIs' very moderate democratic programme, the fact that they had the support of the Korean Communist Party was enough for the US administration to refuse them the recognition they were asking for.
Instead, the US leaders proceeded to prop up a puppet regime in the South, using large parts of the former Japanese colonial state machinery, under the leadership of Syngman Rhee, an anti-communist politician who had spent many years in exile in the US. In February 1946, this regime was officially recognised by Roosevelt.
So far, the CPKIs had refrained from setting up a separate state machinery in the North. But after the Southern puppet state was formally recognised by the US, they undertook to build their own separate state machinery. An Interim People's Committee was formed, under a relatively junior member of the Communist Party leadership, Kim Il Sung. And, eventually, in September 1948, three weeks after the proclamation of the Republic of Korea in the South, a Democratic People's Republic was declared in the North.
The Northern nationalist regime soon proved to be a repressive regime, albeit enjoying a certain amount of popular support, due to its land reform and nationalisation policy. Meanwhile, the Southern pro-US regime was turning into a ferocious dictatorship, banning all working class organisations and drowning in blood the many protests and strikes against its rule, with the help of the US army.
By that time, the Cold War and Truman's containment policy against the Soviet Union had come to dominate the world political scene and there was no question of US leaders conceding an inch of land from their sphere of influence. Syngman Rhee's Southern regime became the recipient of massive flows of US aid. As far as the US were concerned, the partition of Korea was there to stay.
Finally, in June 1950, North Korean troops crossed the 38th parallel, in an attempt to re-unify the country, but probably also, in order to pre-empt a possible offensive by the Southern regime. The Korean war which followed lasted a full 3 years, involving 2.6m soldiers, mostly Korean, Chinese and American. It was a ferocious, but also terribly unequal war, given the colossal military resources available to the US-backed Southern state. When the armistice was finally signed, in July 1953, neither side could claim victory and since no peace settlement was actually signed, technically the two countries have remained in a state of war ever since.
Strangled by decades of imperialist blockade
After 1953, Korea remained divided by the very same border line drawn by Roosevelt in 1945. While the South Korean dictatorship went on to benefit from billions in economic and military aid from the US, North Korea was subjected to a complete blockade by the imperialist powers.
The working class and poor had played no role in building the North Korean state which, as a result, had nothing to do with socialism or communism. It was a nationalist regime whose only political perspective was the reunification of Korea. It operated much in the same way as other contemporary nationalist regimes in the poor countries, having borrowed from Stalinism the rhetoric and the methods which suited its objectives.
Its political system was built on the dictatorship of the Korean Workers' Party - the result of the merger of a number of radical nationalist groups with the Communist Party. On the economic front, its land reform had initially been aimed at mobilising the support of the rural population. But in a country which was affected by chronic food shortages, this was also a necessity just to feed the population. As to its nationalisation programme, it had merely involved taking over formerly Japanese-owned industries which had been been abandoned after Japan's defeat.
Unlike China, which was subjected to the same kind of blockade, North Korea did not have a huge population nor a wide variety of natural resources. It was entirely dependent on willing partners for a whole range of products and raw materials which it did not have - not to mention basic technology. And, of necessity, these partners had to be found outside the imperialist bloc - i.e., mainly China, the Soviet Union and a few Eastern European countries - which only provided a limited amount of aid.
So, these relations were more about trading business than economic support. What's more, at the best of times, North Korea's relations with the Soviet Union and China were always difficult. North Korea's nationalist leaders were very sensitive to any interference in their internal affairs. And they were suspicious of their backers' real intentions, especially in the case of China, where the situation of ethnic Koreans was a permanent source of tension.
However, with the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, the situation of North Korea became far more difficult. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, according to a US academic study published in July 2001, "over just a few years, subsidised oil shipments, technical aid, and imports of parts for Soviet-designed factories declined to a few percent of their pre-1990 levels. The collapse of the USSR also meant that most North Korean exports, earmarked for the consumers and factories of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, suddenly had no markets (..) In total it is estimated that the North Korean economy may have lost $1bn in annual aid from China and the USSR over the past decade."
