A Brief Word on Cumings
A cursory look at Bruce Cumings’ completed works list shows the amount of research he has done in an area of the world often misunderstood, or simply “forgotten,” by those of us in — or from — the West. Cumings’ work on the Korean War and the myriad of issues related to the devastating conflict that left a nation destroyed, divided and dirt poor is valuable not solely for the fact it highlights the geopolitical importance America has placed on Korea (and the resulting devastation because of America’s decision to have Korea serve as the ramming head of the bulwark against communist expansion), but because of Cumings’ focus on the travails of the ordinary person, something that other historians tend to avoid. However, the more I read of (and read about) Bruce Cumings, the more torn I feel about him.
There is a lot of doubt as to the overall credibility of what Cumings says and the ways he portrays a country like North Korea. Though issues such as the massive bombing campaign undertook by Americans over North Korea deserve to be denounced and decried, there are more than a handful of controversial assertions made by Cumings throughout the years. One of the biggest, due in large part to its political sensitivity, is the “local war theory/trap theory” put forward by Cumings in the second volume of his The Origins of the Korean War, published in 1990. Cumings posits that not only was the Korean war a “local” (re: civil) conflict, but it was also a conflict provoked by Syngman Rhee in order to get the Americans to intervene on behalf of south Korea’s defense. Given that Cumings didn’t have access to the Soviet archives that would later show the level of involvement Stalin played in Kim Jong-il’s decision to invade, his initial error is excusable; what continues to land him in the hot seat, however, is his reluctance to revise it. For this reason and more, there aren’t a small number of scholars who come out publicly in opposition to what Cumings says.
Aside from hinting that the entire thesis of Cumings The Origins was wrong (it should be noted that there is much more to Cumings’ The Origins than the “trap theory”) scholars like BR Myers contend that after getting the Korean War Wrong, Cumings kept on going on with bad themes and even worse arguments. Myers is worth a quote in order to capture the almost vitriolic disdain some scholars have for Cumings’ work:
Instead [of correcting the errors in The Origins] Cumings went on to write an account of postwar Korea that instances the North’s “miracle rice,” “autarkic” economy, and prescient energy policy (an “unqualified success”) to refute what he calls the “basket-case” view of the country. With even worse timing than its predecessor, Korea’s Place in the Sun(1997) went on sale just as the world was learning of a devastating famine wrought by Pyongyang’s misrule. The author must have wondered if he was snakebit. But now we have a new book, in which Cumings likens North Korea to Thomas More’s Utopia, and this time the wrongheadedness seems downright willful; it’s as if he were so tired of being made to look silly by forces beyond his control that he decided to do the job himself. At one point in North Korea: Another Country (2004) we are even informed that the regime’s gulags aren’t as bad as they’re made out to be, because Kim Jong Il is thoughtful enough to lock up whole families at a time.
The mixture of naiveté and callousness will remind readers of the Moscow travelogues of the 1930s, but Cumings is more a hater of U.S. foreign policy than a wide-eyed supporter of totalitarianism. The book’s apparent message is that North Korea’s present condition can justify neither our last “police action” on the peninsula nor any new one that may be in the offing. It is perhaps a point worth arguing, particularly in view of the mess in Iraq, but Cumings is too emotional to get the job done. His compulsion to prove conservative opinion wrong on every point inspires him to say things unworthy of any serious historian—that there was no crime in North Korea for decades, for example—and to waste space refuting long-forgotten canards and misconceptions. Half a page is given over to deriding American reporters who once mistook Kim Il Sung’s neck growth for a brain tumor—talk about a dead issue.
Love him or hate him, I find it interesting to see which side of the aisle Korean scholars stand regarding Cumings’ overall message about the Korean War and North Korea; generally speaking, those left-of-center “appreciate” his work (as it has been so delicately put to me), while the conservatives think he is either a “soft apologist,” at best, or a “paid propagandist,” at worst. It’s also been stated to me, in a not-so-friendly tone, that Cumings’ work lacks credibility because it is published in English — as if publishing in Korean would change the arguments? In any case, my experience discussing Cumings in Korea suggests that respect for his work rests solely on the left side of the aisle.
I won’t go any further into the debates surrounding Cumings research or his “controversial” conclusions. Just keep in mind, for those of you unfamiliar with Cumings, that he is considered by many to be a “revisionist” historian; not something people like to be considered.
I do want to point out something that struck me while reading through some of Cumings’ work that is worth pointing out: several arguments arguments made by Cumings have later reappeared in well-known works lauded for their original arguments and unique contributions to the Korean studies literature. The first comes via the Korean studies discussion list from an email sent by Cumings in response to a KCTV paean to Kim Jong-un. Cumings uses an excerpt from vol. II of The Origins to put power transition, leadership and authority in North Korea into historical context. The entire excerpt is too long to cite in toto, so I’ll quote an abridged form (see the entire email, including the excerpt, HERE [.pdf]).
