Shattering Our Notions Of Korea


A Modern History

By Bruce Cumings

Norton 527pp $35

South Korea's sprint from poverty to prosperity was not an "economic miracle." North Korea is not a rogue state like Iran but a politically stable, neo-Confucian kingdom. Barring war, reunification will happen only after a prolonged period of regional freedom from external meddling.

These are some of the startling conclusions in Bruce Cumings' richly detailed Korea's Place in the Sun: A Modern History. A Northwestern University professor and one of America's leading Korea scholars, Cumings shakes up established views of a country whose 20th century experience has been deeply influenced by the U.S. yet remains poorly understood by most Americans.

Indeed, modern Korean history has been little explored. Embarrassment, shame, and psychic scars have kept many Korean and Japanese historians away from the period after 1910, when Japan began its brutal colonization. The South Korean and Japanese governments have kept many documents classified. And Pyongyang has "concocted whole tapestries of events that exist only in the hagiography of Kim Il Sung."

Thus, Cumings' book, which relies on many recent materials, including key documents from the U.S. government, is an important contribution. His aim, in part, is to correct U.S. ignorance, which, he says, helped cause the Korean War and nearly led to another in the early 1990s over the North's nuclear program.

The author shows, for instance, how the American military blundered badly in 1945 after it helped to liberate Korea from the Japanese. Despite President Franklin D. Roosevelt's desire for a joint administration of the country with the Soviet Union, the American military rejected unification, "abjuring diplomacy and simply drawing a line in the dirt." They set up a national police force and established political domination below the 38th parallel. Moreover, U.S. planners resisted reform of colonial legacies and gave political support to the tiny and abusive Korean aristocracy that the public saw as having collaborated with the Japanese.

Moscow was less heavy-handed. It kept a low profile and backed Kim Il Sung, a hero of the anti-Japanese resistance. By the end of 1946, the North had undertaken radical reforms of land, labor, and women's rights. Soviet troops were gone by the end of 1948. All of this helped Kim Il Sung consolidate political power and prepare for the war that began on June 25, 1950.

The question of who started the war "is the wrong question," Cumings notes in one of many provocative sections, because the Korean War was a civil war and this "is not a civil war question." As with the issue of who fired the first shot in the American Civil War, the answer is only interesting to those immediately affected, he argues. A class conflict that consumed millions of lives, the Korean War solved nothing, Cumings says, and its tensions remain today.

South Korea's remarkable rise from poverty to an economy with per capita income of over $10,000--a development predicted by no one--has been called an economic miracle. Yet, Cumings argues, the very notion of a "miracle" denotes a failure to understand the South's development model. Korea, after all, had "no capitalists, no Protestants, no merchants, no money, no market, no resources, no get-up-and-go, let alone [any] discernible history of commerce, foreign trade, or industrial development."

Instead of chalking it all up to miracles, Cumings notes South Korea's comparative advantages. These included a well-educated workforce suited to industry, a highly competent group of scholar-bureaucrats, and massive infusions of capital from the U.S. and even Corporate Japan. Syngman Rhee, the South's first president, installed by the U.S., was a master at milking the American treasury. In the 1950s, American aid accounted for the entire South Korean government budget.

The South's model of development reached its zenith under the 1963-79 regime of Park Chung Hee. Bureaucrats fostered chaebol, or conglomerates, by giving them scarce funds at below-market rates. They targeted industries such as steel, petrochemicals, and cars, and provided a level of protection that nearly guaranteed success.

North Korea is likewise little understood, Cumings says, particularly by the ill-informed U.S. media, whom he excoriates for nearly starting a second Korean war. Cumings shows how reporters repeatedly asserted, contrary to U.S. government statements, that the North intended to build atomic weapons and fanned fears that Kim Il Sung would use them. "North Korea became a Rorschach inkblot evoking Orientalist, anticommunist, racist, and outlaw imagery all in one neat package."


At times, Cumings' sympathy for the Korean perspective blinds him to Korea's faults. His look at the South's economy, for instance, fails to deal with the structural problems that have begun to slow growth. Nor does he offer much in the way of criticism of the North's centrally planned economy. Moreover, while the book is aimed at a general audience, excessive detail may put off many. The writing sings when Cumings speaks from personal experience, but he often lapses into academese. Despite these faults, Korea's Place in the Sun is essential reading for anyone interested in an important, dangerous, and volatile country whose emergence from its cold war impasse is only a matter of time.

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