[Marxism] A glimmer of truth about North Korea in The Nation

Fred Feldman ffeldman at bellatlantic.net
Fri May 21 08:06:54 MDT 2004

This review of several books is one of the best articles I have seen on
North Korea in the US liberal media in recent years.  But it has one
gigantic blind spot.  Selig Harrison presents the division of Korea as a
virtual state of nature. Therefore makes no mention of the central
political reason, in my opinion, for the survival of the Democratic
People's Republic of Korea -- its complete identification with the unity
and the end of foreign occupation of the country -- like the government
of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in this respect, and in striking
contrast to the German Democratic Republic.  This remains a major source
a major source of popular support, sympathy, or acceptance for the DPRK
on BOTH sides of the 38th parallel.  

Harrison instead argues that the US "mistake" in the murderous 1950-53
war on Korea was not stopping  at the 38th parallel and being satisfied
with re-establishing the division of Korea.  As the masses have gained
strength in the south, the government there has felt pressure to step up
efforts to compete with the DPRK as an advocate of reunification but it
hardly competes credibly with the nearly 60-year record of the DPRK.
Harrison's failure to take any note of the depth and intensity of
sentiment for national unity on both sides of the US-drawn dividing
line.  There is no reason to believe that the region can experience
anything like genuine stability while the country remains divided.

Harrison's scores an advance in recognizing that there is little
likelihood of the DPRK of giving up its quite advanced struggle to
achieve a nuclear deterrent, unless the threat of destruction from the
US is decisively lifted, which will not happen soon. He advocates
separating the issues of normalizing relations with Korea and

Once a country gets as far as North Korea has in developing nuclear
weapons, the capacity to do so nnot and will not disappear either
intellectually or materially, and the process can be resumed or
re-established very quickly.  That is why the slogan of
"denuclearization" is really cover for a perspective of destruction of
north Korean industry and "intellectual capacity" and/or direct takeover
of the country by US and allied imperialisms.
Fred Feldman

>From 6/7/04 Nation
The North Korean Conundrum

North Korea: Another Country by Bruce Cumings
The North Korean Revolution: 1945-1950 by Charles K. Armstrong
Nuclear North Korea: A Debate on Engagement Strategiesby David Kang and
Victor Cha
Crisis on the Korean Peninsula: How to Deal With a Nuclear North Korea
by Michael O'Hanlon and Mike Mochizuki
North Korea/South Korea: U.S. Policy at a Time of Crisis by John Feffer

[from the June 7, 2004 issue]

In the prevailing American stereotype, North Korea is a failing
Stalinist dictatorship held together only by the ruthless repression of
a mad ruler who dreams of firing nuclear weapons at Los Angeles. Sooner
or later, in this imagery, the Kim Jong Il regime, strangled in its
Communist straitjacket, will crumble economically, and the only issue is
whether its collapse will come in the form of an implosion or an

For George W. Bush, who says he "loathes" Kim Jong Il and wants to
"topple" his regime, the assumption that Kim's power rests solely on
repression has shaped the current US policy response to the
much-discussed North Korean nuclear weapons program. Given patience and
enough pressure on Pyongyang, Bush and his advisers appear to believe,
the Kim regime will fall. Thus, it is neither necessary nor desirable to
reward Kim for denuclearization with economic quid pro quos and security
assurances that would merely help to keep him afloat. 

What accounts for the emotional intensity of the Bush Administration's
desire for "regime change" in Pyongyang? More broadly, does the
conventional wisdom in the United States about the nature of the North
Korean system, reflected in US policy, rest on an informed assessment of
what enables Kim to survive? 

The President's own explanation is that Kim is loathsome because he
presides over an Orwellian totalitarian system. But one can agree that
the North Korean system is indeed Orwellian while disputing the wisdom
of a policy of confrontation. Moreover, there are other reasons why
Pyongyang is demonized in Administration policy. North Korea challenges
two American articles of faith: that the United States is entitled to be
treated with deference as the "only superpower," and that Western-style
democracy, together with economic globalization based on market
principles, is now the natural, universal order of things. 

Pyongyang refuses to defer to the United States and seeks to deal with
Washington on a basis of sovereign equality despite its inferior power
position. Although eager to obtain foreign capital and technology, it is
seeking to do so selectively, on its own terms, resisting pressure for
wholesale political and economic reforms, all at once, that might weaken
the control of the Korean Workers Party regime. Above all, what
exasperates many Americans about North Korea, no doubt including the
President, is the very fact that it continues to exist at all and has
not gone the way of the Soviet Union and the Eastern European Communist
states, thus finally confirming the ideological victory of the West in
the cold war. 

Media coverage of the nuclear negotiations with North Korea generally
places Pyongyang in the position of the defendant at the bar in a
judicial proceeding, with the United States in the role of judge, jury
and executioner. Rarely does a journalist go beyond what is spoon-fed at
State Department or White House briefings to examine the assumptions
underlying US policy or make a serious effort to present the North
Korean side of the story. This is partly because North Korea often
smothers its position in a flood of crude anti-imperialist rhetoric that
is painful to wade through and difficult to evaluate even for the
journalist seeking to be objective. But it is also because most
journalists facing a deadline are not given the time necessary to seek
out elusive North Korean diplomats, or to read books about North Korea. 