In fact, North Korea's increasing isolation soon had devastating consequences. By the mid-1990s, widespread floods resulted in an unprecedented famine, which claimed an estimated 3 million lives. But, the deterioration of the country's infrastructure implied more long-term consequences, as the same study warned: "North Korea's energy infrastructure is disintegrating in many ways. The national electrical grid is essentially non-existent, operating at best as a series of unreliable regional grids using poorly-maintained equipment that is 50 years out of date to begin with. (..) The lack of electricity, diesel fuel and spare parts for trains and trucks has crippled the system for transportation of goods (including coal) and people, while the lack of energy (..) has reduced the output of heavy industry to a small fraction of 1990 levels. Residential and commercial lighting, heating and cooking have been affected by energy shortages, with indirect effects on health, productivity and the quality of life. Hospitals are unheated in winter, lack electricity for lighting and medical equipment and even lack fuel to boil water for human consumption (..) The lack of power idles coal mines, resulting in coal shortages at power plants."
To all intents and purposes, North Korea's isolation had been turning the clock way back into the past, bringing its economy back close to the stage it had been at, decades before, under the Japanese occupation.
The making of a "nuclear threat"
Not that the regime did not try to stop this downward slide. It was precisely for this reason that, for a long time already, it had been striving to renovate its energy production, by using the already antiquated nuclear-power technology that it had acquired from the USSR. But its efforts immediately came up against numerous obstacles, when the imperialist powers seized on this pretext to accuse North Korea of seeking to develop nuclear weapons and of threatening the world with nuclear war.
In fact, from this point onwards, the imperialist powers almost never stopped stigmatising North Korea as a "nuclear threat" to the world and using this as a justification for imposing ever tighter sanctions on the country.
Yet it is not as if North Korea failed to try, time and again, to make openings to the imperialist powers in order to get them to loosen the straitjacket in which its economy had been trapped for so long.
As soon as Nixon made his first advances to China in 1971, first by easing the country's total blockade and then by admitting China to the UN, Kim Il Sung initiated talks with South Korea, leading to a common declaration, in 1972, that both sides would seek reunification peacefully. Two years later, North Korea joined the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), subsequently agreeing to IAEA supervision of its two Soviet-built nuclear power plants.
From then onwards, an official line of political communication was established by the Western powers with North Korea. But the concessions made by the North Koreans to the demands of the imperialist leaders were never considered enough to satisfy the US administration, which never maintained its side of the deal.
Thus, for instance, in 1985, the North Korean leaders agreed to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in return for the promise that economic sanctions would be lifted. But this did not stop the US from re-imposing these same sanctions three years later, by adding North Korea to its list of "nations sponsoring terrorism".
In 1991, North Korea was finally invited to join the UN - although this was mainly because the US wanted the South Korean dictatorship to become a full member, which would have been difficult to achieve without inviting the Northern state to join as well.
Two years later, yet another crisis broke out. On the basis of US "intelligence", the IAEA suddenly accused North Korea of stockpiling enriched nuclear fuel and demanded that its inspectors be given access to the country's alleged nuclear stockpiles. Kim Il-Sung's response was to order a test launch of North Korea's new medium-range Rodong ballistic missile. However, this overbidding petered out the following year, after Kim Il-Sung died, to be replaced by his son, Kim Jong-il.
For once - and probably was it a side-effect of the collapse of the Soviet Union - something new seemed to come out of this crisis: the so-called Geneva Framework Agreement, which was signed by the US, then under president Carter, and North Korea, in October 1994. In return for allowing the mothballing by the IAEA of its 5GW Yongbyon nuclear reactor, North Korea was promised the delivery in 2003 of two 1GW light-water nuclear plants, together with the supply by the US of an annual total of up to 500,000 tons of heavy fuel oil to compensate for the shortage of energy in the meantime.
