27 May 2005

Book Report Time

As the Bush administration leaks information about key officials reading up on North Korea, I thought it a good time to offer some insights into books on the subject. Thus I will begin with Bruce Cumings’ recent book North Korea. (Cumings, Bruce. North Korea. New York: The New Press, 2003.)

I welcome any and all comments on this or other books on Korea or Korean issues (or Asian issues in general). This is not a scholarly type of review, nor any attempt to do anything other than encourage folks to read all sorts of different books of all different perspectives. The views expressed this review are mine, and not related to any organization or entity I may or may not be affiliated with.

Bruce Cumings’ North Korea begins like a rant against the Bush administration from a North Korean apologist. This is not to say the book isn’t useful, but that the tone and style, particularly in the first two chapters, is one that, in its attempt to show how the North Koreans view the world, comes across as an unadulterated attack against Bush and all those who think North Korea is a threat.

This is a pity, because the very individuals who may be best served by this education and information will be rapidly turned off by the beginning of the book. And however far they read, that impression will linger. I recommend readers begin with Chapter three, read through the end of the book, and then come back to the first two chapters.

Overall, the book only presents a little new information, but in consolidating it into a single volume focused on the North Korean societal mindset, it is a useful addition to a collection of works on North Korea. Something particularly useful about the book is its attempt to view North Korea first and foremost as a Korean and Asian state, not as a Marxist or Leninist society. Cumings himself points out the problem with the latter approach, and I have personally encountered it several times in other publications, government and think-tank statements and in interactions with political and defense officials (some even in South Korea).

There is a lingering impression of North Korea, built primarily from the study of Soviet bloc nations and exaggerated (if not completely fabricated) intelligence and information from South Korean, American and Japanese intelligence and defense officials, usually with the intent of vilifying the North to justify the actions of the existing regime or policies in the originating state.

U.S. military officers in Korea, for example, subconsciously dread the idea of diplomatic relations with the North, as it would remove their very reason for their long careers on the Peninsula. And the former South Korean governments created their own myths and exaggerations of the evils of North Korea to justify their continued autocratic and military rule of the South.

The impression and body of knowledge of North Korea from the South has changed dramatically since the late 1990s, when former dissident Kim Dae Jung came to power, ushering in the closest thing to true democracy Korea had seen up to that point. This has continued under Roh Moo Hyun’s administration to the point that he is viewed in many circles as more leftist than Kim Jong Il.

But back to Cumings’ book. He presents a good “cliff notes” version of the North Korean mindset, particularly in its relations with (and fears of) Washington and its decision to elicit a nuclear crisis. Chapter two offers a fairly good narrative review of the North Korean nuclear crises, particularly in the similarities of the various incarnations of the crisis, though again, it is better to read after the other chapters, unless one is certain they won’t be turned off by the opinionated style in these initial chapters.

Chapter three gives an overview of the life and mind of Kim Il Sung, Chapter four a study into North Korean society, including a useful section tracking changes through the various generations. Chapter six brings in the background of the events leading up to the nuclear crisis, then goes back into a criticism of the U.S. administration. One note is that many of the anecdotes and analysis I have read already in Cumings’ other writings, like Korea’s Place In The Sun, but it is pulled together here in a concise package dealing with North Korea in the context of the current nuclear crisis.

Cumings is an excellent scholar on Korean history (I recommend reading all his publications), and is certainly entitled to his opinions, though a more objective presentation manner, as I said before, would be useful in getting his valuable insights to the hands and minds of those who need to better understand the North’s manner of thinking (like the current administration, which has, in recent days, made it a point to show that they are reading books on North Korea, though Cumings’ apparently hasn’t come up in the reading list).

On a side note, perhaps the Bush administration isn’t as ignorant as Cumings portrays it. While it is not pursuing a reconciliation policy with the North, Washington does seem to recognize that the North is also playing a game, and Washington is treating North Korea as a spoiled child begging for a toy and threatening to hold its breath until its get what it wants. Ultimately, the kid will just pass out and start breathing again. And this is what the U.S. is hoping will happen with North Korea – it will either back down or collapse of its own volition.

Cumings is right that Washington doesn’t fully understand, much less respect, the North Korean (or even the South Korean) mindset, but in a world where nations look out for their own interests first and foremost (reality), it is easy to see that the Bush administration is doing just that – looking out first and foremost for what it perceives are its own and the U.S. interests, just as the North Koreans are making the same calculations.

For the objective observer, or the interested party, understanding these differing perceptions is vital. Only then can one hope to understand the actions and reactions that will take place as the two perceptions come up against one another.

Other books on my shelf at the moment which may garner reviews include Korea’s Place in the Sun (Cumings), The Two Koreas (Oberdorfer), Made in Korea (Steers), In Mortal Combat: Korea 1950-1953 (Toland), Avoiding the Apocalypse (Noland), Laying Claim to the Memory of May (Lewis), The Bridge at No Gun Ri (Hanley et al), The Korean War (Hastings), This I Say To Japan (Chung), The Koreans (Breen), The Aquariums of Pyongyang (Kang), Kim Jong Il (Breen), Kim Il Song’s North Korea (Hunter), The Founding of a Dynasty in North Korea (Lim), Kim Il Sung (Baik), Mao’s Generals Remember Korea (Li et al), Formidable Enemies (Mahoney), Crimson Sky (Bruning), Psywar (Pease), Uncertain Partners (Gongcharov et al), Odd Man Out (Thornton), Cultural Nationalism in Colonial Korea (Robinson), The Korean War (Korean Institute of Military History), The Sea War in Korea (Cagle et al), Korea Caught in Time (Bennett), This is War (Duncan), At War in Korea (Forty), A few Korean language books on May 18 Kwangju and Panmunjom, and numerous other books on China, Japan and Asia. I am always looking for other recommendations for my reading list. It is summer after all.

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