Historian Bruce Cumings is the author of many books, including The Korean War: A History and North Korea: Another Country. He writes for The Guardian, The London Review of Books, and The Nation, and teaches at the University of Chicago. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Jon Wiener: North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, said he would abandon his nuclear weapons if the United States agreed formally to end the Korean War and promise not to invade his country. Let’s start with a little history: Why did North Korea develop nuclear weapons?
Bruce Cumings: The US put hundreds of nuclear weapons into South Korea starting in 1958 with “Honest John” and “Matador” missiles, even nuclear land mines. Ever since then, the North Koreans have tried to come up with a deterrent. For decades, they built underground—about 15,000 facilities. Almost their entire military is underground in caves, in mountains. It was their only recourse, since they didn’t have nuclear weapons. George H.W. Bush removed all battlefield nuclear weapons from around the world in 1991, including Korea, but every president since then has sent B-1 nuclear-capable bombers along the North Korean coast. Obama did it many times. Trump has done it. We also have Trident submarines in the area—they’re basically killing machines that could wipe out North Korea in a few hours with nuclear weapons. The North finally succeeded with a deterrent, exploding an atomic bomb in 2006, a very small one, and then last September they detonated what seems to have been a hydrogen bomb, much larger than the Hiroshima/Nagasaki bombs.
JW: A little more history: Why was there a war in Korea in the early 1950s? What was the Korean War about?
BC: The Korean War is one of the most vexed in our history. If you look at high school and college textbooks, they say there was a war because Stalin in 1950 told Kim Il-sung to invade the South. But the war had origins going back to the 1930s, when Korea was a colony of Japan and Kim Il-sung and his friends fought the Japanese for a decade—as guerrillas in the most forbidding circumstances imaginable in Manchuria, where winter temperatures get down to 40 below zero. The Japanese, after their fashion, found Koreans to chase down Kim Il-sung. That set up a terrible nationalist dynamic in Korea after the Japanese left. Kim and his people set up the North Korean government in 1948, made up of former guerrillas and supported by the Soviets, and an American-supported South Korea was created with an entire army high command consisting of officers who fought with the Japanese. Americans never understood this dynamic. The Korean War was fundamentally a civil war, a war just waiting to happen because of this fratricidal colonial background. But because it came at the height of the Cold War, it generally was never seen—by most Americans—as a war similar to the Vietnam War. But it was a very similar war.