Mother of All Mothers

The leadership secrets of Kim Jong Il

You've just finished your life's work, a bold new history of the Watergate burglary in which you manage to prove that the White House was out of the loop, but the ink is hardly dry when an eighteen-minute tape surfaces in a Yorba Linda thrift shop, and soon the whole country is listening to Nixon gangsta-rap about how he personally jimmied the door open. It's every revisionist's nightmare, but Bruce Cumings, a history professor at the University of Chicago, has come closest to living it. In a book concluded in 1990 he argued that the Korean War started as "a local affair," and that the conventional notion of a Soviet-sponsored invasion of the South was just so much Cold War paranoia. In 1991 Russian authorities started declassifying the Soviet archives, which soon revealed that Kim Il Sung had sent dozens of telegrams begging Stalin for a green light to invade, and that the two met in Moscow repeatedly to plan the event. Initially hailed as "magisterial," The Origins of the Korean War soon gathered up its robes and retired to chambers. The book was such a valuable source of information on Korea in the 1940s, however, that many hoped the author would find a way to fix things and put it back into print.

Instead Cumings went on to write an account of postwar Korea that instances the North's "miracle rice," "autarkic" economy, and prescient energy policy (an "unqualified success") to refute what he calls the "basket-case" view of the country. With even worse timing than its predecessor, Korea's Place in the Sun (1997) went on sale just as the world was learning of a devastating famine wrought by Pyongyang's misrule. The author must have wondered if he was snakebit. But now we have a new book, in which Cumings likens North Korea to Thomas More's Utopia, and this time the wrongheadedness seems downright willful; it's as if he were so tired of being made to look silly by forces beyond his control that he decided to do the job himself. At one point in North Korea: Another Country (2004) we are even informed that the regime's gulags aren't as bad as they're made out to be, because Kim Jong Il is thoughtful enough to lock up whole families at a time.

The mixture of naiveté and callousness will remind readers of the Moscow travelogues of the 1930s, but Cumings is more a hater of U.S. foreign policy than a wide-eyed supporter of totalitarianism. The book's apparent message is that North Korea's present condition can justify neither our last "police action" on the peninsula nor any new one that may be in the offing. It is perhaps a point worth arguing, particularly in view of the mess in Iraq, but Cumings is too emotional to get the job done. His compulsion to prove conservative opinion wrong on every point inspires him to say things unworthy of any serious historian—that there was no crime in North Korea for decades, for example—and to waste space refuting long-forgotten canards and misconceptions. Half a page is given over to deriding American reporters who once mistook Kim Il Sung's neck growth for a brain tumor—talk about a dead issue.

Cumings is even harder to take when he's in a good mood. By the time he has noted a vague resemblance between Kim Jong Il and Paul Anka, sniggered about "horny" Korean housewives, and mocked both a tour guide's English and an African man's surname ("I dissolved in hysterics"), most readers, with no photograph of the author to go on, will find themselves mentally exchanging his professorial tweeds for a very loud leisure suit. Most offensive of all is the book's message that we shouldn't be too hard on the dictatorship in Pyongyang, because human rights aren't as important to Koreans as to the rest of us.

Does this system promote human freedom? Not from any liberal's standpoint. But from a Korean standpoint, where freedom is also defined as an independent stance against foreign predators—freedom for the Korean nation—here, the vitriolic judgments do not flow so easily. This is a cardinal virtue among a people that has preserved its integrity and continuity in the same place since the early Christian era … After all, there is one undeniable freedom in North Korea, and that is the freedom to be Korean.

It seems to have slipped the professor's notice that many countries manage to stay independent without dragging children off to gulags, and that North Korea is a place where a lot of characteristically Korean behavior—speaking bluntly, for example—is punishable by execution. The only significant part of the culture that can be freely indulged under Kim is its ethnocentric streak, which is what Cumings all but reduces it to; confusing cause and effect, he sees propaganda as the reflection of the popular soul instead of (to use Stalin's metaphor) the engineer of it. The Korean people have always been more outward-looking than their insecure leaders, and for centuries this was especially true of those in the northern part of the peninsula. Even in the months after our disgraceful bombing campaign during the war—a campaign that Cumings rightly calls a holocaust—diplomats in Pyongyang noted no signs of indiscriminate xenophobia.

This was soon to change. Throughout the 1950s the regime resorted to crude racism in its anti-American propaganda, often treating inset eyes, big noses, and other Caucasian features as the manifestation of villainy. To the consternation of the diplomatic community, little effort was made to enlighten people about the existence of friendly big-noses, even though—as this spring's Cold War International History Project bulletin makes clear—North Korea's cities were rebuilt and its people fed and cared for with enormous amounts of assistance from Eastern Europe. "They expect foreign countries," one Hungarian diplomat noted, "to give them everything." Reading the CWIHP bulletin has the odd effect of making one realize what a relatively sensible bunch of people the Soviets were. In the mid-1950s they opposed Kim Il Sung's brutal collectivization of agriculture; Kim brushed off their advice, only to demand food aid when a murderous famine ensued.

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B. R. Myers is the author of Han Sorya and North Korean Literature (1994) and A Reader's Manifesto (2002), a portion of which first appeared in the July/August 2001 Atlantic. He is currently teaching North Korean studies at Korea University, in South Korea.

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