Also strange was the ostensible peace conference, held in Geneva in 1954, where the communist and non-communist sides came to important agreements that ended the first Indochina war (and divided Vietnam politically), but got nowhere on a peace treaty for Korea. After learning in the State Department archives that the U.S. expected nothing to happen at Geneva (in part because the Americans thought the communists would try to get at the diplomatic table what they could not get on the battlefield), in an interview I asked U. Alexis Johnson, who was on the U.S. delegation, how one prepares for a conference where nothing is going to happen. “Oh,” he responded, “you make your speeches and you also try to make sure that Korean foreign minister P’yon is well established and knows what he‘s supposed to do and ... you don’t let Syngman Rhee, er, sabotage it.”
I doubt that anyone at the time thought the armistice would still be the main guarantor of peace in Korea some sixty years later, but without a final peace treaty or agreement it is still a weak reed. When former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta can say, as he did in the spring of 2012, that we have been “within an inch of war” with North Korea for weeks and months, that is both an admission of a colossal failure in American policy, and of the fundamental weakness of the armistice. It halted a hot war, but certainly did not end it.
Korea Herald: Your analysis on the cause of the Korean War has triggered much debate not just in Korea but in the States with some people calling it a “revisionist view.” You have already talked about this so many times, but can you kindly explain your understanding of the cause and characteristics of the war for our readers?
Cumings: Since you chose to ask this question yet again, you owe me the courtesy of a response that is long enough to answer it adequately.
The human problem is that people do not read deeply researched books, which mostly appeal to professional scholars, but nonetheless they like to run around acting as if they did—and gossiping about what they think is contained in such books. I did not write about the opening of conventional war in June 1950 until 1990, when the second volume of my Origins of the Korean War appeared. Yet by the mid-1980s, after the Chun Doo Hwan dictatorship had banned my first volume (which appeared in 1981), supporters of that regime, in and outside the government, were running around trying to discredit my work by saying “Cumings says the South started the war!” I don’t know how many times I heard this—including demands that I apologize for saying it.
But it is hard to apologize for something one never said. I wrote 33 chapters on the origins of this war, and only one was titled “Who Started the Korean War?” There I presented several scenarios for how the war might have started, based on the existing documentation at the time, with the whole point of the chapter being to deconstruct the idea that the war “started” in June 1950. The theme of both my volumes was that the essential conflict began in the 1930s, between Korean forces resisting the Japanese and Korean forces serving the Japanese, between people who supported a very oppressive land system and those who did not, etc., a conflict that was vastly accelerated by events that occurred from 1945 to 1950.
By 1949 the militants who knew how to use the weapons of war were arrayed on either side of the 38th parallel, with the U.S. having put in place and supported former Japanese army officers like Kim Sok-won (who commanded the parallel during the summer and early fall of 1949), and the Russians and Chinese backing militants who had fought the Japanese going back at least to 1932. Here was a perfect recipe for civil war.
To understand June 1950 one needs to understand the border fighting along the parallel that was begun by South Korean forces in May 1949, and which continued until December 1949—the North Koreans initiated much fighting, of course, but according to secret reports by the US commander on the scene, General Roberts, the majority of the fighting was started by the southern side. A real crisis came in August 1949, when the North attacked a hilltop emplacement north of the 38th parallel that was occupied by southern troops, and quickly routed them—to the point that the Ongjin Peninsula, south of Haeju, seemed about to fall to northern forces. Syngman Rhee wanted to counter that by attacking Ch’orwon, north of the parallel. U.S. Ambassador Muccio restrained him, worried that a war would break out; at virtually the same time, Kim Il Sung was restrained by the Soviet ambassador from widening the conflict into what the ambassador called—a civil war.
In December 1950 Preston Goodfellow, the strongest backer of Rhee in Washington and the former deputy director of the Office of Strategic Services (forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency), the man who had secretly organized Rhee’s return to Seoul in October 1945, flew to Seoul and told Rhee that he would not get American backing if he attacked the North. After saying that he had had many occasions to discuss Korea with Secretary of State Acheson (I was never able to find records of those discussions), he urged Rhee to remain patient and said that if the North attacked, the U.S. would be there to help. The last southern attack across the parallel, commanded by Paek In-yop, occurred in December 1950. Thereafter serious assaults from the southern side ceased. (Indeed, Soviet documents show Kim Il Sung complaining, in early 1950, that the South was not attacking—thus to justify his invasion).
