Zone of contention
A better understanding of the origins of the Korean War, argues Chicago historian Bruce Cumings, may be the best way to prevent another, more dangerous conflict.
Waiters in white jackets and black bow ties clear plates of mixed greens topped with chicken salad, caramelized walnuts, sun-dried cranberries, and crumbled gorgonzola from the linen-covered tables. Nearly 130 smartly dressed women and men, sitting in padded, ivory-colored chairs, await coffee and tea service. The sunny, genteel setting—the Living Room of the Standard Club, in the heart of Chicago’s Loop—belies the volatile topic for the October afternoon talk sponsored by the Women’s Board of the University: Is North Korea a renegade state? Does it have nuclear weapons? Can Kim Jong Il, North Korea’s president and commander-in-chief, be trusted? Will there be another Korean War?
The man charged with attempting some answers is history professor Bruce Cumings, an expert on the war, East Asian political economy, and American foreign relations. Stepping to the podium, Cumings begins with his conclusion. War, he says, is no longer the threat it was only months ago. “The direction of the occupation in Iraq, which is more and more coming to resemble our occupation of Korea 58 years ago, has dramatically lessened the momentum toward conflict in Korea,” he says, “an unfortunate thing for the Iraqis but a fortunate thing for our relations with Korea.” At this point the guests might have put down their cups, folded their napkins, and headed back to work. But in his next few comments Cumings raises at least two contentious points: first, that the United States has “occupied” South Korea for 58 years, and second, that continued U.S. involvement in the Korean peninsula may not be favorable for any Koreans, North or South.
The first claim is one on which Cumings has published extensively. In his landmark two-volume history, The Origins of the Korean War (Princeton University Press, 1981, 1990), he argues that the war, in the simplest of terms, was civil and revolutionary in nature. Fighting between North and South began in 1949, and Democratic People’s Republic of Korea leader Kim Il Sung’s massive invasion of the South in June 1950, was the continuation of a pre-existing conflict with roots going back almost half a century to 1910, when the peninsular nation was colonized by Japan. Yet for many Americans, says Cumings, information on the Korean War is limited to the following: “the Korean War started on June 25, 1950, ended on July 27, 1953, and all you need to know about it is that the North Koreans invaded.”
He then reminds his audience that in 1945 Chinese, Soviet, and U.S. forces were all in Korea—the first two in the North, the Americans in the South. While the Soviets pulled out in December 1948 and the Chinese left in 1958, today 37,000 U.S. troops are stationed in the Republic of Korea, and in the event of war the U.S. commander would control the South Korean army. “It’s an extraordinary piece of [South Korea’s] sovereignty, and it’s obsolescent and anachronistic,” says Cumings, who believes that U.S. policy continues to be shaped by officials who don’t understand the Korean language, culture, history, or people. “We think we know who we are dealing with—but we haven’t for 60 years, and so we can’t extricate ourselves from the Korean conflict.”
When it comes to South Korea, he says, most Americans “don’t think they need to spend five minutes thinking about it in their lifetime.” The North is even more of a mystery. “North Korea has been a black hole for the CIA…before the Korean War, during the Korean War, and after the Korean War,” he says. “To my knowledge, we never have gotten a serious high-level defector who told us something that we really never knew before about the regime.”
In contrast, Cumings, the Norman and Edna Freehling professor in History and the College, has spent the past 32 years working to uncover the history that informs his views on U.S. policy in Korea. An American Academy of Arts and Sciences fellow, Cumings has met with as much criticism as acclaim. “What I run into time and time again, whether here or in Korea, are people who think that my views are my opinion,” he says. “And of course, at some level they are my opinion—I would say my judgment to make it sound better—but there is a level at which people have no idea what is in the archives.”
Serving in the Peace Corps in South Korea, Cumings became fascinated by the relationship between America and Korea. “In the late ’60s it was absolutely terrible,” he told Michael Shin, PhD’02, assistant professor of Korean literature and history at Cornell University, in an interview in the Spring 2001 Yôksa Pip’yông. “Americans lived like colonials behind compounds.… And these Americans, who uniformly had contempt for Koreans—it did not matter whether they were State Department or military—did not think Koreans could do anything right.”
In the summer of 1971, as a Columbia University doctoral student in political science and East Asian history, he began to delve into the records of the American Military Government (officially known as USAMGIK, the United States Army Military Government in Korea lasted from 1945 until 1948) stored at the National Records Center outside Washington, DC. Over the next five years he returned again and again. “I was often living in Washington in a flophouse, basically a $2-a-night hotel, and going to the archives from 8 in the morning until 10 at night,” Cumings told Shin. Mining the source materials transformed his understanding of post–World War II U.S. foreign policy toward Korea and China. “Once you see [the documents] you realize that a lot of what you’ve heard about 20th-century Korean history is wrong.” Very few people know, for example, that the so-called “reverse course” in Japan, a policy that included reviving Japan’s economy and restoring its influence in southeast Asia, was a significant factor in the U.S. decision to defend South Korea. Yet in a 1947 handwritten note, Secretary of State George C. Marshall instructed Undersecretary Dean Acheson, “Please have plan drafted of policy to organize a definite government of So. Korea and connect up its economy with that of Japan.”
