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The Historian Who Defends North Korea

University of Chicago historian Bruce Cumings is the left's leading scholar of Korean history. In addition to contributing to documentary films on Korean life, Cumings has written a massive and highly critical multi-volume account of the Korean War and published a general history of Korea, titled Korea's Place in the Sun . And he is not shy about his opinions. In a 1997 article in the Atlantic he called for an end to U.S.-Korean hostilities. U.S. troops, he insisted, should be brought home and relations with North Korea (the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, or DPRK) should be normalized.

Cumings has also been a critic of other aspects of American foreign policy. He has participated in broad and spirited debates with numerous scholars, including John Lewis Gaddis and Ronald Radosh. In one debate with Radosh he was asked if he thought communism was evil. He said no, and insisted that large numbers of people enthusiastically embraced communism. Cumings is also a frequent contributor to the Nation magazine, where he went on record in opposition to the Bush administration's successful war to liberate Iraq from Saddam Hussein. But it is Korea that is Cumings's main focus, and in his new book, North Korea: Another Country, he sets for himself one basic goal. Cumings wants to convince Americans to abandon what he considers to be George Bush's simplistic and dangerous Korean policy.

Cumings believes that North Korea is a misunderstood land. Its leaders are not dangerous megalomaniacs. Rather, DPRK leaders have always been pragmatic and nationalistic. During the Cold War, they avoided dependence on the Soviet Union, created a productive economy, and improved living standards. The society they created is impressive. North Korea's streets are clean, its people humble, and crime is almost non-existent. Kim Il Sung, the father of North Korean communism, was a"a classic Robin Hood figure" who cared deeply for his people. North Korea's current leader, Kim Jong Il, is"not the playboy, womanizer, drunk, and mentally deranged fanatic ‘Dr. Evil' of our press." Instead he is a"homebody who doesn't socialize much, doesn't drink much, and works at home in his pajamas." The Dear Leader also loves to tinker with music boxes, watch James Bond movies, and play Super Mario video games. The cover of Cumings's book neatly summarizes his views. On it is a photograph of a group of uniformed women performing some type of dramatic production for North Korean soldiers. With smoke in the background, one woman stands tall and points a gun to the horizon. Coming out of the gun is a red flag. Everyone looks on in awe. The image implies that under communism, North Korea's future - though not without struggle - is bright.

Occasionally, reality intrudes on this romantic portrait of North Korea and Cumings lets slip a polite criticism of the DPRK. Its leaders, he meekly asserts, are guilty of"hubris" and"technological fetishism." In general, however, Cumings adopts a decidedly positive portrait of the DPRK. Consider, for example, his comments on an election he witnessed in 1987 in Pyongyang. He writes that he"watched the hoopla at each polling place" and"was struck by the quaint simplicity of this ritual: a dubious yet effective brass band, old people bent over canes in the polling lines and accorded the greatest respect, young couples in their finest dress dancing in the chaste way I remember from ‘square dances' in the Midwest of the 1950s, and little kids fooling around while their parents waited to vote." While getting sappy about his boyhood, Cumings fails to consider what type of"election" he had witnessed, or how much real choice North Koreans had during this"quaint" affair.

Cumings is apologetic on behalf of the DPRK. For America, he has nothing but scorn. American attitudes towards Korea are racist. The Korean War, in turn, was a U.S. war of aggression that amounted to a holocaust for the Korean people. The U.S., he contends, had no right to interfere in Korea because the war was"a civil war, a war fought by Koreans, for Korean goals." Equally important, after the war, the U.S. supported a corrupt and dictatorial South Korean government.

Cumings is so filled with Chomskyian anti-Americanism that he places almost all the blame for whatever problems the North Koreans face on America's shoulders. Moreover, he insists the U.S., not North Korea, must compromise on negotiations over nuclear weapons. For Americans to think otherwise is hypocritical. After all, North Korea would simply"like to have nuclear weapons like those that the United States amasses by the thousands." Not surprisingly, Cumings dismisses criticism of North Korea's 1993 withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and praises the Clinton administration's 1994 Agreed Framework, which offered the North Koreans an assortment of bribes – including economic aid and light-water reactors – so that they would not develop nuclear weapons. Cumings also insists that the North Korean withdrawal from the Agreed Framework, which they announced in October 2002 to Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly, was understandable given continued American threats."Diplomacy with the North," he writes,"is anathema because the Republican right won't allow it and because the same group that brought us an illegal war with Iraq wants to overthrow Kim Jong Il…."

Cumings's arguments cannot be sustained. On numerous levels his book fails. Embarrassingly, North Korea: Another Country is plagued with grammatical errors and typos. For example, in chapter 2 Cumings references a statement by Condoleeza Rice that, he reports, was written in 1902. In chapter 3, Cumings writes this about his first visit to North Korea:"They took me a large pre-twentieth-century history museum…." In Chapter 6 he writes that UN"estimates of agricultural production [in North Korea] stood at 4 million tons in 1995, dropping to 2.8 million tons for the each of the next two years…." There are many other annoying errors. Such mistakes could, perhaps, be forgiven if it were not for the fact that Cumings himself attacks more conservative scholars and analysts on the very same grounds. Hence, he blasts CIA analyst Helen-Louise Hunter for her ungrammatical usage of certain Korean words. Hunter, he quips, has a"painfully obvious lack of language facility." Judge not, oh Professor, that ye be not judged!