This agreement did pave the way for a short-lived improvement in the relationship between North Korea and the rest of the world - especially with Japan, which seized this opportunity to re-establish ties with North Korea, but mainly with South Korea. Indeed, in the meantime, the Southern military dictatorship had been forced to relinquish political power by a powerful working class uprising. Eventually, following the devastation caused by the 1997 South East Asian financial crisis, Kim Dae-Jung, a well-known opponent of the past military dictatorships had been elected president, on the basis of a reformist programme and of a policy of reconciliation with the North - the so-called "Sunshine Policy".
"Sunshine" did not quite mean reconciliation nor reunification, however, although it did result in the release of over 3,500 North Koreans who had been rotting in South Korea's jails and in the possibility for families which had been split by the country's partition, to meet their long lost relatives for the first time. But what it certainly meant was business - literally. Indeed, this period saw the setting up of a series of Special Economic Zones in the North, in which foreign companies - some Chinese, but most South Korean - where invited to run factories and tourist facilities, using North Korea's "low-cost" workforce, thereby bringing to North Korea a regular stream of foreign currency which it desperately needed for vital imports.
From Bush to Trump - on-going overbidding
But this respite did not last long. In fact, the promises made by the US leaders in the Geneva Framework Agreement did not materialise - especially the promise for the two vital light-water nuclear plants, which were never delivered. Although a supply contract for one such plant was eventually signed with the South Korean state-controlled utility, KEPCO, in 1999, and its construction started in 2001 - it was suspended in.. 2002 and finally abandoned in 2006!
What happened was, that in the meantime, US president George W Bush, had lumped together North Korea, Iraq and Iran in his "axis of evil", as part of his first "State of the Union" speech, on 29 January 2002.
Bush's rhetorical offensive had undoubtedly a domestic dimension: at a time when the mid-term US elections were threatening to turn into disaster for his Republican party, it was certainly very expedient to pour more oil on the flames of his "war on terror".
But beyond this domestic politicking, there were other, strategic reasons for US imperialism to use its whip against North Korea. In particular, South Korea's "Sunshine Policy" was not really to the US administration's liking. The US military did not approve of it, because it deprived them of any justification to keep tens of thousands of US soldiers in South Korea - since, the "Sunshine Policy" meant that the South no longer needed to be "protected" from the North. Moreover, US big business was not too happy either, because while the Japanese government was providing its good services as facilitator between the two Korea, it could only be expected to use this opportunity to promote the interests of Japanese multinationals in the Korean peninsula.
In any case, from then onwards, North Korea became, once again, the target of increasingly aggressive rhetoric on the part of the US administration. In the second half of 2002, the US suspended the vital supply of heavy fuel for North Korea, which the Framework Agreement had provided for. In retaliation, North Korea announced that it would remove the IAEA's seals and surveillance devices at its Yongbyon nuclear plant and that it would reactivate it in order to produce electricity for civilian use.
In the end there was nothing left of the Geneva Framework Agreement. The scarecrow of North Korea's supposed "nuclear threat" returned to the front of the international political scene and the cycle of crises returned in the relationship between the US government and North Korea.
The next major crisis came on 9 October 2006, when the imperialist powers' intelligence agencies leaked to the press that North Korea had carried out an underground nuclear test. And the western newspaper headlines dutifully screamed of "nuclear provocation" by North Korea, even though the evidence was, at best not all that convincing. On closer examination of this evidence, the US-based Bulletin of Atomic Scientists estimated that the explosion yield, if it was really a nuclear test, was probably around 0.55 kiloton, or less than 5% the explosive power of the bomb dropped by the US Air Force on Hiroshima, in 1945. On the basis of the same figures, various scientists speculated that either it was a failed nuclear test, or else it was a hoax involving the use of large quantities of conventional explosive in order to look like a nuclear test.
Whatever was the case, Bush did not wait for further confirmation before reacting. Within hours, he embarked on a vociferous denunciation of the North Korean regime, demanding an emergency meeting of the Security Council. Within 5 days, resolution 1718 was adopted unanimously, imposing a number of trade and financial sanctions on North Korea.
