North Korea is more rational than you think: An interview with Bruce Cumings
There is more to the hermit kingdom than is seen in the media
With the Olympic Winter Games right around the corner, tension on the Korean Peninsula is again the focal point of international affairs. After months of increasing provocation between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and U.S. President Donald Trump — highlighted by missile tests and sabre-rattling on both sides — signs of a rapprochement are emerging. In a newly struck deal, North Korea will send a delegation of athletes, officials, performers and supporters to Pyeongchang, the mountainous county in the South that will play host to the Games starting on February 9. In another diplomatic breakthrough, North and South Korea will march together under one flag at the opening ceremonies, and compete together on their first ever joint team. The two countries had originally displayed the Korean Unification flag at the 1991 World Table Tennis Championship.
Encouraging though this détente may be, to much of the Western world, North Korea is viewed as an implacable adversary; a tinpot dictatorship built on the suffering of a malnourished and virtually enslaved population. In fact, most Americans continue to hold an overwhelmingly negative attitude toward the country. According to Gallup, 87 per cent rate North Korea unfavourably, while 61 per cent view its military power as a critical threat to the vital interests of the United States. Other polls have found that nearly half of Americans would support “air strikes against military targets and suspected nuclear sites in North Korea.”
There is truth in alarmist warnings about the hermit kingdom (nuclear confrontation would be bad news for everyone), but they are customarily misleading and lack nuance. Perceptions of North Korea are often shaped by obsolete stereotypes, tropes, and false narratives reinforced by elected officials and pundits. Worse still, they belie a more sophisticated understanding of the complexities of the country’s political and economic systems, its nuclear ambitions, and importantly, its history. In the words of Charles K. Armstrong, author of Tyranny of the Weak: North Korea and the World, 1950–1992:
But for the North Koreans, living in fear of B-29 attacks for nearly three years, including the possibility of atomic bombs, the American air war left a deep and lasting impression. The [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] government never forgot the lesson of North Korea’s vulnerability to American air attack, and for half a century after the Armistice continued to strengthen anti-aircraft defenses, build underground installations, and eventually develop nuclear weapons to ensure that North Korea would not find itself in such a position again. The long-term psychological effect of the war on the whole of North Korean society cannot be overestimated. The war against the United States, more than any other single factor, gave North Koreans a collective sense of anxiety and fear of outside threats that would continue long after the war’s end.
Notwithstanding North Korea’s internal contradictions, its suppression of free speech, political organization, and human rights, it remains a complex entity that, when reduced to grotesque caricature as an “official enemy”, appears as an impenetrable enigma. This has the effect of limiting an understanding of the historical forces that continue to shape its reality, while simultaneously reducing the likelihood of an attitudinal shift within public and mainstream political consciousness.
The Olympic Winter Games have offered a glimpse of hope for North Korea and its relationship with the rest of the world, but diplomatic solutions will require a deeper level of awareness about the policies, actions, and mistakes that have brought the international community to this moment. For that, Canadian Dimension turned to Bruce Cumings, the Gustavus F. and Ann M. Swift Distinguished Service Professor in History, and former chair of the history department at the University of Chicago. A renowned expert on Korea, he is also a frequent contributor to the London Review of Books, the Nation, Current History, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, and Le Monde Diplomatique. His most recent book, released in 2010, is entitled The Korean War: A History. This interview took place on January 27, 2018.
Harrison Samphir: North Korea is, almost invariably, depicted as an aggressive totalitarian state that is an imminent danger to its neighbors and the West. Most media outlets paint Kim Jong-un — and the entire North Korean leadership — as a cabal of madmen bent on the destruction of the planet. Yet, even CIA officials have described Kim as a “rational actor” with a “clarity of purpose”, to borrow from International Relations theory.
Bruce Cumings: The media, particularly the American cable channels, have turned North Korea into a demonized pariah state and they’ve turned Kim Jong-un into a person they think is crazy. That’s rather unfortunate, but I come across it all the time. I was in Korea in November for a conference, [and] somehow we got to talking about who was more rational, Kim Jong-un or [Donald] Trump, and one Korean professor said that he thought Kim was ten times more rational than Trump, because the North Koreans have been in power for 70 years and they have established procedures for putting out statements and so on; they have a collective group of elders around Kim. What they do it very carefully calibrated, even if it’s bombastic, or it says the American imperialists ought to be nuked. The fact is that they have a careful vetting process for everything they say through the central news agency, whereas Trump, as we all know, essentially says anything that pops into his mind in these tweets. I don’t necessarily think Trump is irrational, but he’s a master of riveting the media on whatever it is he wants to talk about. I have to watch local channels to get the news, because CNN only wants to talk about Trump. So, I think North Korea is eminently rational from their point of view. Obviously, their point of view is very different from ours, but they’ve been fighting the same war since 1950, and they are carefully watching everything, and careful to say what they want to say.
