It is only fair to start by saying that this book was not as bad as I expected, despite its serious shortcomings. On the positive side, it seems that Professor Cumings has largely, though belatedly and grudgingly, come to terms with the appalling nature of the North Korean regime. Also, there are certainly things that I agree with that may surprise many Americans for whom the Korean War came out of the blue on June 25, 1950. I made many of the same points in a lecture on the Korean War's role in US foreign policy at the Citadel in Charleston in 2008. They include:
o The war had its distant origins in the 1930's in the political struggle among Koreans, mostly in exile in Manchuria, China and the US, to determine the shape of a future independent Korea. (But it is inaccurate to say that the Korean War started then.)
o The US occupation (1945-48) was headed by John Hodge, an honest and brave general who was completely unprepared for the political complexities of southern Korea. Hodge gravitated toward the most conservative Koreans and seemed to believe that all the rest were communists, when the actual situation was far more complicated. (After I gave my lecture, I learned from the Russian scholar Andrei Lankov that the Soviet occupation of the North was every bit as unplanned and ad hoc as ours was.)
o The conflict began in earnest from 1948 with the formation of the ROK in the South and the DPRK in the North. There followed many North-South military clashes along the 38th Parallel, then just a line on the map, totally unlike the present Demilitarized Zone. Some were battalion-sized battles.
o Before the North Korean invasion of June 25, 1950, there was horrendous violence in Korea, mainly in the South, with bloody guerrilla fighting that may have cost up to 100,000 Korean lives. Most, but not all, of the Southern guerrilla operations were supported by North Korea. The Rhee regime's successful suppression of these uprisings was extremely brutal, but its very success probably was the chief impetus for Kim's 1950 invasion. (Cumings makes the amazing assertion - on no apparent evidence - that Kim Il Sung's primary motivation in invading the South was to "settle the hash" of South Korean officers who had served the Japanese. Certainly, the Soviet officers who planned his invasion believed the objective was to ensure that Kim could rule an undivided Korea.)
o For the US, the Korean War, as a hot war within the Cold War, helped trigger the heavily militarized "national security state," that we still live in today. It also made inevitable our involvement in the Viet Nam War (the Second Indochina War), in which I served as a soldier for two and a half years between 1968 and 1972. But looking at the world of June 1950 through contemporary American eyes, it is no surprise that Truman and Acheson made the decisions that they did.
Cumings renders harsh judgments on the US conduct of the war, some of which are arguable. He sees the air war from a very different perspective than most American writers. While they tend to focus on US fighter pilots in MiG Alley, Cumings emphasizes the devastating bombing campaign, which obliterated North Korea many times over. The US planners applied the tactics they had just perfected against Japan and Germany in the much more confined space of North Korea. The result was horrifying and in the calm light of academic hindsight, more than was militarily necessary. In this and other books and documentaries, Cumings has complained about the "Hudson Harbor" campaign flown by lone B-29s to make North Korean leaders think we would use atomic bombs against them. I'm not sure why he objects to psychological warfare against Kim Il-Sung, unless he just doesn't like the idea of disconcerting one's foes in wartime.
Because Professor Cumings's government experience was limited to just six months in the Peace Corps (out of a two-year commitment) in Korea in the late 1960's, he seems to believe that the US Government is able to make detailed and Machiavellian plans and execute them flawlessly. Those of us with much more experience in government only wish that were true. The reality is that US officials make decisions in crises with imperfect knowledge of the situation. Cumings sees Acheson as a spider at the center of his web, making key initial war decisions without reference to Truman. Almost all sources say that Acheson was in close touch with Truman that June weekend while Truman was in Missouri. Besides, Acheson was following the Truman Doctrine the President had enunciated in 1947: "I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures." He knew Truman's mind.
For decades, Cumings has been obsessive about the point that North Korea's legitimacy derives from the long-ago struggle against Japan. It is important to know that North Korea was founded by guerrillas who were chased all over Manchuria by the Japanese 80 years ago, but that has zero nutritional value for today's North Korean population. North Korea is a stultified Confucian communist monarchy with an appalling human rights record and an economy wrecked by decades of willful ideological mismanagement, including the cost of a bloated military force. In 1788, Count de Mirabeau said "Prussia is not a country that has an army; it is an army that has a country." O'Neill's Corollary to Mirabeau's Observation is: "The same is true of North Korea." Kim Jong-Il apparently agrees, since he has made "military-first politics" (son-gun jong-chi) the basis of his rule.
This intense militarization of North Korea is not traditionally Korean: indeed, it is more like Imperial Japan - the same Japan that Kim Il-Sung fought against. The Kim personality cult and dynasty - now heading for the third generation - also recall the Japanese Imperial system. Is this Cumings's idea of a model for the 21st century?
It is easy for Cumings to attack South Koreans like Park Chung-Hee and General Paik Sun-Yup (Paik's preferred transliteration; not Son-Yop as Cumings has it) for serving as Japanese officers. But he glosses over the fact that Kim Il-Sung and his guerrilla comrades arrived in northern Korea in 1945 as Soviet Army officers, who had earlier served in Chinese Communist units. Thus, Kim and his cohort had served the two losers in the three-way battle for control of Korea that Japan had won by 1905. Was that better?
One of my biggest problems with this book is what I would call spurious or absent footnoting: Cumings makes some assertions that demand footnotes, but they are not always to be found. In other cases, he makes assertions and footnotes them, but the footnote doesn't fully address his claim. This is a serious lapse for the chairman of a history department at an important university.
I'll just give two examples. On page 34, he writes "formerly secret materials illustrate that in May and June 1953, the Eisenhower administration sought to show it would stop at nothing to bring the war to a close." There's no footnote. Some footnotes don't match the cited material. On page 197, Cumings asserts that rapes of Koreans by US military personnel frequently go unpunished (in the present), yet the footnote cites some State Department documents from long ago, attributed to Callum MacDonald's "Korea: the War Before Vietnam" (1986). The cited pages in MacDonald's book describe no such documents. Anyway, Cumings's assertion is untrue. Under the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), a credible charge of rape (or murder or robbery) by a GI against a Korean is tried in the Korean court system.
The penultimate sentence in the book reads "In the aftermath of war, two Korean states competed toe-to-toe in economic development, turning both of them into modern industrial nations." Really? The South has a one trillion dollar economy, the 14th largest in the world and the other's annual foreign trade equals about 48 hours' worth of ROK foreign trade. That one sentence says a lot about Cumings's approach to the peninsula's tortured modern history.
The South, which only surpassed the North in GDP in the mid-1970's, has a deeply rooted democracy and a capitalist economy which was resilient enough to bounce quickly back from the 1997 Asian financial crisis and the recent world recession, a country that has demonstrated international leadership in countless ways - including restraint at frequent North Korean outrages. North Korea is essentially a dangerous blot on the Asian map - a Zimbabwe with a nuclear weapons program.
One of Cumings's favorite words is "solipsism," which could easily be applied to himself. His arch and self-absorbed writing style will not gain a wide audience among the Americans for whom he says he was writing. I have given the book two stars for its facts but none for Cumings's interpretation.