Bruce Cumings. The Korean War: A History.

26 09 2010

By Jeremy Kuzmarov,  The Cutting Edge (August 16th 2010)

Overshadowed by World War II and Vietnam, the Korean War has long been the “forgotten war” in American memory. Apart from a few notable exceptions, American historians have predominantly accepted the standard propaganda that the Communist North (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea—DPRK) was singularly responsible for provoking the war by invading the Southern Republic of Korea (ROK) and carried out myriad atrocities, justifying U.S. action. Mainstream analysts and commentators similarly devour Washington’s line that North Korea today is a threat to humanity which should be contained and its leaders overthrown.

Bruce Cumings’s book The Korean War: A History shatters these conceptions and shows in vivid detail that the Korean War was among the most misguided, unjust, and murderous wars fought by the United States in its history, displaying many of the features of the Vietnam War that aroused mass public protest. Cumings, chair of the history department at the University of Chicago, writes: “Here was the Vietnam War we came to know before Vietnam—gooks, napalm, rapes, whores, an unreliable ally … untrained GIs fighting a war their generals barely understood, fragging of officers … press handouts from Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s headquarters apparently scripted by comedians or lunatics, an ostensible vision of bringing freedom and liberty to a sordid dictatorship run by servants of Japanese imperialism.”

The most disturbing element was the unrestrained air power that was used to destroy large portions of 18 of 22 major North Korean cities, and the indiscriminate killing of civilians by American and ROK soldiers which exceeded that of the DPRK by at least fifty percent. Hungarian journalist Tibor Meray is quoted as stating: “I saw destruction and horrible things committed by American forces … Everything which moved in North Korea is a military target, peasants in the field often were machine gunned by pilots, who, this was my impression, amused themselves to shoot targets which moved.”

[…] The North-South war, which began on June 25, 1950 when Kim’s Korean People’s Army (KPA) crossed the 38th parallel, was equally as brutal as the civil war in the south. While the New York Times likened the northern armies to “barbarian hordes and invading locusts reminiscent of Ghengis Khan” and the Nazi blitzkrieg, new archival evidence and the findings of the South Korean Commission on Truth and Reconciliation show that the torturing and shooting of POWs was carried out more systematically by the South and that the KNP liquidated the prisons in the aftermath of the DPRK invasion and shot thousands of people in the back of the head, including women and children. Driven by an acute racism, U.S. troops were also notorious for their cruelty and carried out numerous civilian massacres while showering the countryside with napalm. Much like in Vietnam, many soldiers were left to wonder why if South and North Koreans were identical “North Koreans fight like tigers and South Koreans run like sheep.”

These comments underscore for Cumings how Americans were ignorant of the political dynamic underlying the fratricidal war and its connection to the previous half century of Japanese colonial rule. As he writes: “it did not dawn on Americans that anti-colonial fighters might have something to fight about.” Characterized in American propaganda as a Soviet puppet and stooge, Kim Il-Sung presided over a nationalist revolutionary government, which whatever its flaws, promised autonomy from foreign colonialism and tutledge, and still does today. While harsh and oppressive, the DPRK never was Stalinist or totalitarian and land reform programs were less violent than in China and North Vietnam. Cumings likens the current regime to a modern form of monarchy that draws on neo-Confucianism and other historical traditions in Korean politics. Instead of adopting orientalist stereotypes, he argues, Westerners would be best to try and understand the country on its own terms, including how many of its policies have been designed out of fear of another invasion by the United States and by the threat of renewed domination by Japan. American bellicosity in this latter respect and “axis of evil” rhetoric has done nothing but harm.

One of the greatest tragedies of the Korean War, which was a major watershed in the growth of the American overseas network of military bases and put the country on the path of a permanent war economy, is that it is still ongoing. After all the bloodshed and destruction, the artificial division still endures as do many of the stereotypes and caricatures of the northern enemy in the United States. The one positive development over the last 25 years was the reemergence of a pro-democracy movement in the ROK (receiving minimal support from the United States) and establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which has enabled many South Koreans to come to terms with their losses. While old enmities are starting to breakdown in the ROK and a more progressive leadership has taken charge, the United States remains locked in a 1950s, McCarthyite time-warp, exemplified in CNN’s ever present warning of the “new North Korean threat.” Failing to learn anything from history, Americans are currently replicating their Korean experience in Iraq where, as Cumings writes, “without forethought, due consideration, or self knowledge, the United States barged into a political, social, and cultural thicket without knowing what it was doing and now finds that it cannot get out.”