In 1949-50 Kim was getting crack divisions of Korean troops back from the Chinese civil war, and they became the shock forces of the invasion. What is clear from the logic of the situation is that Kim was waiting for a serious provocation, like those in 1949, to justify his attack, and both sides were trying to get their big-power guarantors to back them. Stalin and Mao finally did so; meanwhile Acheson created a defense (in his Press Club speech and elsewhere) that would enable the U.S. to step back if Rhee attacked, but support him if the North mounted an unprovoked invasion. When conventional war came in June 1950, Ambassador Muccio said (in an oral history) that the event was “fortunately clear cut.” Kim Il Sung no doubt thought that people would see his act in the context of the fighting over the previous year, but the six-month hiatus that Rhee observed became of lasting value for the U.S. and the South, since it convinced world opinion that Kim was the aggressor. Still, it was really a matter of Koreans invading Korea, not some foreign country (and the same was true of the Vietnam War in spite of endless American attempts to make both wars boil down to communist aggression).
The truth is that for over a year North and South had been looking for ways to end by force the national division that the U.S. had foolishly imposed on August 10-11 1945, consulting no one (least of all Koreans), as John J. McCloy and Dean Rusk etched a border at the 38th parallel. Here we are nearly 70 years later, and the dividing line is as hard and impermeable as it has ever been.
John Foster Dulles visited that parallel a week before June 25th, and listened patiently to Rhee imploring him to back an invasion of the North. After the Armistice, as Secretary of State, he returned many times in NSC meetings to his fears that Rhee would restart the war: in 1957 at the 332nd Meeting of the NSC Dulles worried again that Rhee might “start a war;” two weeks later, “If war were to start in Korea ... it was going to be very hard indeed to determine which side had begun the war.” Dulles went to his grave with these fears and qualms, which gave him a finer appreciation of the realities of the Korean conflict than all the pundits, politicians, and ignoramuses running around telling us that they know where all the blame lies for this terrible war—and how it “started.”
KH: What do you think about the implications of the Korean War in connection with the Cold War and its impact on South Korean society in general? Ideological division that seems to be insurmountable could be one example of the impact of the war on Korean society.
Cumings: Well, in the post-Cold War era Koreans made great progress at overcoming the ideological divisions, at least from 1998 to 2008 under Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun. Any person under 60 cannot have experienced the terrible struggles that divided Koreans from 1945 to 1953, and this simple human fact is a problem for all the hardliners and warmongers on both sides of the DMZ. Young people do not have—and really cannot have—the visceral hatreds and grudges that kept Korea divided for so long, and so they are the greatest hope for finally overcoming the national division.
A little-noted aspect of the Korean War is the way in which it set up a sharp competition for development between the South and the North. The North won this race for about 25 years after the Armistice, and the South has won it ever since. With firm big-power backing during the Cold War, both sides were recipients of huge amounts of foreign aid (although the South got much more than the North), and both became avatars of Third-World development—the North primarily in the ‘60s, and the South in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Once the North Korean economy is rebuilt on a more contemporary basis, and if the two Koreas can ever by reunited, a real economic powerhouse will be in place.
KH: Sixty years after the armistice agreement, the two Koreas are starkly different in terms of its economic, diplomatic status and social, political advancements. The South is overwhelmingly ahead of the North in all aspects. It may sound too broad to answer, but as a longtime expert on Korea’s modern history and peninsular issues, how do you compare the current status of the two Koreas? Why do you think the North seems to have stopped maturing as a responsible state?
Comings:I can’t possibly answer this question in a small space, plus I have already suggested part of the answer above. To say “the South is ahead of the North in every respect” is (1) testimony to the hard work and high educational standards of South Koreans over several generations; and (2) leads to gloating about the South’s position, which makes it hard to figure out what might be done to unify the country. The North has been forced, by the absence of an end to the Korean War, by extended American nuclear threats and deterrence for 60 years, by pitting its huge army against the South’s huge army for the same period, and by the collapse of the USSR, to devote the major part of its resources to the military. It has thus become the most remarkable garrison state on the face of the earth. It cannot defeat any of its near neighbors, but at the same time, it is still very hard to see how any invading army could defeat the North and occupy and govern it, without tremendous loss of life and fearsome consequences that no human being can foresee. So the only answer is diplomacy, reconciliation, and avoiding specious and premature triumphalism.
