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Reviewed by:
  • North Korea: Another Country
  • Graeme P. Auton (bio)
North Korea: Another Country, by Bruce Cumings. New York: New Press, 2004. 256 pp. $24.95 cloth, $15.95 paper.

A quarter century has gone by since publication of the first volume of Bruce Cumings's landmark Origins of the Korean War, a solid, beautifully argued, and meticulously documented study that established its author as among the premier Korea scholars in the United States.1 Cumings's North Korea is different—part popular history, part polemic, and part personal testimony, qualities that make it accessible to general reader and specialist alike. The book will not please—and has not pleased—conservative readers, most of whom will see it as an apologia for the North, soft-pedaling Pyongyang's atrocious human rights record, its disregard for the welfare of its own people, and its addiction to dangerous and destabilizing weapons programs. Nonetheless, this short volume provides a useful and necessary antidote to much of the media hype with which the American public has been inundated regarding North Korea, a hype that—as Cumings points out—has been exacerbated by the usually subtle but entrenched racism that informs mainstream American understanding of all things Korean.2 Equally important, the book traces the tunnel vision of a U.S. policy-making community that has been unable to see North Korea for what it really is and so has been unable to effectively promote either long-term American interests in Northeast Asia or the robust implementation of global nuclear nonproliferation guidelines. As this review is being written, more than two years after the release of Cumings's book, the world has been rocked by North Korea's announcement of a successful nuclear test.3 It is difficult to escape the judgment that we would not have arrived at this state of affairs if the lessons spelled out by Cumings had been more widely understood.

While Americans have pushed from their minds the "forgotten war" that ravaged the Korean Peninsula between June 1950 and July 1953, that conflict—as Cumings stresses in North Korea's first chapter—is an important backdrop and haunting precedent to almost everything that has happened subsequently. To Americans who still remember the war there is a nagging but oft neglected problem: "unlike Saddam Hussein invading Kuwait, or Bush invading Iraq, Koreans invaded Korea." For Koreans, north and south, what occurred was a civil war "between two conflicting social and economic systems," the indeterminate resolution of which yielded a sustained focus on reunifying the peninsula in both Pyongyang and Seoul.4 Yet this perspective is largely ignored in Washington and in the informed elements of the American public.

The importance of the 1950-53 war as part of the template defining the present goes beyond this, however, and Cumings elegantly puts forth those other aspects of its legacy that Americans have conveniently forgotten: the relentless U.S. bombing campaign, which removed many North Korean cities (or large [End Page 100] portions of them) from the map, and which explains Pyongyang's current obsession with putting so many of its assets underground; the South Korean terror campaign during the brief occupation of the North, which was no less ruthless than that mounted by Kim Il Sung; the Truman administration's abrupt revision of its war goals, exceeding its U.N. mandate, following the landing at Inchon; the ill-considered and provocative policy advice of Douglas MacArthur, including his plan to drop "between 30 and 50 atomic bombs . . . strung across the neck of Manchuria" in order to seal off China from the Korean Peninsula; and the persistent refusal of Seoul and Washington over the years to move beyond the July 1953 armistice to a negotiated peace treaty. This history is ignored by those who evaluate the current impasse between the DPRK and the United States as emerging tabula rasa from the policy issues that have consumed the two sides over only the past ten or twenty years.5 Historical amnesia reinforces the stereotyping that reduces the North's leadership to "mad dogs" and "lunatics."6

Such is particularly the case with the North Korean nuclear crisis, now in the throes of its culmination...


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