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The other North Korea

A historian's alternate view of Kim Jong Il's shadowy kingdom

WHEN AMERICANS THINK of North Korea at all, it's as a psychotic little menace of a nation and a nightmarish, otherworldly place. Historian Bruce Cumings has devoted his career to painting a different picture. In his 1,400-page, two-volume "The Origins of the Korean War," published in 1981 and 1990, he argued that the Korean War was not a Soviet provocation but a civil war -- one that the United States, by splitting the peninsula in 1945, had made inevitable.


In his latest book, "North Korea: Another Country" (New Press), Cumings sets out to show, among other things, that the United States visited a "holocaust" on North Korea during the Korean War, that the rebuilt country came much closer to being a socialist paradise than we give it credit for, and that it is the Bush administration, not the Kim regime, that is to blame for the current tensions.

Ideas reached Cumings by phone at his office at the University of Chicago.

IDEAS: In your new book you quote journalist Bernard Krisher, who described North Korea in 1991 as "one big kibbutz." Is that how you would describe the place?

CUMINGS: It's important to realize that in the early `80s, North Korea's per capita output, their infant mortality, life expectancy, all of that, were either at South Korea's level or higher. They had something like double the per capita energy usage of South Korea in the `70s.

But the country's energy regime collapsed and that rippled through everything, including the agricultural sector. Then the Russians cut off all aid with the end of the Soviet Union. And in `95 and `96 the worst floods of the century affected something like 40 percent of the arable land. After Kim Il Sung died in `94, the regime itself became internally stymied in handling its problems. North Korea's tragedy is that it was one of the better Third World developing states in terms of feeding, clothing, housing, and educating its own population -- only to reach a level of degradation in the late `90s that is as low as you can go.

I think it's inexcusable that North Korea, which is a highly centralized state, allowed at least half a million of its citizens to starve to death and an entire generation to be malnourished and stunted. This is not a state, like several in Africa, that is incapable of mobilizing its population. North Korea can mobilize everybody.

IDEAS: How seriously should we take recent reforms in North Korea?

CUMINGS: Particularly since 2000, they have done dramatic things they didn't do before. They normalized relations with the European Union, as well as Australia and Canada, and they sought to normalize relations with Japan. They have allowed market forces to operate in their economy since the mid-'90s -- when their system of delivering goods and services through the state essentially broke down. And then, in July of 2002, they drastically revalued their currency, which had always been grossly overvalued.

IDEAS: But hasn't North Korea also admitted to enriching uranium as part of a secret weapons program?

CUMINGS: All we have to go on is what Assistant Secretary of State James A. Kelly said the North Koreans told him, and the North Korean official statements that came out later. Kelly said they admitted they had a program. But what the North Koreans subsequently said is that they had a right to a nuclear deterrent, given that they are a target of preemptive attack. And that is actually true under the [Nuclear] Nonproliferation Treaty.

One of the things the media never got around to pointing out is that North Korea had a deep interest in enriching uranium (which exists in abundance in that country) so that it could be used in the light-water reactors that were being built for them in exchange for giving up their nuclear complex [under the Agreed Framework deal of 1994]. The outside powers wanted the North Koreans to be dependent on imported fuel and uranium, so they could be controlled, but North Korea figured they'd try to enrich some of their own. But [that level of enrichment] is a long way from what's necessary for a bomb.

IDEAS: You seem skeptical that North Korea actually wants a nuclear bomb.

CUMINGS: The ironic outcome of linking Iran, Iraq, and North Korea [in an "axis of evil"] and then invading Iraq is that Iran and North Korea have gone in the direction of developing their own deterrent. I still think, though, when you read North Korean statements and look at their negotiating behavior, they would prefer to trade away whatever they have in the way of nuclear weapons for peace with the United States -- that would mean a final end to the Korean War -- and normalized relations.

It would be the essence of sweet reason to normalize relations with them, verify that they no longer have a nuclear weapons program, buy out their missile program (as Clinton nearly did), and finally achieve real influence in Pyongyang by having an embassy there. I don't think the North Korean regime would last a decade longer in its current form if we did that.

IDEAS: You have argued for many years that the Korean War was a civil war and not a Soviet power grab. What do you make of post-Cold War revelations about the extent of Stalin's role in the North's decision to invade?

CUMINGS: I think it's true that Stalin and the Russians were more involved than I had thought when I wrote my book -- which came out a year before the Soviet Union collapsed and those documents became available. But the role was not nearly as great as Truman and Secretary of State Acheson publicly said. (Acheson called the attack a Soviet attack on the whole power position of the US in the Far East.)

Also, Stalin did not approve a general invasion of South Korea. Rather, he approved, in his secret negotiations with Kim Il Sung, an attack on the Ongjin Peninsula, on the city of Kaesong, which is right on the 38th parallel, and then a march to Seoul if the regime collapsed. A couple of days before the war, Kim Il Sung sent a telegram back to Moscow saying, essentially, "We're attacking all across the parallel."

The fact remains that the war began when Korea was divided in 1945. The five years leading up to 1950 were full of conflict: civil conflict, political and then guerrilla war, and constant South Korean probing across the line. I think Kim Il Sung's responsibility is to have taken that civil conflict to the level of a conventional war, and the onus is on him for that.

IDEAS: How great is the threat of war on the Korean peninsula right now?

CUMINGS: If the Iraq war had gone quickly and successfully to a conclusion, we would have had a major crisis with North Korea this fall. It was quite apparent that the Bush administration felt that North Korea was next on its list if the Iraq war went well. Now I don't think it's likely that anything serious will happen in Korea, either in terms of an agreement or military conflict, before the 2004 election.

Drake Bennett is a writer living in Cambridge.

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