As to the North maturing and becoming a responsible state, it would argue that the greatest power on earth called it a criminal in 1950, responded with a “police action” that devastated the North, and has embargoed and blockaded it ever since. If once it was a “communist puppet” of Moscow or Beijing, now it is a post-Cold War “rogue state,” which, if you read the newspapers, seems to be engaged mainly in one sort of criminality or another, while piling its people into gulags. It makes us feel good to call them criminals, but none of this helps us to explain their prolonged post-Berlin Wall existence (give the DPRK a few more years and it will have been around as long as the Soviet Union), or the generosity and kindness of its people, on which many foreign vistors comment.
KH: The two Koreas seem to be caught in an endless security dilemma in which they anxiously ramp up military hardware with a lack of two-way communications and of information about each other’s intentions. What do you think about this situation and would there be a way out of it?
Cumings: Again, Kim Dae Jung and his successor clearly did show a way out of this security dilemma by increasing inter-Korean exchanges of all types. The U.S. greatly helped this process under Clinton, and then brought it to a halt under George W. Bush (with much help from Lee Myung Bak). By purposely destroying the 1994 agreement that had kept the North’s plutonium frozen for eight years and pegging the North as a target for preemptive attack (in September and October 2002—please see Mike Chinoy’s excellent account, Meltdown, a rare example of sincere investigative reporting on U.S. relations with the North), Bush became the major cause of the rather different security dilemma we face today: a nuclear-armed North, about which little can be done militarily—the only solution is to use diplomacy to put a cap on their nuclear and missile programs, before they have a full and usable arsenal.
KH: North Korea has conducted nuclear tests three times and it claims that it is already a nuclear-armed state. It says it would continue to maintain what it calls nuclear deterrence until the U.S. stops any nuclear threat against it, which it argues was manifested in the recent deployment of B-2 bombers and other nuclear-capable weapons systems. Do you think Pyongyang would ever renounce its nuclear ambitions?
Cumings: This renunciation would happen only under very tight guarantees that the U.S. would not threaten it with nuclear weapons, and only if others do not try to roll back the clock on the North’s nuclear programs. After what has transpired in recent years, with both the U.S. and the South dramatically reversing their stances of engagement toward the North, I think any general in Pyongyang would want to maintain ambiguity about how many nuclear weapons they might possess, and how effective their medium- and long-range missiles might be. Through negotiations the North can probably be brought to a point of “useless ambiguity,” that is, they get to keep a few nukes to make them feel secure (outsiders could never find them all anyway), but which cannot be used against others without a holocaust descending on the North; meanwhile the other diplomatic parties would achieve a cap on further production of plutonium, highly-enriched uranium, and long-range missiles.
Given how far things have come since 2002, I don’t see how this can occur without the U.S. pledging a “no-first-use” policy on its own nukes, while making much more serious attempts to reduce the thousands of nuclear weapons in its own arsenal. Unfortunately, that seems about as likely as the North giving up its nukes. But a cap on the North’s programs is much better than President Obama’s policy of “strategic patience,” which isn’t a strategy but it is very patient—patient enough to stand by and watch the North develop a fully-usable nuclear arsenal, with attendant consequences for the Northeast Asian region.
KH: The two decades of international efforts to persuade Pyongyang to give up its nuclear programs have failed. After government after government in Seoul, South Korea has also failed to craft an effective denuclearization policy to persuade the North and build trust with it. What do you think about the reasons why?
Cumings: I don’t agree with you. In late 2000 the North had had no available plutonium for six years, and Washington and Pyongyang were about to conclude an agreement to indirectly buy out the North’s medium and long-range missiles. Then our Supreme Court gave the 2000 election to Bush, and everything unraveled. Readers can go to Michael Gordon’s excellent account of the demise of this missile agreement published in the New York Times on March 6, 2001—and also become aware of the blundering fatuity of Bush and his advisors, who soon plunged Americans into two more unwinnable wars. Nothing remotely like these major agreements with the DPRK has been reached with Iran; the burden would be on you to explain why the North made these deals with Clinton in 1994 and 2000.