Such directives can be linked to larger global patterns. “You really can’t understand these countries in isolation,” notes Harry Harootonian, the Max Palevsky professor emeritus in history, who recruited Cumings to Chicago in 1987 and now teaches at New York University. “You have to understand the world as a system occupied by advanced industrial societies, like the United States and Great Britain, as its core.” He continues, “Power associated with industrial supremacy was exerted over peripheral societies,” a pattern that, repeated with “an industrializing Japan, resulted in relations of domination.” Just as Japan was dependent on Great Britain and the United States before World War I—and continued to be dependent on the United States after WW II—South Korea, in turn, was part of a regional economy led by Japan, a system that, Cumings argues, officials in Washington believed would restore the balance of power in Asia.
Other historians dispute his contention that the Korean War was first and foremost an internal dispute that rapidly developed into an international conflict. They argue that U.S. involvement was a necessary strike against Russian and North Korean aggression aimed at worldwide communist expansion and perceive the war’s 1950 start as an unprovoked attack on the South. “Although there was an internal conflict going on, [the Korean War] was so fundamentally influenced by the international context that labeling it as a civil war is a distortion,” says William Stueck, distinguished research professor of history at the University of Georgia. “The United States did the right thing in responding to the North Korean attack in June 1950 or else North Korea would have come into control of the entire country.” Other scholars portray Cumings as pro-North or pro-communist, believing that he denies the aggressive role played by North Korea. In fact he simply refuses to place blame squarely on either side.
With the 1977 declassification of North Korean documents seized by the U.S. military in 1950, more information appeared. Cumings “happened to be in the National Records Center again, down in the stacks where they hold these materials,” he says. Jack Saunders, an archivist who, like Cumings, had served in the Peace Corps in Korea, “rolled a huge wagon full of about 50 dusty boxes up to me and asked if I could tell what was in them.” Cumings today sees those boxes, marked Record Group 242, “Captured Enemy Documents,” as the best archive on North Korea from 1945 to 1951. “The Army intelligence had scooped up everything they could find,” Cumings told Shin. “The boxes contained all kinds of secret materials from North Korea from the very top levels down to local towns and villages; there were thousands of documents on the people’s committees, land reform, and labor unions.” The information broke ground on North Korea’s communist regime and on South Korea’s guerrilla movement—led by radical activists whose resistance to U.S. desires was viewed by U.S. commanders as pro-Soviet instead of anti-Japanese.
And the archival record keeps expanding. Since the 1990 publication of The Origins of the Korean War’s second volume, more Chinese and Russian materials have surfaced, providing new ammunition for those who argue that Kim Il Sung’s invasion of South Korea, masterminded by the Soviet Union, was the catalyst for war, rather than, as Cumings argues, an internal struggle. The new documents “reflect a higher lever of Soviet involvement than I had expected,” Cumings admits. As Soviet documents continue to appear, he notes, a clearer history of the American, North Korean, and Soviet involvement has evolved. “You get a new story of the North that fits together with the work I did on the South and indigenous North Korea, like the pieces of a jagged mirror broken in half coming together.”
To Cumings those pieced-together documents reveal a complicated history that both Bush administrations have attempted to erase and replace with a post–Cold War North Korea reconfigured as a “rogue state” instead of a longstanding American enemy. When President George W. Bush pronounced North Korea a member of the “axis of evil” during his 2002 State of the Union address, it was not, Cumings points out, the first time that North Korea had been linked to Iraq. Nor is the current nuclear crisis unprecedented. The first nuclear crisis, he argues, began more than a decade ago in the spring of 1991, shortly after the Gulf War cease-fire.
In 1989 American spy satellites captured images of North Koreans shutting down a 30-megawatt facility in the North Korean city of Yongbyong, about 60 miles north of the capital, P’yongyang. Fuel rods were withdrawn and placed in a waste dump. It wasn’t until after the Gulf War cease-fire, and an April 10, 1991, op-ed column by New York Times foreign-policy analyst Leslie Gelb, that Cumings began to see North Korea’s image recast. Transferring symbols and tropes from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to Kim Il Sung’s North Korea, Gelb called it “the next renegade state,” run by a “vicious dictator.” Suddenly the question on everyone’s mind was whether the plutonium that North Korea removed from its Yongbyong reactor in 1989 had been reprocessed into weapons-grade plutonium.
Between May 1992 and February 1993 the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) made six formal inspections of the Yongbyong site. When the IAEA requested special inspections of two undeclared sites early in 1993, North Korea resisted, arguing that the waste sites were military installations. In March of that year, P’yongyang threatened to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, in effect since 1985. The crisis came to a head in June 1994, when President Bill Clinton wanted to stage a preemptive strike on the nuclear facility. Jimmy Carter stepped in and met with Kim Il Sung; four months later North Korea signed the Agreed Framework, or the so-called October 1994 Agreement, promising to freeze its graphite reactors (one 5-megawatt reactor and a reprocessing facility) and cease construction of 50- and 200-megawatt reactors. In return, the United States, along with Japan and South Korea, would help North Korea build two 1,000-megawatt light water reactors.