Since then, there has been little respite in the overbidding between the US government and the North Korean regime. The only difference with the period before Bush's 2002 intervention, has been in the fact that, ostensibly, the North Korean regime has been boasting far more provocatively of its alleged military capabilities - as if its aim was to hammer home the idea that North Korea could really be a threat to the imperialist powers.
Behind North Korea's liars' poker
But, of course, this would be assuming that today's North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, and his entourage, are just a bunch of idiots indulging in self-delusion - which is unlikely to be the case.
It is obviously impossible for anyone to be sure as to the real capabilities of the long series of missiles tested by the North Korean military, not to mention those of their nuclear devices. But nor is it wise to trust the hysterical headlines of the newspapers or the alarmist statements of politicians, who all have good reason to blow the North Korean "threat" out of all proportions.
However, scientists have long been monitoring closely the nuclear and ballistic activities and capabilities of the growing number of protagonists in the Weapons of Mass Destruction race. Among them are the contributors to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists already quoted. And this is what three of them - including a former UN weapons inspector in Iraq - had to say about the two Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) tests carried out by North Korea on July 3rd and July 29th which led the media (and Trump) to claim that Kim Jong-un now had the capability to "nuke" the heart of America:
"From the point of view of North Korean political leadership, the general reaction to the July 4 and July 28 launches could not have been better. The world suddenly believed that the North Koreans had an ICBM that could reach the West Coast of the United States and beyond. But calculations we have made (..) indicate that these rockets actually carried very small payloads that were nowhere near the weight of a nuclear warhead of the type North Korea could have, or could eventually have (..) In reality, the North Korean rocket fired twice last month - the Hwasong-14 - is a 'sub-level' ICBM that will not be able to deliver nuclear warheads to the continental United States."
In other words, whatever Kim Jong-un, Trump or the media may claim, the North Korean regime is very far from having the military capability of striking the heart of the United States.
Another example of the game of liars' poker which is being played around North Korea's weapons, is given by the speculation that the 6th nuclear test ever carried out in North Korea, on 3rd September, used a hydrogen bomb - therefore potentially far more powerful than a classical atomic bomb. Here is what Siegfried Hecker, a former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory (the birthplace of the US nuclear bombs) had to say on this speculation, in an interview published by the same Bulletin of Atomic Scientists: "The size of the blast was consistent with a hydrogen bomb - that is, a fusion-based bomb. However, it could also have been a large 'boosted' fission bomb (..). If any telltale radioactive debris leaked from the underground test site, that could help us differentiate, but so far none has been found. So we can't be certain." In other words, this new nuclear test does not seem all that different from the previous one, in January 2016. Then, as well, the bomb involved had been described by all and sundry as a hydrogen bomb. Except that, subsequently, this assertion was rejected by most nuclear experts, because the scientific data available did not provide any serious evidence to support it.
In a way, however, whether North Korea really can or cannot produce a hydrogen bomb and a missile capable of being dropped somewhere above the USA, is hardly the issue.
Indeed, why would the North Koreans want to stage a nuclear offensive against the USA in the first place? The numbers leave no space for any doubt as to the consequences involved. Even assuming they managed to reduce the weight of their nuclear bombs enough for them to be delivered by an ICBM, Siegfried Hecker estimates that they cannot produce more than 6 bombs/yr - in particular because they just do not have enough nuclear fuel. And yet, according to figures published this year by the Federation of American Scientists, any nuclear strike using the handful of North Korean nuclear warheads (assuming there are any) would have to face the possible retaliation of the America's estimated 1,650 operational nuclear warheads which are permanently deployed on intercontinental missiles and long-range bombers - enough to wipe out any life form from this planet, let alone Kim Jong-un and his regime!
