Historian Bruce Cumings on North Korea
In “A Murderous History of Korea,” published 5-18-17 in the London Review of Books, historian Bruce Cumings asks how “a puffed-up, vainglorious narcissist, whose every other word may well be a lie (that applies to both of them, Trump and Kim Jong-un), comes not only to hold the peace of the world in his hands but perhaps the future of the planet? We have arrived at this point because of an inveterate unwillingness on the part of Americans to look history in the face and a laser-like focus on that same history by the leaders of North Korea.
North Korea celebrated the 85th anniversary of the foundation of the Korean People’s Army on April 25th, amid round-the-clock television coverage of parades in Pyongyang and enormous global tension. No journalist seemed interested in asking why it was the 85th anniversary when the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was only founded in 1948. What was really being celebrated was the beginning of the Korean guerrilla struggle against the Japanese in northeast China, officially dated to April 25, 1932. After Japan annexed Korea in 1910, many Koreans fled across the border, among them the parents of Kim Il-sung, but it wasn’t until Japan established its puppet state of Manchukuo in March 1932 that the independence movement turned to armed resistance. Kim and his comrades launched a campaign that lasted 13 difficult years, until Japan finally relinquished control of Korea as part of the 1945 terms of surrender. This is the source of the North Korean leadership’s legitimacy in the eyes of its people: they are revolutionary nationalists who resisted their country’s colonizer; they resisted again when a massive onslaught by the US air force during the Korean War razed all their cities, driving the population to live, work, and study in subterranean shelters; and they’ve continued to resist the US ever since.”
Cumings says North Korea (officially the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) “is less a communist country than a garrison state, unlike any the world has seen. Drawn from a population of just 25 million, the North Korean army is the fourth largest in the world, with 1.3 million soldiers – just behind the third largest army, with 1.4 million soldiers, which happens to be the American one. Most of the adult Korean population, men and women, have spent years in this army: its reserves are limited only by the size of the population.”
US treatment of North Korea is completely “ahistorical, demonization transcending party lines and drawing on a host of subliminal racist and Orientalist imagery; no one is willing to accept that North Koreans may have valid reasons for not accepting the American definition of reality. Their rejection of the American worldview – generally perceived as indifference, even insolence in the face of overwhelming US power – makes North Korea appear irrational, impossible to control, and therefore fundamentally dangerous. But if American commentators and politicians are ignorant of Korea’s history, they ought at least to be aware of their own. US involvement in Korea began towards the end of the Second World War in 1945, when State Department planners feared that Soviet soldiers, who were entering the northern part of the peninsula, would bring with them as many as 30,000 Korean guerrillas who’d been fighting the Japanese in northeast China. They began to consider a full military occupation that would assure America had the strongest voice in postwar Korean affairs. Several of the planners were Japanophiles who’d never challenged Japan’s colonial claims in Korea and hoped to reconstruct a peaceable and amenable postwar Japan. They worried that a Soviet occupation of Korea would thwart that goal and harm the postwar security of the Pacific. Following this logic, on the day after Nagasaki was obliterated, John J. McCloy of the War Department asked Dean Rusk and a colleague to go into a spare office and think about how to divide Korea. They chose the 38th parallel, and three weeks later 25,000 American combat troops entered southern Korea to establish a military government.
To shore up their occupation, the Americans employed every hireling of the Japanese they could find, including former officers in the Japanese military like Park Chung Hee and Kim Chae-gyu, both of whom graduated from the American military academy in Seoul in 1946. (After a military takeover in 1961, Park became president of South Korea, lasting a decade and a half until his ex-classmate Kim, by then head of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency, shot him dead over dinner one night.) After the Americans left in 1948, the border area around the 38th parallel was under the command of Kim Sok-won, another ex-officer of the Imperial Army, and it was no surprise that after a series of South Korean incursions into the North, full-scale civil war broke out on June 25, 1950. Inside the South, whose leaders felt insecure and conscious of the threat from what they called ‘the north wind,’ there was an orgy of state violence against anyone who might somehow be associated with the left or with communism. The historian Hun Joon Kim found that at least 300,000 people were detained and executed or simply disappeared by the South Korean government in the first few months after conventional war began. My own work and that of John Merrill indicates that somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 people died as a result of political violence before June 1950, at the hands either of the South Korean government or the US occupation forces. In short, the Republic of Korea was one of the bloodiest dictatorships of the early Cold War period; many of the perpetrators of the massacres had served the Japanese in their dirty work – and were then put back into power by the Americans.
Americans like to see themselves as mere bystanders in postwar Korean history. It’s always described in the passive voice: ‘Korea was divided in 1945,’ with no mention of the fact that McCloy and Rusk, two of the most influential men in postwar foreign policy, drew their line without consulting anyone. There were two military coups in the South while the US had operational control of the Korean army, in 1961 and 1980, during which the Americans stood idly by lest they be accused of interfering in Korean politics. South Korea’s stable democracy and vibrant economy from 1988 onwards seem to have overridden any need to acknowledge the previous forty years of history, during which the North could reasonably claim that its own autocracy was necessary to counter military rule in Seoul. It’s only in the present context that the North looks at best like a walking anachronism, at worst like a vicious tyranny. For 25 years now the world has been treated to scaremongering about North Korean nuclear weapons, but hardly anyone points out that it was the US that introduced nuclear weapons into the Korean peninsula, in 1958; hundreds were kept there until a worldwide pullback of tactical nukes occurred under George H.W. Bush. Every US administration since 1991 has also challenged North Korea with frequent flights of nuclear-capable bombers in South Korean airspace, and any day of the week an Ohio-class submarine could demolish the North in a few hours. Today there are 28,000 US troops stationed in Korea, perpetuating an unwinnable stand-off with the nuclear-capable North.
To hear Trump and his national security team tell it, the current crisis has come about because North Korea is on the verge of developing an ICBM that can hit the American heartland. North Korea tested its first long-range rocket in 1998, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the DPRK’s founding. The first medium-range missile was tested in 1992, and North Korea now has many sophisticated medium-range missiles within range of 200 million people in Korea and Japan, not to mention hundreds of millions of Chinese, and the only US Marine division permanently stationed abroad, in Okinawa. It isn’t clear that North Korea can actually fit a nuclear warhead to any of its missiles – but if it happened, and if it was fired in anger, South Korea would immediately be turned into what Colin Powell memorably called ‘a charcoal briquette.’ But then, as General Powell well knows, we’d already turned North Korea into a charcoal briquette with years of aerial bombing, much of it with huge quantities of napalm, during the Korean War.
American policy has cycled through a menu of options to try and control the DPRK: sanctions, in place since 1950, with no evidence of positive results; non-recognition, in place since 1948, again with no positive results; regime change, attempted late in 1950 when US forces invaded the North, only to end up in a war with China; and direct talks, the only method that’s ever worked, which produced an eight-year freeze – between 1994 and 2002 – on all the North’s plutonium facilities, and nearly succeeded in retiring their missiles. On May 1st, Donald Trump told Bloomberg News: ‘If it would be appropriate for me to meet with [Kim Jong-un], I would be honored to do it.’ There’s no telling whether this was serious, or just another Trump attempt to grab headlines. But whatever else he might be, he is unquestionably a maverick, the first president since 1945 not beholden to the Beltway. Maybe he can sit down with Mr. Kim and save the planet.”
This article was written before President Trump began threatening North Korea with utter destruction and personally insulting Kim Jong-un.
For more, read Cumings’s books, Korea’s Place in the Sun: A Modern History, North Korea: Another Country, and The Korean War, A History.