“When critics tell you that we got nothing from the deal and North Korea proceeded to just cheat on it, I can tell you that’s completely wrong,” Cumings tells his Standard Club audience. “That facility was frozen for eight years until last December. We had video cameras and seals on the facilities. There were at least two United Nations inspectors on the ground at Yongbyong throughout that eight-year period, and there was no possibility of the North Koreans having cheated on that particular agreement.”
From the U.S. government’s point of view, explains Cumings, North Korea began cheating on the agreement in the late 1990s, importing Pakistani technology to enrich uranium. Although enriched uranium can become fuel for an atomic bomb, assuming the necessary technology, it can also serve as fuel for light water reactors, and, he says, “North Korea says it has every right to import [enriched uranium].”
Cumings also finds the North Korea–Iraq connection a weak link. North Korea and Iran have been close since the 1979 Iranian revolution, when Iran adopted anti-U.S. policies. During the 1980s Iran-Iraq war, Iran exchanged oil for North Korean weapons to use against Iraq. But North Korea, he notes, has had almost no relationship with Saddam Hussein or Iraq. “So as an axis, that didn’t work,” he says of Bush’s triad. “It was an axis maybe between Tehran and P’yongyang.” Moreover, Cumings says, by creating an “axis of evil” and then singling out Iraq, the Bush administration only spurred Iran and North Korea to pursue nuclear weapons to ward off a U.S. attack. “Lo and behold, Iran and North Korea, since last September, have been moving in that direction.”
North Korea and the United States, Cumings reminds his audience, have been enemies for six decades. The Korean War technically has never ended; a 1953 armistice and an imaginary demarcation line at the 38th parallel divide North and South. Along the peninsula’s demilitarized zone, which extends 2,000 meters on each side of the line, opposing troops still face off.
In his latest book, North Korea: Another Country (The New Press, 2003) and in an essay, “Decoupled from History: North Korea in the ‘Axis of Evil,’” in the forthcoming collection Axis of Evil (The New Press, 2004), Cumings rails against policies such as unilateralism, preemptive strikes, and preventive wars. When the Bush administration announced its preemptive doctrine in September 2002 and invaded Iraq in March 2003, American policy was transformed “in directions unheard of since World War II,” Cumings says. “The Iraq war and its aftermath,” he argues in his essay, “represent a fundamental traducing of the principles of American foreign relations going back to 1941, a lawlessness that began with contempt for our traditional allies, multilateral consultations and action, the tested doctrines of containment and deterrence, and proceeded to violate the United Nations charter by invading Iraq.” The consequences of such actions, he warns, have yet to be seen.
Important first steps toward peace on the Korean peninsula, suggests Cumings—who served on the 2002–03 U.S. Korea Policy task force cosponsored by the Center for International Policy in Washington and the University’s Center for East Asian Studies—are to formally end the Korean War, pull U.S. troops out of South Korea, and normalize relations with North Korea. “Engagement and reconciliation work the best. I’m not making a plea for Bill Clinton or partisan foreign policy, but a plea for diplomacy that worked.” The United States needs to buy out North Korea’s medium- and long-range missiles, refreeze its nuclear reactors, and bring it out of isolation. North Korea, he believes, views the United States as a “lesser evil” than China and Japan, as long as the U.S. government is honest and direct. “That actually is the policy the old Korean regime followed more than 100 years ago—deal with the guy across the Pacific Ocean because he’s less likely to be a predator than these people that we share borders with.”
Cumings, who first visited North Korea
in 1981 and made two more trips in 1987, dismisses media characterizations
of Kim Jong Il as a drunk, a madman, or a womanizer. Kim was groomed
to succeed his father, “in the way that the old kings prepared
the eldest son or prince to take power.” The best way to understand
North Korea is not to focus on Kim Jung Il or his father, Kim Il Sung,
but to study them in the context of Korea’s millennium of monarchical
succession. “The monarchies only ended when Japan seized Korea
in 1910, and people with a built-in tendency toward patriarchy and to
believe that the king walks on water can very easily transfer that to
their leadership and write all the ridiculous, excessive, mind-boggling
prose that the North Koreans write about the brilliance of their leaders.”
The end result, as Cumings tells listeners at a forum on Chicago’s West Side, is a “fundamentally false analysis that will lead to truly terrible consequences.” It is a dark, wet Tuesday night in early November, and the gloom echoes Cumings’s pessimism as he tells the audience, many of them Korean Americans, that, unless U.S. policy makers change their overly simplistic views of Korea, “it’s a grave situation that won’t get better.” How grave? “North Korea can’t be defeated,” Cumings warns, “without wreaking horror in northeast Asia.” If war is not an option, he suggests, a more nuanced reading of history is the start of a solution.