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.
JW: What’s life like in the North for ordinary Koreans?
BC: It’s a lot better than it was 20 years ago when they had a famine caused by floods that destroyed about 40 percent of their arable land: 600,000–700,000 people died. Our papers always say it was two million, but careful demographic studies have shown that, while it was pretty awful, two million is wrong. The North Korean economy fundamentally collapsed in the 1990s. Their industries weren’t working. Their energy regime was gone. Then came the floods and the famine. Now, their economy is actually good by North Korean standards. It grew about 4 per cent last year. Kim Jong-un has tried to begin creating a middle class, at least in the urban areas, especially Pyongyang. They have many markets there now. People dress in a great variety of clothing, unlike the old proletarian garb. A lot of people have private cars now. I was supposed to go to Pyongyang last September for a visit. I haven’t been there for many years, but I was prevented by President Trump’s embargo of all American travel to North Korea. However, a friend of mine went last summer, and said he was just flabbergasted by the changes in Pyongyang: so much new building, new construction.
JW: It’s not just the Trump administration that’s deeply skeptical about North Korean promises. The mainstream media has been saying, “Don’t trust Kim Jong-un.” When Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Seoul a year ago, he said, “North Korea has a history of violating one agreement after another, and it would be foolish to trust them now.” I wonder if you agree.
BC: No, I don’t. Our mainstream media, including The New York Times, gets this stuff wrong all the time. The first major agreement between the US and North Korea was made in 1994 under Bill Clinton. That agreement froze North Korea’s plutonium production—all of it, for eight years, under UN inspection. The whole facility was sealed, with closed circuit cameras all over the place. As a result they had no plutonium until 2002. Also, under the prodding of Kim Dae-jung, the South Korean president who came in, in 1998, and started the reconciliation with the North, the Clinton administration moved to buy out North Korea’s medium- and long-range missiles. The general who ran the conglomerate making those missiles came to the White House in October 2000, and Madeline Albright went to Pyongyang two weeks later to complete this missile deal. But everybody’s forgotten that, because the 2000 election ended up in the Supreme Court and five people decided George Bush would be president.
When Bush came in, he did everything he could to destroy our agreements with North Korea. John Bolton and Dick Cheney, in particular, were determined not to proceed with the missile deal and to kill the agreement that froze North Korea’s plutonium. The main reason they did this was not because North Korea was a threat to the United States, but rather because it was a useful foil for China, which Cheney and Bush and others saw as a looming threat; here was a great way to build up missile defense. And of course, Bush put them into the Axis of Evil. So I don’t blame the North Koreans for moving in the direction they did after 2002. It’s the same today: when North Korea explodes an atomic bomb or tests a missile, we put more anti-missile batteries into the Far East, which undermine China’s deterrent, and we try to weld together South Korea, Japan, and the US in a tight alliance against China.
JW: North Korea has said it will abandon its nuclear weapons in exchange for an agreement with the United States that we will not invade. That seems like a great idea, but how do we get from here to there?
BC: When the general who ran the North’s missile conglomerate came to Washington in 2000, he signed an agreement with President Clinton that neither North Korea nor the United States would have hostile intent toward the other. This diplomatic agreement is very much like what North Korea appears to want again in 2018. However the Bush people acted as if it had never been signed, never even been written. I’m not, of course, suggesting that North Korea is faultless in all this. Quite the contrary. But the fact is that we already signed an agreement saying that we would not have hostile intent toward North Korea, which implies we’re not going to invade it or try to overthrow the regime.
I’m skeptical now about what kind of an agreement we could make with North Korea that would convince them that we’re sincere about it this time. I imagine it would have to come in the context of diplomatic relations finally being opened between Pyongyang and Washington, and guarantees both by South Korea and the US that they would not attempt regime change, or invade the North.
JW: How much can be accomplished by South Korea working with North Korea, and how much has to be the work of the United States, and China?
BC: The South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, has a long-term plan for relations with North Korea. He wants to reconcile with it, not necessarily unify with it but to proceed with reconciliation, and rebuild the North Korean economy road by road, bridge by bridge, business by business. That’s really what’s behind this, and it’s what’s attracting Kim Jong-un.
China has to be a part of ending the war in Korea and getting a peace agreement, since it signed the armistice agreement and South Korea didn’t. There are only three signatories: China, the US, and North Korea. But I think that a real tension exists, more hidden now than open, between Seoul and Washington. Moon Jae-in is committed to moving forward quickly to reconcile with North Korea and help rebuild its economy and get rid of its nukes. But the foreign-policy establishment in Washington mostly agrees with John Bolton, who said that South Korea is like putty in the hands of the North Koreans. A former high official in the Obama State Department said they’re running off the cliff like lemmings. I think that attitude is going to become prominent—unless Donald Trump somehow turns into a big supporter of President Moon.
JW: Last question: If we get a treaty ending the Korean War, would you support the proposal to give Donald Trump the Nobel Peace Prize?
BC: No, I think it would be much better to give the Peace Prize to President Moon and Chairman Kim. The North and South Koreans are doing much more to move this peace process forward than Trump is. Just a few months ago he was screaming that he was going to totally destroy North Korea. I don’t think Trump has the slightest idea about the nature of the Korean conflict, how deep it has run, or how long it has been going on. I’ll just say this: If he gets the Nobel Peace Prize, let’s hope it’s not like Henry Kissinger’s Nobel for achieving “peace” in Vietnam.