KH: There has been much talk about the possible collapse of the reclusive regime in Pyongyang. But there has been a lack of talk over South Korea’s reunification perhaps because it seems to be unlikely in the coming decades. What do you think about the possibility of the reunification and what kinds of efforts do you think should be made on the part of Seoul in preparation for it?
Cumings: I have said and written since the Berlin Wall fell that whoever anticipates or expects or seeks to impose a collapse of the North will be likely to find themselves in the second Korean War. But to the contrary, we have had almost a quarter-century of drivel on “the coming collapse of North Korea.” This even became the policy of the Clinton administration in the mid-1990s, until William Perry and others, with much help from Kim Dae Jung, came to understand that the North was not going to collapse, so it had to be dealt with “as it is, not as we would like it to be.” At the time this phrase struck me as a bolt out of the blue, a sudden glimmer of American sobriety amid a host of ignorant, failed and useless assumptions about the North going back to 1945. This was the peculiar, unexpected, enhanced clarity at the basis of the 2000 missile agreement and the engagement toward normalized relations that should have succeeded it.
The problem in understanding the North and grasping its behavior is hardly ever at the level of facts or daily events or episodes that come and go—or about which Kim runs the country. It is at the level of scraping our own assumptions to the bone, to try and figure out a place that one may hate and revile, but that specializes in difference from beliefs that we hold dear, that will not do what we want them to do, and that persists no matter how many times we huff and we puff and try to blow their house down (see The Three Little Pigs).
As to preparations for unification, the reader would best spend time looking at what Andrei Lankov has to say about this subject in his new book, The Real North Korea. He has anticipated a number of thorny problems that will come up even if the South waltzes in and peaceably imposes its own system on the North (as in Germany). My own view is that no unification will occur in the next few decades without prolonged efforts at engaging the northern leadership, pursuing sincere reconciliation, treating northerners fairly, and respecting their human dignity and their history (as Kim Dae Jung said many times).
KH: What frustrates Koreans is the stark reality that reunification is not something Koreans alone cannot realize with their own hands given that it is truly an international issue where the interests of big powers such as the U.S. and China are at stake. Can you comment on such a sense of frustration?
Cumings: At the risk of harping on the events of 2000, U.S. support for the missile deal and for President Kim’s efforts at reconciliation, the June summit, etc., was predicated on the U.S. being the guarantor and the facilitator of reconciliation and eventual reunification. Kim Jong Il agreed at the summit that American troops could remain in the South for the foreseeable future, so long as they stayed in the South. He was fearful of Korea’s geostrategic position, with China and Japan both being strong at the same time, for the first time in modern history. The U.S. would thus emerge as the closest ally of a unified Korea, able thereby to balance Japan, China and Russia while maintaining its commitments to Korea and the security architecture that it had built in the region since 1945. This was a matter of bringing the North into that system, as a neutral or innocuous party for some time to come.
This plan would not place South Korean or American troops on the Chinese border after reunification, something Beijing fears, and Korean reconciliation would not come at the expense of any of its neighbors. As a Korean strategy, this idea can be seen as early as the 1880s: to remain friendly with Korea’s neighbors, but to ally with the U.S., which has the virtue of being across the vast Pacific—and thus less attentive.
China is much stronger in 2013 than it was in 2000, and may demand to be a central part of any Korean reunification. As for Japan, it will do what the U.S. tells it to do, as it has since 1945 (when dealing with major issues). Russia is not strong enough in the region to oppose such an outcome.
Ultimately, Korea is for the Koreans. It always has been, until the past century—for millennia, Koreans have been the well recognized people who live on the peninsula below the Yalu and Tumen rivers. Since 1953 Koreans have imposed upon themselves (with much foreign help) a division system that, as Dr. Paik Nak-chung has shown in his work, systematically works against unification. I think the record of the past 100 years shows that if Koreans don’t care about their own interests, we can be sure no one else will. If their interest is truly unification, they can surely accomplish it with their own hands.
