The latest North Korea nuclear test coincides with leaks from the Trump administration that Washington is demanding renegotiation of the US-Korea Free Trade Agreement (KORUS), and is preparing to withdraw from it – and therein lies a possible, albeit unintentional, resolution of the crisis on the peninsula.
The relationship between South Korea and the United States is unique in the history of empires. In the past, imperial powers have extracted resources from client states, protectorates, and outright colonies, setting up mercantilist arrangements that basically plundered their territories in the “Third World” for the benefit of domestic producers. The British empire is – or, rather, was – the exemplar of this system of exploitation.
Britain’s American cousins have stood this extractive system on its head. Instead of forcing open markets and granting monopoly status to domestic producers, the Americans have reversed the terms of exploitation. In exchange for allowing US troops to occupy their territory, America’s Asian protectorates have been granted tariff-free access to our markets. And despite the “free trade” label attached to these agreements, the playing field is anything but level: in the case of South Korea, for example, non-tariff barriers to trade – such as safety standards – have been allowed to stand, particularly in the case of automobiles and appliances. Similar disparities are encoded in our trade agreements with Japan.
And so the American empire is unique in world history in that, instead of economically exploiting its vassal states, it allows its vassals to protect their own industries behind trade barriers while they are given relatively free access to the US market. The result has been the hollowing out of the US industrial base, with once prosperous cities like Detroit in ruins. This isn’t “free trade” – it’s a trade policy distorted by militarism and imperialism.
Over 30,000 US troops now occupy the southern portion of the Korean peninsula. They have been there since the non-conclusion of the Korean war, which ended in a stalemate and an “armistice’ which continues to this day. We are still technically at war with the North.
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