In any case, even if they did do their homework, much of the literature
on North Korea has until recently reinforced simplistic, negative
stereotypes. Most of the authors writing about North Korea have never
been there and have had to base their assessments on interviews with
defectors who were generally beholden, during the cold war, to South
Korean intelligence agencies, or by working within the parameters
defined by North Korea's propaganda output, much as Kremlinologists did
in earlier decades. One of the more carefully researched books of this
genre--North Korea Through the Looking Glass, by Kongdan Oh and Ralph
Hassig--advertised its limitations with its title. 

The media hype generated by the nuclear negotiations has now led to a
spate of new books about North Korea and how to deal with it. Two of
these, North Korea: Another Country, by Bruce Cumings, and The North
Korean Revolution: 1945-1950, by Charles K. Armstrong, make powerfully
clear why the Kim regime is not on the verge of collapse. 

Cumings, the doyen of US historians of contemporary Korea, is best known
for his definitive two-volume study of the origins of the Korean War. To
understand the nationalistic ethos that gives North Korea its political
cohesion and staying power, he writes, it is necessary to recognize the
traumatic impact of the US role in the war. In September 1950, Harry
Truman made his fateful decision to enlarge the conflict, even though
North Korean forces had been successfully pushed out of South Korea. The
proper response to North Korean aggression, Cumings argues, would have
been to "reestablish the 38th Parallel and claim a victory for the
containment doctrine." Instead, Truman and Dean Acheson "decided to
transform their undeclared war into a campaign to liberate North Korea."

American soldiers marched northward toward the Yalu River border with
China, provoking Chinese intervention, and the US Air Force rained
destruction on North Korea until the armistice was concluded, in 1953.
To escape from American planes, any one of which, in North Korean eyes,
might have dropped an atomic bomb, most of the population lived and
worked in hastily excavated underground caverns complete with their own
schools, hospitals and small factories. The South suffered brutal but
relatively brief anguish from air attacks during the latter part of
1950, with Pyongyang using little close air support in its operations
there. The North, by contrast, endured three years of heavy US bombing
in addition to the Yalu offensive. This unremitting assault from the
air, plus a bloody US-South Korean occupation, left a deeply rooted
siege mentality in the North that persists today. 

Appealing for support in the name of a continuing US threat, North
Korean leaders point to the many reminders that the Korean War is not
yet over: the maintenance of most of the economic sanctions imposed
during the war; the presence of US forces in the South, still operating
under the same UN command structure used during the war; and above all,
the legal reality that the armistice has not been transformed into a
peace treaty. 

It was John Foster Dulles's threat of using nuclear weapons that broke
the impasse in the armistice negotiations, Cumings reminds us, and in
the decades thereafter the United States "has consistently based its
deterrence on threats to use them...in Korea," threats backed up by the
presence of US tactical nuclear weapons in the South until 1991. The
invasion of Iraq and the explicit US assertion of the right to take
pre-emptive military action elaborated in the Bush Administration's
National Security Strategy of September 17, 2002, is progressively
hardening support within North Korea for nuclear weapons--not to strike
Los Angeles, which would invite US retaliation, but to deter a US

Many Western historians writing about North Korea during the cold war
depicted Kim Jong Il's father, the late Kim Il Sung, as a supine puppet
installed by Soviet forces, likened the new North Korean state to
Eastern European Communist satellites and belittled North Korean
accounts of Kim Il Sung's role as a guerrilla hero who fought Japanese
forces in Manchuria during the Korean anticolonial struggle. 

Cumings shows that Kim did in fact earn legitimacy as "a classic Robin
Hood figure" who helped poor Korean farmers in the Kapsan area bordering
Manchuria during the Japanese colonial period and as a fervent
nationalist who led guerrilla attacks against Japanese forces in
southern and southeastern Manchuria from 1933 to 1940. His extensive
citations from the latest scholarly research include recently unearthed
Japanese intelligence reports describing Kim as the "most famous" and a
"particularly popular" leader of Korean émigrés in Manchuria, with "a
great reputation and a high position," a "Korean hero" in the struggle
against Japan. 

As for Kim's installation by Soviet forces, Cumings establishes that the
Russians had "no clear-cut plan or predetermined course of action"
during the early months of the occupation and had someone else in mind
to head the new Pyongyang regime. However, precisely because Kim had
such a tight-knit following among the guerrilla cohort who had fought
with him in Manchuria, "after the guerrillas returned, they pushed [him]
forward as first among equals." Kim was no mere stooge of the Russians,
in short, and he began playing off Moscow and Beijing against each other
to suit Korean nationalist purposes as soon as Soviet forces departed. 