For North Korea to use, or even just threaten to use, its nuclear arsenal, even if it was more sophisticated than it really is so far, would just be suicidal. And this, when the aim pursued by Kim Jong-un, in this game of liars' poker over nuclear weapons, is precisely to defend its regime's existence and avoid being at the receiving end of the kind of "regime change" method that the imperialist powers have been using so much over the past decades.
Indeed, isn't the whole point of having nuclear weapons, for a poor country like North Korea, precisely to ensure the survival of its regime? And haven't the US leaders themselves demonstrated with Gaddafi the risk that a Third World dictator like him may take by giving up his nuclear programme? After all, Kim Jong-un may well have come to the conclusion that had Gaddafi held out against the imperialist powers on the question of nuclear weapons, he might just still be alive?
By developing nuclear weapons, poor countries' regimes can acquire a certain degree of political independence - because it gives them the means to deter imperialism's regional stooges from attacking them and it gives them a bargaining chip in their relationship with the imperialist powers themselves. And due to the economic and social consequences of the current imperialist-imposed blockade, Kim Jong-un certainly needs a lot of bargaining chips, in order both to protect his own skin from the imperialist powers, but also from his own population, which could turn against him if he failed to improve its living conditions.
This is why there is method in Kim Jong-un's apparent madness and in the way he systematically inflates the military capability and aggressive intentions of his regime - not from a military point of view, of course, but from a political one, which is the only one he can afford to have, anyway.
Imperialism's regional power games
So, what is the point of imperialism's game in its multi decade-long overbidding with North Korea? In any case, one thing is certain: for all the US talk about the lack of democracy in North Korea, this is not something they care about in the least. After all, is there all that much to choose between the methods of the North Korean dictatorship and those of the death squads of Duterte's regime in the Philippines - the US' historical client state in Asia?
Of course not. But then, Duterte has never shown any kind of aspiration to the kind of independence mentioned above. Whereas it is precisely to this kind of independence that the imperialist leaders object in the case of North Korea. Just as they object, on behalf of their respective capitalist masters, to the development of home-grown nuclear industries in the poor countries, because it gives them a degree of independence from the world monopoly of western energy multinationals.
But, in addition, there is a lot more to the US overbidding against North Korea than just the fact that its regime's defiant attitude is a thorn in imperialism's side. Behind the on-going US skirmishes with North Korea, lie the requirements of the imperialist order in Asia, against the backdrop of today's worldwide capitalist crisis. And in this regional order, North Korea is very small fry compared to the two main Asian regional sharks - China and Japan. These are the two countries which really determine the US policies in the region, albeit in different ways and for different reasons. Despite Kim Jong-un's big talk, North Korea only happens to be caught in the cross-fire between the region's two big players and US imperialism.
In fact, it seems that the US strategy in Asia experienced a turning point at the end of 2011. This was enacted by Hillary Clinton, who was Obama's State Secretary at the time, in November 2011, when she announced that there would be what she called "a new American pivot to Asia", something that others, like the then National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, described as a "re-balancing" of US policy towards Asia. In an attempt to clarify this obscure language in hindsight, a New York Times columnist explained a year later: "Whatever it's called, the new approach essentially involves deploying 60 percent of US naval forces in the Pacific, a change from the previous 50-50 split between the Atlantic and Pacific commands. Six aircraft carriers will be part of the Pacific fleet (..) The pivot also involves bolstering alliances and friendships with an array of Asian nations, including India, and especially those that have been at odds with China in recent months - Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam and South Korea."
Indeed, China logically appeared as the main target of Obama's "pivot to Asia" - logically, because of the sheer size of China's economy and population and because of the potential influence it could gain as a result across the region, with or without US approval.
In this respect, Obama may have been replaced by Trump and his tweeting fury, but there has been no change in the policy of US imperialism. As Trump's CIA Director, Mike Pompeo, was quoted saying in July: "I think China has the capacity to present the greatest rivalry to America... over the medium and long term." Then, in September, General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the joint US chiefs of staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the rebalancing of focus and military forces towards Asia was continuing, adding: "As China's military modernization continues, the United States and its allies and partners will continue to be challenged to balance China's influence."
