Bruce Cumings: The US should change its policy of isolating North Korea
Bruce Cumings, professor of International History and East Asian Political Economy at the University of Chicago, told The Ukrainian Week about the peculiarities of Kim Jong-il`s rule, North Korea’s nuclear weapons and how China and US influence the country.
U. W: Professor Cumings,You first went to Korea as a member of the Peace Corps. What was your first impression of South Korea? How did you view North Korea then?
I did go to South Korea in the Peace Corps, but it would be too difficult to give my impressions in such a short space — it was the experience that led me to devote my scholarship to Korea.
U. W: If the US had not intervened, then all of Korea would be under Kim Jong Un's rule right now, and not just the North. Did US save South Korea?
South Korea would have fallen to the North in a few weeks if the US had not intervened. If the US had chosen simply to reestablish South Korea and not to cross the 38th parallel, it would have been seen as a limited war in support of the containment doctrine of George Kennan, and a principled victory. But momentum for “rolling back” communism had grown in Washington, so Truman’s decision to invade the North in October 1950 and try to overthrow Kim Il Sung’s regime turned into a nightmare as China intervened. Korea was then divided in July 1953 when the armistice was signed, and it has remained divided ever since. Kennan was about the only important advisor to Truman who opposed invading the North, and unfortunately for American policy and for the millions more who died in the next two-and-a-half years, Kennan was right.
U. W: Did Kim Jong-il create his particular form of dictatorship based on his own thoughts and ideas?
In the 1960s Kim Il Sung and his scribes developed the “Juche” idea, originally a doctrine of 3rd-world, anti-imperial self-reliance. In spite of the mountains of propaganda devoted to Juche, this was a rather typical, post-colonial approach during the heyday of the Non-Aligned Movement, and very Korean in that it harkened back to the old days of the “Hermit Kingdom.”
Kim Jong Il added very little to his father’s doctrine. He was mainly known for his “songun” or military-first policy, a policy of post-Cold War survival which put the huge North Korean military ahead of the Worker’s Party, and reflected the dire situation of the North in the 1990s.
U. W: Is North Korea a good example of brainwashing from an early age that really works?
I would call it “socialization,” which certainly begins at a very early age in the North (from birth). But when you get to know North Koreans, they are not brainwashed automatons, but real human beings who have to live under a nervous and insecure dictatorship.
U. W: What are the immediate concerns about Kim Jong-un?
The main concern is his young age, which suggests he will be under the regency of his uncle, Chang Song-t’aek (65), who is very powerful. Kim Jong-un has one great advantage, which is that he looks just like his grandfather did at the same age. This will allow the North Korean people to forget about Kim Jong Il, whose seventeen years in power were the most difficult for Koreans since the Korean War.
U. W: What will happen to nuclear weapons in North Korea?
North Korea probably has no more than five or six nuclear weapons, as they are not manufacturing plutonium anymore and they are far away from having an enriched-uranium bomb. The nuclear weapons they do have are mainly for deterrence, because any use of them would end with the destruction of the regime.
U. W: What role does China play in North Korea today?
China has always been the most important external influence on the North, because Kim Il Sung was a member of the Chinese Communist Party and fought with Chinese guerrillas against the Japanese in the 1930s. North Korea also contributed tens of thousands of soldiers to the communist side in the Chinese civil war of the late 1940s, and of course China defended the North in the Korean War. Today the North’s dependence on China has grown very deep, because relations with South Korea have been very bad for five years—and Seoul cut off trade with the North in 2010.
U. W: Does the United States have any levers of influence on Pyongyang?
Yes, mainly food aid. But the main American policy—isolation and confrontation—has only hardened the regime’s stance and its control over its own people. The US should have normalized relations long ago, as China and the USSR did with Seoul in 1991-92. If the US had an embassy in Pyongyang, we might begin to have some serious influence over this regime.
U. W: Can we expect any major changes in North Korea in the near future?
I think much depends on the December election in South Korea. Many positive changes occurred from 1998-2008, when Seoul had a strong engagement policy. If another engager is elected at the end of the year, we can expect that the North will respond well. In the longer term of the next decade, I imagine that Kim Jong-un will consolidate his rule and that little will change politically, unless the US changes its policy of isolating the North. Only through engagement will this regime ever change its nature; isolation only reinforces its worst features.
Bruce Cumings is professor of International History and East Asian Political Economy at the University of Chicago, and aleading expert on modern Korean history. He earned a PhD in Political Science from Columbia University in 1975 and since then has taught at Swarthmore College, University of Washington, Northwestern University, and the University of Chicago.
His first book, The Origins of the Korean War, won the John King Fairbank Book Award of the American Historical Association, and the second volume won the Quincy Wright Book Award of the International Studies Association.
Cumings was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1999, and has received fellowships from the Ford Foundation, NEH, the MacArthur Foundation, the Center for Advanced Study at Stanford, and the Abe Fellowship Program of the Social Science Research Council. In 2003 he won the University's award for Excellence in Graduate Teaching, and in 2007 he won the Kim Dae Jung Prize for Scholarly Contributions to Democracy, Human Rights and Peace.
Professor Cumings is the author of many books on Korea, including Korea’s Place in the Sun: A Modern History and North Korea: Another Country. He has just completed Dominion From Sea to Sea: Pacific Ascendancy and American Power, which will be published by Yale University Press.