Demand release of Australian political prisoner Chan Han Choi

Above image from Trotskyist Platform

by Davey Heller, 19th February 2021

On February 10th, Chan Han Choi pleaded guilty of two charges related to accusations that he breached sanctions placed on North Korea. The charges related to allegations he attempted to broker trade in extractive industries. A number of charges related to allegations that Chan Han Choi was involved in trade related to WMD’s were withdrawn. Han Chan Hoi was held in severe maximum security conditions from December 2017 until November 2020, with limited access to his lawyers and family. He was only given bail last November under strict conditions which amount to house arrest. Chan Han Choi should be released without any further time in jail. There is no suggestion that Chan acted for personal gain but was rather motivated by his political support for the deformed workers state of North Korea.  His prosecution by the Australian Government was in support of the real crime,  the use of sanctions as act of imperialist war against a small nation.

The sanctions that Chan Han Choi were placed on North Korea by the “thieves kitchen” of the United Nations Security Council from 2006 onwards in response to North Korea’s testing of nuclear weapons and missile systems. They have been tightened ever since. Australia joined the US and other American allies by adding more uniliateral sanctions on the country in 2017. These sanctions have crippled the already struggling North Korean economy. 

An international report released in October 2019 emphasized the cost of sanctions. Kee Par, a lecturer at Harvard medical school and one of the authors of the report stated  “As one of the few American physicians who has worked to deliver humanitarian aid and improve health care in North Korea, I have seen how sanctions have restricted the access to the most basic medicines and medical equipment in the isolated country…This has made treating infectious diseases, chronic diseases, and injuries much more difficult.”

Of course in this regards the sanctions on North Korea are only one of a series of criminal crippling imperialist sanctions imposed on other regimes that have crossed US Imperialism that have cost literally millions of lives including those on Venezuala, Iran, Iraq and Cuba.

In addition, the sanctions placed on North Korea, must also be seen in the context of over seventy years of imperialist aggression aimed at the small nation. When the US intervened to overturn the North Korean military efforts to reunify the Korean Peninsula after the US and the USSR had partitioned it after World War 2. The US intervention which the Australian ruling class sent thousands of troops to also occurred under the auspices of the UN and resulted in over 3 million deaths. The US dropped more bombs on North Korea than it did in the entire Pacific theatre in WW2. Eventually the US airforce literally started to  run out of targets with nearly every building in North Korean cities levelled and  North Korean factories, schools, hospitals, and government offices were forced to move underground. Even though outright hostilities ceased in 1953, the US and Korea are still in a state of war with tens of thousands of US troops based in South Korea. The US stationed nuclear weapons in South Korea until 1991 and still targets North Korea with its “nuclear umbrella”.

North Korean village being destroyed by Napalm bombing in 1951

Of course none of these facts mean that as Trotskyists we offer any political support to the Stalinist government of North Korea. North Korea is run as a totalitarian one party state. Power is centralised around the personality cult of the leader which has passed in a hereditary fashion from the countries first President Kim Il Sung to his son Kim Jung-il and then to his son Kim Jong-Un.

However the Trotskyist definition of a deformed workers state is relatively simple. In a deformed workers state capitalist property relations have been overturned; the economy is based on central planning to meet social needs rather than on production for private profit; but the working is repressed politically by a bureaucratic caste. Deformed workers states are states in which from their inception the working class has been politically repressed. The USSR was classified by Trotsky as a degenerated workers state because the revolutionary working class initially controlled state power before the bureaucratic caste under Stalin usurped political power from it.

The property relations in North Korea economically have not not changed qualitatively since the capitalists and landlords were expropriated after World War 2 so it remains a deformed workers state. This is not changed by the following facts. The North Korean state  officially abandoned Marxist-Leninism and replaced it with the extreme version of Stalinist “socialism in one country” with the philosophy known as  Juche. The North Korean regime engages in large scale repression. The  North Korean regime has sought to exploit the surplus value of its own working class through limited reintroduction of capitalism through foreign investment in special economic zones.

So whilst Trotskyists unashamedly call for the overthrow of the Stalinist clique who run North Korea we insist this must be done by the working class of the Korean Peninsula.  We do not support the restoration of capitalism brought about through even more and potentially deadly acts of imperialist violence. In a military struggle between the imperialist powers and the deformed workers state of North Korea of course Marxists must stand against the Imperialists. Even if you don’t accept that North Korea retains its character as a very deformed workers state, Marxists stand with any small nation that faces the jackboot of imperialist violence. This is true even if the state is run by a bourgeois democracy or a dictatorship.