Therefore, part of the US policy in Asia is aimed at tightening links with its allies and client states in the region - like South Korea - while, at the same time, twisting China's arm into clamping down on its own client states - North Korea, in particular.
Indeed, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the subsequent collapse of South Korea's "Sunshine Policy", which was partly due to US pressure, and the on-going US-sponsored sanctions against North Korea, have effectively turned this country into a client state of China, albeit a reluctant one, as its economy has become largely dependent on its trade with China. And part of the overbidding between Trump and Kim Jong-un has been precisely aimed at forcing China to let down its protégé, by implementing, to a certain extent at least, the new raft of sanctions announced by the UN.
By contrast, the US administration has made a big show of the fact that it was prepared to put massive resources at the disposal of its own client states. The joint US-South Korean naval exercise which took place right in the middle of the latest nuclear crisis, was obviously a demonstration of strength aimed at North Korea, but also a demonstration of US loyalty towards the southern state. Likewise the deployment of the US THAAD anti-missile defence system in South Korea was certainly meant to cow North Korea into showing more respect for the regional imperialist order, but also to demonstrate that, unlike China's regional allies, the regional stooges of the US could definitely count on its unwavering protection.
The threat of the US military build up
But the scope of US policy in Asia goes beyond China. Japan is a target too, albeit for somewhat different reasons. While, due to its size, China can afford a certain degree of political independence from the US, Japan cannot, at least not in the same way. However, Japan is, far more than China, a major rival for the US multinationals. While the Japanese industrial giants have been forced to accept some constraints in the US market, they have more than made up for this by expanding their share of the European market. And in the biggest Asian countries - in particular India, China and Indonesia - Japanese companies are way ahead of their US rivals in terms of investment. In fact, even South Korea now imports more from Japan than it does from the US - and mostly high-value-added goods, like sophisticated machines and high-performance electronic components.
So, today, especially in the midst of the present capitalist crisis which exacerbates the competition between rival multinationals, using the pretext of the North Korean threat to reassert the US political domination over Asia, by means of a reinforced military presence, is just another way for US imperialism to try to contain the Japanese multinationals' ambitions and to protect the greed of US multinationals.
Ironically, though, this policy may well backfire in the end. Indeed, while Japan's long-serving prime minister Shinzo Abe has been careful to tread the US line and to go along with Trump's aggressive rhetoric, he has also been using, for a long time and with some success, the pretext of the North Korean threat to whip up support in Japan for a reappraisal of the limits put on the country's military forces as part of the postwar settlement following WWII. So that the US overbidding over North Korea may well end up fuelling Japan's rearmament, thereby increasing inter-imperialist rivalries in Asia.
Finally, but this has been the case for decades already, North Korea provides the US leaders with a convenient bogeyman in Asia. How else would they justify their huge, permanent military deployment in the region - a deployment which, as mentioned before, is actually increasing - now that they can no longer use the pretext of a Chinese or Soviet "threat", both in the eyes of the American taxpayer and in those of their regional allies? How would they justify having still, at the last count, 39,000 troops and 10 military bases in Japan, 23,500 troops and 15 bases in South Korea, plus naval bases and forces stretching from Australia, to the isle of Guam (east of Japan), Singapore (southern tip of Malaysia) and the British colony of Diego Garcia (off the southern coast of India)?
So the question should be asked: where does the real threat of war come from? From the symbolic gestures of a nationalist dictator trying to preserve his regime, to retain a degree of independence for his impoverished country and to gain some recognition from the imperialist powers? Unlikely. But such a threat definitely exists, coming from the world's most heavily armed capitalist class, the only one to have ever used the nuclear weapon, which, today, bears direct responsibility for most of the existing wars and civil wars across the world, and which, above all, is the custodian of an imperialist world order which is rotting on its feet due to its incurable contradictions.
And this threat will only disappear with capitalism itself.