In an important interview in 1947 with Kim’s first biographer, an unnamed member of his guerrilla unit promoted a Kim Il Sung line that remains the official history today. Kim set the following sort of example:
“This sort of person naturally has an extremely strong power of attraction to others…. And it goes without saying that a guerrilla organization with such a person at the center is incomparably strong. The sublime good fortune of our guerrilla detachment was to have at our center the Great Sun. Our general commander, great leader, sagacious teacher, and intimate friend was none other than General Kim Il Sung. …
The detachment’s “philosophy of life” was their willingness to follow Kim’s orders even to the death; “its strength is the strength deriving from uniting around Kim Il Sung … our guerrillas’ historical tradition is precisely that of uniting around Kim as our only leader.”
Kim loved and cared for his followers, and they responded with an iron discipline for which “a spirit of obedience is needed, and what is needed for that is a spirit of respect . . . above all, the spiritual foundation [of our discipline] was this spirit of respect. And the greatest respect was for General Kim Il Sung. Our discipline grew and became strong amid respect and obedience for him. … ["General Kim Il Sung is the Leader of the Korean people," Podo, no.3 (August 1947), pp. 18-21.]
The language used by this man is fascinating. It is all moral language, bathing Kim in a hundred virtues, almost all of which are Confucian virtues–benevolence, love, trust, obedience, respect, reciprocity between leader and led. It is a language of circles: the phrase “uniting around Kim” uses a term, chuwi, that literally means circumference; in a neighborhood it means living around a center or chungsim, which literally means a “central heart.” Synonyms for this, widely used in the North Korean literature, are “core” and “nucleus.” The Party center was also a euphemism for Kim and his closest allies, just as it became the euphemism for Kim’s son in the 1970s when the succession was being arranged.
The notion of a cult-centered authoritarian state in North Korea mirrors the “ethno-nationalist personality cult” argument put forward by BR Myers. Thus, it seems to me, Cumings’ original description of “uniting” around Kim Il-sung predates Myers’ more elaborate (and Korean literature-focused) analysis (see the CSPAN 2 Book TV with BR Myers about his book).
Cumings also does the same with Carter Eckert’s contention that the origins of capitalism in Korea are traced to the colonial occupation by Japan. This quote from vol. I of The Origins:
Most Korean were peasants before the Japanese came and remained peasants after they left. Yet in the decade preceding liberation, the peasant class lost upwards of 10 percent of its members, mostly to industry; and many more than this had been touched by the force of the world market system. It was the simultaneity of the coming of the market and the rise of industry that was so critical to shaping the fate of Korea under the Japanese and thereafter. This was, in essence, the onset of Korea’s capitalist revolution. (p. 48)
As readers of both Eckert and Cumings know, Eckert develops the argument much further, providing more quantitative support and historical evidence of the landlord-entrepreneurs — a phrase first coined by Cumings in vol. I of The Origins to describe the upper echelon of Korean society. Nevertheless, Cumings lays down the original argument which is later expounded upon by Eckert. Cumings, however, gets only one mention from Eckert in his book on page 49.
Cumings strikes me as an ardent anti-establishment scholar (for better or worse), who cloaks his leftist-critiques of conventional wisdom and the establishment in his reputation as a scholar who studies and writes on Asia. I’ve talked with other readers of Cumings asking why he isn’t treated in the same way other academics treat Noam Chomsky? No one likes being called a Chomskyite; but no such epithets exist for admirers of Cumings (Am I a Cumingsite?). As I briefly noted before, Cumings’ “alternative” interpretation of westward expansion and American hegemony in his latest book is certainly a different way of viewing American history and industrial-lead expansion and growth in the 19th and 20th century.
Cumings’s so-called “revisionist” interpretation of history is a breath of fresh air at times; but, like anything, it must be taken as the opinion of one scholar who is just as likely to be fallible as another. I haven’t read all of Cumings’ work – as it seems someone like Myers has – so my reserved praise for Cumings could be misplaced. I’ll stick by it for now, though.
 For a good example of Cumings’ focus on the average citizen, see “Chapter 7, The Virtues, II: The Democratic Movement, 1960-Present,” in Bruce Cumings Korea’s Place in the Sun: A Modern History (W.W. Norton & Company: New York, London, 2005): 342-403.
 For a contemporary discussion of the different theories “explaining” the Korean War, including Cumings’ “trap theory,” see James I. Matray, “Korea’s war at 60: A survey of the literature, Cold War History,” 2011, 11, no. 1: 99-129.
 Myers develops this more thoroughly in his book The Cleanest Race (Melville House: New York, 2010).
 See Carter Eckert Offspring of Empire: The Koch’ang Kims and the Colonial Origins of Korean Capitalism, 1876-1945 (University of Washington Press: Seattle and London, 1991).