KH: President Park Geun-hye has introduced her so-called “peninsular trust-building process” -- a dialogue-based approach to enhance ties with Pyongyang while maintaining a robust deterrence. With North Korea’s continued saber-rattling and lack of sincerity in engaging in any talks with Seoul, the process has yet to take off. What do you think about the process and do you have any advice?
Cumings: This is a loaded question, because President Park arrived in the Blue House after five years of failure by her predecessor—aided and abetted by hardliners in the North, to be sure. But if the past 70 years, and especially the past five years, teaches any lesson, it is that a hard line from the South will only meet a harder line from the North. “Trust” is a noble word—if it isn’t just a political slogan. Other noble words would include generosity, magnanimity, letting bygones be bygones, and focusing on what might be done in the present, toward shaping a better future. But I think too many Koreans now associate those fine words with Kim Dae Jung and his successor. If that is true, it is a pity because President Kim embarked on a truly new path with the North.
KH: President Park is also working on establishing her “Seoul process” under which she wants to build a confidence-building mechanism in East Asia which also involves the U.S. She initially said she would like to take lessons from the European Helsinki process. Through the Seoul process, she said countries can build trust on issues of low-politics first and then on higher politics including security. What do you think about the prospect of it? Some argue that it may face many challenges, particularly when the Sino-U.S. rivalry intensifies.
Cumings: I haven’t studied President Park’s policies closely enough to answer this question, and in any case it is premature to judge them before they come to life as real policies. But I think you are right that Sino-American relations and rivalries now bear strongly on U.S. relations with other countries in the region, especially Japan and the Philippines. South Korea has done very well in cultivating good relations with China since 1992, in spite of China being run by communists. President Park’s recent visit to Beijing was quite a success, it seems. So perhaps a “Seoul process” that includes Washington and Beijing, before Korea again becomes a problem between these two big powers, would be a good idea.
KH: China is South Korea’s largest trading and tourism partner. But the U.S. is South Korea’s crucial security ally. Should their rivalry intensify, South Korea would be put into an increasingly difficult position, which could result in another tragedy similar to the Korean War. What do you think about this and what would be a wise strategic positioning for Seoul?
Cumings: The answer is to continue the pattern since the 1992 normalization of relations, of the ROK being a big investor in China, a big consumer of its products, and trying to stay out of its increasingly tense territorial disputes with Japan and other countries. Seoul is in the enviable position of having excellent relations with both Washington and Beijing. You are right that an explosion over disputed islands, or over Taiwan, could draw Seoul into a conflict that it desperately wants to avoid. It is useful to recall Roh Moo Hyun’s statements about this problem, because he was the president who worried most about such an eventuality.
KH: What is your impression or evaluation of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un? Do you think he could bring about some change in the impoverished country? What do you think about the future of the country under his leadership? So far many have been disappointed by his provocative moves -- no different from his predecessors.
Cumings: I think much of what the North has done to introduce Kim Jong-un to his people has been entirely predictable—to dress him up like a young Kim Il Sung, to parade him around all the places his father and grandfather liked to visit, to show off his apparently ironclad support among the leadership. This is a family dynasty, something instinctively understandable to Koreans whether it occurs in a Choson kingdom, in the North, or in the Samsung chaebol. I wonder what certain experts are saying to themselves now, after predicting 18 months ago that a power struggle would ensue in Pyongyang after Kim Jong Il’s death, and lead to the collapse of the regime? What is perhaps more surprising is how Kim Jong-un took to North Korean-style mass politics like a duck to water—he often seems to be the spitting image of his grandfather, who was much more comfortable with ordinary people than was Kim Jong Il.
As to the future, the utterly unpredicted collapse of the Soviet Union taught me always to be aware of Hegel’s brilliant observation on the cunning of history: humans always overreach in thinking they can know the future. But spelling out current trends into the future doesn’t look so good for anti-communists in the South: if Kim Jong-un lives as long as his grandfather did, he will still be running the country in the 2060s. For a people who take history seriously and think in terms of centuries rather than decades (or at least used to), that is a daunting thought.
