erasing clouds

Book Review: Bruce Cumings' North Korea: Another Country

by tonydoug wright

North Korea is one of those countries that we seem to know little about. We know that it is a country that survived Japanese imperialism and the Korean War. We also know that President George W. Bush placed North Korea in his infamous "Axis of Evil" along with Iran and Iraq. Kim Jong Il and the late Kim Il Sung have both ruled this mysterious and misunderstood country. Bruce Cumings, Professor of History at the University of Chicago, attempts to clear up all of the mysteries and misunderstandings about North Korea in his book North Korea: Another Country. "I have no sympathy for the North, which is the author of most of its own troubles" (xi) writes Cumings who is also the author of Korea's Place in the Sun and The Origins of the Korean War.

North Korea: Another Country opens with a discussion concerning the relationship between the United States (U.S.) and North Korea (DPRK), which has been troubled since the Korean War (1950 - 1953). Cumings quickly goes into an examination of what he calls the "forgotten war" where the US threatened and frequently used "weapons of mass destruction" on the DPRK (15). The massive use of napalm during the Korean War is compared to its use during the Vietnam War. Cumings writes that napalm was dropped on "more…populous cities and urban industrial installations than…North Vietnam" (16). If the napalm statistics come across as staggering then the reader soon discovers that "the United States came closest to using atomic weapons in early April 1951" (23).

Where the atomic issue ends, the discussion concerning the DPRK nuclear program of the 1990s begins. North Korea: Another Country fast-forwards from the Korean War to examine U.S. concerns in 1987 when a nuclear reactor went into operation in Yongbyon. Cumings notes that the DPRK had purchased a small nuclear reactor in 1962 from the Soviet Union, which was met with little concern from the U.S. These concerns extended into the Clinton Administration of the early 1990s when the DPRK withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Also, Cumings does have some discussion of the George W. Bush administration and their attempts at dealing with the DPRK. He defends the DPRK position by arguing that the choice to go nuclear was due to a drop in imported petroleum for energy use due to a collapse of trade partners in Eastern Europe. Also, Cumings explains that the DPRK "…lacks the technology…to manufacture a sufficiently small warhead" (81).

While the discussions concerning the Korean War and nuclear diplomacy are extremely informative, the rest of North Korea Another Country becomes a somewhat apologetic attempt to explain the policies and actions of the DPRK leaders (especially Kim Jong Il). Cumings explores daily life in the DPRK with an examination of the history of the Korean class system. This was once a system of aristocrats and slaves that was prevalent during the Korean Dynasties and Japanese occupation of the early Twentieth Century. Kim Il Sung was the Communist guerilla fighter who gave all kinds of opportunities to the poor when he assumed power in the late 1940s. Cumings shows how Kim Il Sung favored the poor and uneducated in his government and military over the educated and wealthy. While the history of the Korean class system is enlightening, the discussion of political prisoners and gulags is somewhat unsatisfactory.

Although Cumings does not go into great detail about the gulags immediately, he does briefly discuss them later in the book. "Officially Kim Jong Il's gulag is made up of 'educational institutions' that do not punish prisoners, but reeducate them" (174) writes Cumings who spends approximately two pages discussing the topic. Human rights violations are a serious issue and Cumings appears to skim over the situation.

If the discussion of gulags is not comprehensive, then Cumings overview of Kim Jong Il is almost infuriating. Kim Jong Il is described as an anti-social leader who "works at home in his pajamas" and plays "Super Mario video games" (163). Instead of showing the readers the good deeds and policies of Kim Jong Il, Cumings shows us that Kim Jong Il is more interested in video games than governing his country.

North Korea: Another Country comes to a close by exploring the famines, floods and droughts of the late 1990s. Cumings also points out that the George W. Bush administration drastically cut food aid to the DPRK in 2003 (183). Was this an attempt to use food as a weapon in nuclear negotiations? Still, there is little explanation of the DPRK policy on handling the famine that has wrecked an entire country. We may not understand the policies and practices of the DPRK but North Korea: Another Country by Bruce Cumings is a welcomed attempt at a DPRK understanding. Although Cumings does write that "North Korea is the author of most of its own troubles", but it has also been the victim of Japanese imperialism and a destructive war with the United States. The examination of the Korean War and nuclear diplomacy are extremely informative and well written. Unfortunately, the issue of human rights is not fully discussed and Cumings comes across as apologetic when he describes Kim Jong Il as a video game playing recluse rather than an inept leader. North Korea: Another Country is a great read for those interested in U.S. diplomacy but not a good read for those interested in human rights.

Issue 25, July 2004

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