It is worth noting that one of the reasons that the Australian ruling class felt able to not only arrest Chan Han Choi but keep him in such miserable conditions for three years is due to mountain of propaganda that has saturated both politics and even popular culture about North Korea. Missing from the propaganda is not only the context of the level of imperialist violence inflicted on North Korea but also any mention of some of the complexities of politics on the Korean peninsula. This includes the fact that until 1976 North Korea GDP per capita actually exceeded South Korea’s. Also until the 1980’s South Korea was actually a US backed dictatorship which visciously repressed democratic and workers rights. Of course since the paths of the two Korea’s has diverted dramatically since the 1980’s. The North has suffered from not just its isolation both imposed and self-imposed but it lost its Soviet patron in 1991 and experienced terrible famine in the 1990s when its crops and economy were hit by terrible floods. Of course in the same period South Korea has implemented bourgeois democratic forms of rule and became a booming “Asian Tiger”. This complicated history is lost in the almost literally cartoonist presentations of North Kora. It is not an exaggeration to say that many people’s knowledge of North Korea comes from degraded sources such as the “Team America” movie or the “The Interview”.

In terms of the sanctions placed on North Korea for testing nuclear weapons, the entire premise is illegitimate. What right does the USA, the only country to have every used nuclear weapons in war have to dictate what other states can posess them. Nuclear war remains an existential threat to humanity but this threat will not be eliminated by ensuring that nuclear weapons only stay in the hands of the Imperialists but by eliminating the threat of war at its source, the capitalist system. It is the contradiction between the globalised nature of the capitalist system and the division of the world into competing nation states that fuels the never ending competition for markets, resources and power that is ultimately decided in the theatre of war.

Which brings us back to Han Chan Hoi. In addition to the broader political principles which count against his actions being considered crimes there are other mitigating factors.  Even the state case against Han Chan Hoi accepts that the deals he is alleged to have brokered were never carried through by him. It is also worth noting that Han Chan Hoi conducted similar deals in the decade before Australia introduced its sanction regime when they were entirely legal. The withdrawal of the offences that allege Han was involved in the arms trade suggests that they were only ever included for propaganda purposes. As stated earlier, there is no suggestion that Han who also worked as a cleaner in a hospital has ever made or stood to make any personal gain from the alleged deals. Han however has never denied his political support for the state of North Korea which he considers socialist. The Crown prosecution against Han has sort to weaponise his political stand against him and cited it to justify not just the charges but also in opposing bail.

Another reason that the prosecution of Chan Han Choi has broader significance is its relation to the drive to war against China by US Imperialism and its allies. US Imperialism aggression towards North Korea has always been inseparable from its determination to reverse the gains of the Communist Revolution of 1949 and once again open up the vast resources of China for exploitation. The Australian ruling class has participated in these aggressions as it own interests align with Wall Streets. The Australian Government’s sanctioning of North Korea and its prosecution of Han Chan Hoi are part of the Australian ruling class lining up with the increasingly aggressive moves of US Imperialism to contain and subordinate China to stop its challenging US dominance of the Asia Pacific. This process escalated with Obama’s “Pivot to Asia”, was continued with Trump trade war and will be continued by Biden.

The demonisation of North Korea makes the prosecution of Chan Han Choi a relatively easy target in terms of creating fear of “foreign agents” working in Australia. However both major parties have collaborated to bring inn the undemocratic “Foreign Interference” Laws which are already being used against Australians of Chinese descent. Such laws will be increasingly against anyone who opposes US Imperialism and its drive to war.

Trotskyists in Australia and elsewhere will increasingly have to grapple with the need to oppose Imperialist aggression against deformed workers states such as North Korea and China. A political path must be found to unite the working class in opposition to these attacks whilst not sowing any illusions or giving political cover to the repressive bureaucratic regimes that repress the working classes of these countries.

It is worth noting that one small Sydney based Trotskyist organisation, Trotskyist Platform,  has taken a lead in the solidarity campaign for Chan Han Choi. This has not been an easy task in the Australian context which is so saturated in the propaganda of US Imperialism in relation to both North Korea and China.

No more prison for Chan Han Choi!

Stop the imperialist war drive against North Korea and China!

For a political socialist revolution to unite the Korean Peninsula and bring down the Kim Jung-Un Regime!

For international socialist revolution!

Davey Heller

Davey Heller is a Trotskyist from Melbourne and long-time campaigner for Left-wing causes including anti-war, refugee rights, environmental protests and workers' struggles. He is a former secondary teacher who studied history at Monash University and currently works in the environmental field. You can follow him on Twitter at @socialist_davey

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