Cumings has written a powerful book which serves to refute many historical myths and distortions in the United States about the Korean War. He shows in lucid detail the vicious character of America’s strategic allies and the barbaric and genocidal nature of the air and ground wars. In spite of the manipulations of Washington and to a far lesser extent the Soviet Union, Koreans were ultimately most decisive in shaping the conflict. And one day, with hope, they will come up with their own solution to the mess which liberal heroes Truman and Acheson helped to create.

See the full text of Review – Bruce Cumings. The Korean War: A History. Random House, 2010. 320 pages.

Jeremy Kuzmarov is assistant professor of history, University of Tulsa and contributes to the History News Network, from which this article is adapted.

Two brothers from one people, fighting against each other

30 06 2010

Tania Branigan, China correspondent (The Guardian, Friday 25 June 2010).

In the West it is the forgotten war, but to Xiang Chaoshan the 60-year-old conflict lives long in the memory – and its causes are clear. Just a few arches of the bridge that once straddled the Yalu river, linking north-eastern China’s Dandong to neighbouring North Korea, remain as a stark and deliberate reminder of the US raids that enraged him as a young man. “That’s still the evidence to show it was an evil war – it was imperialism … if it was not a war of invasion, why did they bomb our bridge?” asked the 78-year-old Chinese veteran…

…By 1952 Chinese soldiers outnumbered their allies by three to one; hundreds of thousands are thought to have died in the conflict. The repercussions are still playing out in the region. The war cemented an alliance that sustains Pyongyang in the face of widespread vilification, and created a powerful emotional bond. “Most Chinese have been immersed in an almost morbidly sentimental connection with the North,” said Zhu Feng, professor of international relations at Peking University.

For veterans, those links are particularly potent. “I didn’t cry when my parents died but when I think of those who died in the war my tears roll down,” said Xiang, recalling his comrades. When a Southern warship sank this spring, killing 46 sailors, international experts concluded the North torpedoed it. But Xiang backs Pyongyang’s denials. “People shouldn’t bully North Korea any more,” he said.

Inside the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, such perceptions are far sharper. To the outside world, the fact that technically the North and South are still at war – because no peace treaty followed the armistice – is a historical curiosity. To the North, it is the principle around which life is organised.

“They have structured their huge military and much of the society as a fighting machine determined, someday, to win this war (or at least hold off the South and the Americans),” says Professor Bruce Cumings, whose new book The Korean War: A History is published this month.

Go to the Shanghai Expo and the North’s pavilion shows footage of the war. Open a maths book and calculations feature heroic patriots battling American invaders.

“The regime pays a great deal of attention to the topic of the Korean war because it justifies its own legitimacy, helps mobilise the masses around the top leader, and provides the pattern for people’s self-sacrificing behaviour in economic life,” said Dr Leonid Petrov, a Korea expert at the University of Sydney…

See the full text of the article here…

“North Korea: Still in the Axis of Evil?”

28 04 2009

The Department of Social Science at the Illinois Institute of Technology wishes to announce a lecture by Bruce Cumings (University of Chicago): “North Korea: Still in the Axis of Evil?” (Wednesday, April 29, 2009, 4-5:30pm) Illinois Institute of Technology Main Campus, Wishnick Hall, Auditorium (Room 113)

Professor Bruce Cumings will examine the disconnects in the 60-year confrontation between the United States and North Korea. Although the U.S. has labeled North Korea as a “rogue state” and as part of the “axis of evil,” American media and most pundits rarely consider the background to the U.S. conflict with Pyongyang. This history includes the 1945–48 American military occupation of South Korea, the Korean War, and America’s role in introducing nuclear weapons to the Korean peninsula in 1958. Today, North Korea continues to challenge the U.S., most recently by attempting to put a satellite in orbit.

Bruce Cumings teaches international history, modern Korean history, and East Asian political economy at the University of Chicago, where he is the Gustavus F. and Ann M. Swift Distinguished Service Professor. He is the author of several books, including the award-winning two-volume study, The Origins of the Korean War. Cumings is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the recipient of fellowships from the Ford Foundation, National Endowment for the Humanities, the MacArthur Foundation, the Center for Advanced Study at Stanford, and the Abe Fellowship Program of the Social Science Research Council.