Charles K. Armstrong demolishes the analogy between North Korea and the
erstwhile Communist regimes of Eastern Europe with incontestable
evidence drawn from 1.6 million pages of declassified North Korean
documents captured during the Korean War. 

Instead of "working through a small, elite vanguard party in the typical
Leninist fashion" exemplified in Eastern Europe, Armstrong shows, Kim Il
Sung built a "powerful support base...among the poor and marginal
elements of [Korean] society," especially the poor peasant majority,
workers and women, as he had done in mobilizing popular resistance in
Manchuria. During Japanese colonial rule, the number of landless farm
laborers had multiplied. Rapacious landlords oppressed their tenant
farmers, who were forced to pay crushing rents that often exceeded 60
percent of their total crop and lived on a bare subsistence diet. In
March 1946, just a month after emerging as the leader of the Provisional
People's Committee, which later evolved into the Democratic People's
Republic of Korea (DPRK), Kim Il Sung pushed through sweeping land
reforms that gave the Workers Party its strong rural foundations. 

Although the new state initially called itself Communist, Communism in
Korea was soon "absorbed and transformed" by the hierarchical structure
and Confucian social values that had characterized Korea over the
centuries. "Communism took root in North Korea," Armstrong concludes,
precisely because Korean society was so conservative. On the one hand,
"the possibility of breaking down old hierarchies was deeply attractive
to many at the bottom of the social ladder," while at the same time,
Korea's Confucian heritage enabled Kim Il Sung to create "new
hierarchical structures even more rigid than the old, and just as
resistant to change." Or, as a South Korean scholar cited by Cumings
puts it, North Korea became "a new Confucian society or family-state
that is well integrated as an extension of filial piety, expressed
through strong loyalty to its leader." 

"An odd aspect of the DPRK's belief in the family as the core unit of
society," Cumings observes, is that prisoners are generally sent to
labor camps together with their families, and mutual family support
enables many to survive the ordeal. Cumings does not minimize the ugly
horror of North Korea's gulag. Indeed, he accepts the higher estimates
of the number of prisoners, citing a South Korean intelligence figure of
150,000, half criminals and half political cases. The gulag symbolizes
the dark side of a repressive system that stifles unrest resulting
primarily from continuing economic failures, especially in agriculture.
Although only 14 percent of North Korea's mountainous terrain is arable,
the government has made matters worse with collective farming; the
floods of 1995 and 1996 led to near-famine conditions in many provinces.
As the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has observed, "The best
metaphor for North Korea is the medieval church. Much of the population
consists of genuine believers, and no one pays enormous attention to the
minority of heretics who are tortured and killed, the way witches or
Christians of a dissident sect were killed during the Middle Ages." 

Like most advocates of accommodation with Pyongyang, Cumings suggests
that external pressure on the Kim regime will only reinforce internal
repression and delay the liberalizing trends now being stimulated by
growing contacts with the outside world. 

Both Armstrong and Cumings present evidence relevant to the current
policy debate about how to deal with North Korea. But Armstrong's book
is specialized academic fare, too rigorous and detailed for the general
reader. Cumings, by contrast, resting on his long-established scholarly
laurels, writes in a lively, readable, argumentative, often delightfully
irreverent style. His book should be read by anyone seriously interested
in an authoritative antidote to the bias and superficiality in most of
what is written about North Korea. 

North Korea: Another Country indicts not only the Bush policy toward
North Korea but also the entire US role in Korea dating back to the
US-Soviet division of the peninsula in 1945. Significantly, however,
Cumings questions one of the key arguments made by some other critics of
US policy: that Kim Jong Il would move toward sustained economic reforms
as the result of an accommodation with Washington. "North Korea is
neither muddling through toward some sort of postcommunism, the way
other socialist states did after 1989," he argues, "nor is it seriously
reforming like China and Vietnam.... Any kind of coordinated reform
seems difficult for the regime to accomplish." In addition to the
"paralysis and immobilism" resulting from warfare between bureaucratic
and provincial fiefdoms, the drag of a vast party apparatus, the
privileged position of the armed forces and intense generational
conflict, he finds the leadership "deeply frightened by the consequences
of opening up the economy." 

This assessment, made with little elaboration, is challenged effectively
in a detailed analysis by Professor David Kang of the Dartmouth Business
School, who presents the case for accommodation in Nuclear North Korea:
A Debate on Engagement Strategies, written with Victor Cha. North Korea
has already come "very far" from its command economy of 1989, Kang says,
citing the upsurge of private markets since the 1996 famine, a package
of economic reforms enacted in July 2002, including a new pricing
system, and an overall growth of the private sector in the past five
years from less than 4 percent to perhaps 25 percent of the economy.
Continuing signs of reform are accompanied by "growing evidence that
North Korea is serious about opening to the West," notably its efforts
to provide a legal framework for foreign investment. Significant reforms
cannot succeed without such an opening, Kang emphasizes, and "a hardline
policy of pressure and threats from the United States will not start a
war but will jeopardize" the gains that have been made. 

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