There are other problems. Remarkably, Cumings believes it is perfectly acceptable, even advisable, to use the controlled North Korean press and North Korean government reports as dependable sources of information. Thus, in writing about alleged U.S. and South Korean atrocities committed during the Korean War he refers to a"secret account by North Korean authorities" that claimed that South Korean soldiers shot almost 30,000 non-combatants, and that the U.S. government used a"slave labor" system to punish uncooperative North Koreans. The report, Cumings writes,"detailed gruesome tortures, and alleged that 300 female communists and collaborators were placed in brothels where they were raped continuously…." Reflecting a stunning lapse of historical judgement, not to mention knowledge of the true nature of communism, Cumings defends his use of the report by asking"why would DPRK officials lie to their superiors in secret internal materials?"

Cumings's most basic problem is the apologetic stance he adopts on behalf of North Korea. He is unwilling to look the North Korean government in the eye and call it for what it is: a brutal, totalitarian state. Instead, he prefers empathy."Empathy for the underdog," Cumings explains, is something I can't help, being a lifelong fan of the Cleveland Indians." To run cover for the DPRK, Cumings stamps a variety of labels on it. At one point, he calls it a" corporate state." At another, a"royal dynasty." He concludes his book by calling it a"vexing family state." Grasping for straws, Cumings proves unable to explain the most dominant fact of North Korean life - the total lack of freedom. He does produce a variety of excuses for what he sometimes admits is an authoritarian North Korean government. Perhaps, he suggests, it is the result of ancient Confucian values? Or, perhaps it is the fact that North Korea emerged out of"one of the most class-divided and stratified societies on the face of the earth"? Certainly, Korea's long history, including its Confucianism, should not be ignored when discussing the DPRK. Still, Cumings does not consider the many nations with class-divided histories that have become democracies today. Further, one wonders why Cumings cannot place blame for the status of North Korea where the blame is due: on communism. While capitalist South Korea has done well over the past two decades, communist North Korea is an economic basket case. One scholar, Marcus Noland, has estimated that South Korean per capita incomes could be as much as twenty times greater than North Korean incomes. In nipping around the edges of Korean history, Cumings does not get close to reality.

Even more intriguing is Cumings's bizarre efforts to explain away the totalitarian nature of the DPRK by stating that North Koreans have a different understanding of freedom than Americans do. He writes that"from a Korean standpoint, where freedom is also defined as an independent stance against foreign predators – freedom for the Korean nation – here, the vitriolic judgements do not flow so easily." Hence, North Koreans do have freedom and South Koreans, dependent as they are on the U.S., are not as free as most Americans believe. Nor, for that matter, are Americans. To underscore this point, Cumings argues that North Korean prison camps compare favorably to American prisons. Americans, he proposes,"should do something about the pathologies of our inner cities – say, in Houston – before pointing the finger" at the DPRK. That Cumings cannot distinguish between a prison system designed to punish political dissidents and one designed to house criminals who have been provided a fair trial in a democratic nation does not encourage his readers to place much stock in his scholarly judgments.

Because Cumings is unable to comprehend the nature of the North Korean government, he fails to adequately describe the terrible consequences of its policies. He dismisses the DPRK's reliance on the former Soviet Union as unimportant, even though recent scholarship has demonstrated that Stalin gave Kim Il Sung the green light to invade South Korea in 1950, and even though the collapse of Soviet communism has crippled the North Korean economy. Left to itself, the DPRK has failed miserably. In the 1990s perhaps two or three million North Koreans died as a result of famine, and Kim Jung Il – the great lover of Super Mario video games - could hardly have cared. He attacked international organizations seeking to aid North Koreans. In 1997 the Dear Leader declared that"the imperialist's aid is a noose of plunder and subjugation aimed at robbing ten and even a hundred things for one thing that is given." Is this the"freedom" that Cumings celebrates?

Thousands of North Koreans have risked their lives and attempted to escape the land that Cumings loves. One woman who attempted to escape was captured and, in April 2000, placed in a concentration camp in Chongjin city. While in camp, she witnessed how DPRK thugs killed unborn and newborn children."If it is found that a woman is pregnant," she stated to Human Rights Watch personnel,"they administered a medicine to abort. If the woman gave birth to a baby, they covered it with vinyl and placed it face-down and killed it. Seven women gave birth to children in that prison and they killed all of them." Such horrors - such evil - are commonplace in North Korea. President Bush understands this. Bruce Cumings does not. His North Korea: Another Country, fails as scholarship. More importantly, it fails on principle. After reading of the suffering and needless loss of life as a result of the famine, as well as the tragic and moving testimonies of the many North Koreans attempting to escape the DPNK, one can not help but be stunned by Cumings's statement that"I don't feel a responsibility for what goes on there…." After all, he writes," It is their country, for better or worse …."

This article was first published on frontpagemag.com and is reprinted with permission.