The North Korean Conundrum | The Nation


The North Korean Conundrum

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Cumings, the doyen of US historians of contemporary Korea, is best known for his definitive two-volume study of the origins of the Korean War. To understand the nationalistic ethos that gives North Korea its political cohesion and staying power, he writes, it is necessary to recognize the traumatic impact of the US role in the war. In September 1950, Harry Truman made his fateful decision to enlarge the conflict, even though North Korean forces had been successfully pushed out of South Korea. The proper response to North Korean aggression, Cumings argues, would have been to "reestablish the 38th Parallel and claim a victory for the containment doctrine." Instead, Truman and Dean Acheson "decided to transform their undeclared war into a campaign to liberate North Korea."

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Selig S. Harrison
Selig S. Harrison is the author, with Diego Cordovez, of Out of Afghanistan and author of In Afghanistan's Shadow. He...

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American soldiers marched northward toward the Yalu River border with China, provoking Chinese intervention, and the US Air Force rained destruction on North Korea until the armistice was concluded, in 1953. To escape from American planes, any one of which, in North Korean eyes, might have dropped an atomic bomb, most of the population lived and worked in hastily excavated underground caverns complete with their own schools, hospitals and small factories. The South suffered brutal but relatively brief anguish from air attacks during the latter part of 1950, with Pyongyang using little close air support in its operations there. The North, by contrast, endured three years of heavy US bombing in addition to the Yalu offensive. This unremitting assault from the air, plus a bloody US-South Korean occupation, left a deeply rooted siege mentality in the North that persists today.

Appealing for support in the name of a continuing US threat, North Korean leaders point to the many reminders that the Korean War is not yet over: the maintenance of most of the economic sanctions imposed during the war; the presence of US forces in the South, still operating under the same UN command structure used during the war; and above all, the legal reality that the armistice has not been transformed into a peace treaty.

It was John Foster Dulles's threat of using nuclear weapons that broke the impasse in the armistice negotiations, Cumings reminds us, and in the decades thereafter the United States "has consistently based its deterrence on threats to use them...in Korea," threats backed up by the presence of US tactical nuclear weapons in the South until 1991. The invasion of Iraq and the explicit US assertion of the right to take pre-emptive military action elaborated in the Bush Administration's National Security Strategy of September 17, 2002, is progressively hardening support within North Korea for nuclear weapons--not to strike Los Angeles, which would invite US retaliation, but to deter a US attack.

Many Western historians writing about North Korea during the cold war depicted Kim Jong Il's father, the late Kim Il Sung, as a supine puppet installed by Soviet forces, likened the new North Korean state to Eastern European Communist satellites and belittled North Korean accounts of Kim Il Sung's role as a guerrilla hero who fought Japanese forces in Manchuria during the Korean anticolonial struggle.

Cumings shows that Kim did in fact earn legitimacy as "a classic Robin Hood figure" who helped poor Korean farmers in the Kapsan area bordering Manchuria during the Japanese colonial period and as a fervent nationalist who led guerrilla attacks against Japanese forces in southern and southeastern Manchuria from 1933 to 1940. His extensive citations from the latest scholarly research include recently unearthed Japanese intelligence reports describing Kim as the "most famous" and a "particularly popular" leader of Korean émigrés in Manchuria, with "a great reputation and a high position," a "Korean hero" in the struggle against Japan.

As for Kim's installation by Soviet forces, Cumings establishes that the Russians had "no clear-cut plan or predetermined course of action" during the early months of the occupation and had someone else in mind to head the new Pyongyang regime. However, precisely because Kim had such a tight-knit following among the guerrilla cohort who had fought with him in Manchuria, "after the guerrillas returned, they pushed [him] forward as first among equals." Kim was no mere stooge of the Russians, in short, and he began playing off Moscow and Beijing against each other to suit Korean nationalist purposes as soon as Soviet forces departed.

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