KH: One major challenge to South Korea’s social harmony is ideological division that has developed since the end of the Korean War. North Korean issues have always divided the public, prompting endless, sometimes wasteful disputes at the legislature and in other sectors. Different historical understandings have also been an obstacle to more constructive discussions for a better future of the country. What do you think about a good way to overcome such a division? It could be, in some sense, interpreted as democratic vibrancy, but oftentimes it descends into needless social conflicts.
Cumings: In my book titled North Korea: Another Country, I wrote that the fruits of reconciliation since 1998 had led many Koreans to reject the suffocating, merciless and mindless anti-communism of the previous four decades, and to come to see northerners as cousins and brothers, even if led by nutty uncles. Critics instantly distorted my point to make me appear to say that Kim Jong Il was just a nutty uncle (rather than an evil, horrible despot), but the basic point is true: Koreans in that period came to see people they had been told were evil, unpardonable criminals, as their kinfolk—as Koreans. I know how huge a gain that was, because when I first visited North Korea in 1981, one of my closest friends, a Korean of the older generation living in Japan, asked me what my impressions were after I returned. I said my greatest impression was how Korean the place was: and he broke down and cried.
The best histories lead to reconciliation. Understanding postwar Korean history using all the formerly secret materials that we now have, and from all the sides and perspectives available to us now, allows us to inhabit the very different experiences and world views that brought us the Korean War and the long era of national division. It is not a matter of agreeing with all those perspectives (how could we?), but knowing them, respecting them, and using them to reconcile with one’s enemies. That is exactly what he Korean Truth and Reconciliation Commission did in its work over a period of years; I am still saddened that this excellent, sternly serious, wholly admirable, and very unusual inquiry into the pursuit of the truth of modern Korean history, got so little attention outside the country, and was so abruptly dismissed after President Lee came into power.
KH: You have long specialized in the issues regarding the Korean Peninsula. Is there any particular reason for that? And as a scholar specializing in Korean issues, what is your future plan and what would be the things that you want to promote or contribute to?
Cumings: I stumbled into my interest in Korean affairs, in a crab-like movement that took me into the Peace Corps in 1967 (to avoid the war corps in Vietnam), into teaching English in Seoul that same year (at Kim Sok-won’s alma mater, I later learned), and then to graduate school to try and figure out what was wrong with my country—not to master Korean studies. The last thing I wanted was to be a professor like my father and grandfather, but as a deep disaffection grew from an America embroiled in another losing war, the civil rights movement, one assassination after another, riots in the ghettoes and on the campuses, it seemed like academe might be a perch from which to make a contribution to figure out what was wrong. (And so I joined the family firm, like Kim Jong-un or Lee Kun Hee.) My motivation, in other words, was mostly political.
Slowly I grew to be absorbed by the Korean experience, primarily because the Korean-American “relationship” that I witnessed in 1967-68 was so pathological—white Americans full of racial prejudice against Koreans (while saying that Korea was our great Cold War ally), political and military officers who were so powerful yet knew so little about Korea (and feared it, so they stayed behind fences that kept out Koreans), sordid miasmas around U.S. military bases (which the G.I.s seemed to love). Then right before our eyes, in January 1968, came the Blue House raid and the seizure of the Pueblo. Sound familiar? Maybe like the fate of the Cheonan? How many more Koreans need to die before Koreans take their country back and make it their own?
As to my future plans that you generousy asked about, they are to keep writing books that cause indigestion to those manning the “division system” in North and South.
● Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of History, the University of Chicago where he has lectured since 1984.
● Books include “The Origins of The Korean War (2 volumes in 1981, 1990); War and Television Verso (1993); Korea’s Place in the Sun: A Modern History (1997); Parallax Visions: Making Sense of American East Asian Relations (1999); North Korea: Another Country (2004).
● “The Origins of the Korean War” won the John King Fairbank Book Award of the American Historical Association, and its second volume won the Quincy Wright Book Award of the International Studies Association.
● Elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1999, and is the recipient of fellowships from various organizations including the Ford Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation and the Center for Advanced Study at Stanford.
● Obtained a B.A. in psychology from Denison University in 1965, a M.A. from Indiana University in 1967, and a Ph. D in political science from Columbia University in 1975.
By Song Sang-ho