HS: What are the most prevalent and enduring myths about North Korea and Korean history which pervade popular imagination today? To what extent are those perceptions shaped by what you call “Orientalist bigotry”?
BC: I think most of us have, even in spite of ourselves, Orientalist assumptions, deep down. And when we see a country like North Korea, or a leader with a bizarre haircut like Kim, it brings to the surface things that have been drummed into us by Hollywood, particularly movies about Asians made in the U.S. before about 1970 featuring actors like Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto. The other problem is that North Korea does a lot of do-it-yourself stereotyping, in that they want to project an image that the despot is in complete control, everybody is supporting him and loves him, and that the leader works wonders. Those kind of things that they project also feed into the stereotypes. So North Korea certainly contributes to this stereotyping, but I think it’s shameful that the cable channels and a lot of our media don’t do more investigative reporting. I try to find out what is really going on in North Korea instead of accepting or portraying the country as a bunch of goose-stepping automatons.
HS: Can you recommend a good piece of investigative reporting on North Korea?
BC: Barbara Demick’s book Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea. She’s an excellent Los Angeles Times reporter, and did a lot of nuanced and sensitive reporting on what was going on in North Korea — interviews with refugees and so on — and she’s a good example of an investigative reporter. South Korea also has much better reporting on North Korea than we [the U.S.] do, and much better scholarship, granted most of it is only available in Korean. So it is possible to understand North Korea much more than before the famine of the late-1990s, and before 30,000 refugees left the country.
HS: Canada hosted a North Korea summit in Vancouver on January 16, ostensibly to discuss sanctions and other tough measures — including naval interdiction — against Pyongyang, and how to coordinate an international response to instability on the Korean Peninsula. China considered the meeting to be “meaningless”, and reflective of “Cold War thinking”. What do you think are the main channels for resolving the nuclear issue in North Korea? Is a so-called ‘maximum pressure approach’ wrong-headed?
BC: That meeting in Vancouver, I thought, was just another American attempt to group as many countries together as a possible to put pressure on North Korea. China was right that it reflects Cold War thinking because those nations were part of the American effort in the Korean War. The major part of the fighting on the U.S. side was done by the Americans, some by the British and the Turks, and of course the South Koreans. But, by and large, Thailand and a variety of other countries had honour guards and provided aid. But the primary fighting was done by the Americans and South Koreans on one side, and the North Koreans and Chinese on the other. Back in the 1980s, there were attempts to get the United Nations to list the UN Commands in South Korea. You see American soldiers in blue UN Command t-shirts playing softball there, U.S. troops are still squatting under the UN Command. From a time in 1950 when the U.S. totally dominated the UN and the Soviets were boycotting it, and Taiwan had China’s Security Council seat, it was child’s play for the U.S. to round up a bunch of countries to support the war effort. So it’s a throwback, an anachronism, for Secretary of State [Rex] Tillerson to organize this meeting in Vancouver, which as far as I can tell accomplished nothing.
Secondly, the policy of maximum pressure has led to more sanctions on North Korea than I would have predicted. It’s the most sanctioned country in the world, and China is eager to team up with Trump on a whole host of issues, and has gone further than it ever has before, cutting off coal imports and reducing oil exports, but it won’t work. I mean, I agree with [Vladimir] Putin when he said the North Koreans will eat grass before they give up their nuclear weapons. The maximum pressure approach also has produced a lot of hardship for the average North Korean, but not the elite, and it could lead to war. Some of these actions, like embargoing oil, could be seen as acts of war, or boarding North Korean ships in ports where they are alleged to be picking up contraband. But none of this will stop the nuclear program.
HS: 38 North, a website operated by the U.S-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University, is a valuable resource for those seeking more in-depth reporting about North Korea. Why do even remotely positive stories about progress in the country never appear in the mainstream media?
BC: In the U.S. media, it’s really hard to see anything positive about North Korea. The only coverage are the worst, most sensationalized stories. The North Korean economy grew by about 4 per cent last year. Robert Carlin, who was a North Korean specialist in the State Department for many years and is now retired, visited North Korea last summer before the U.S. embargo banned visits by Americans, and said he was flabbergasted by the changes in Pyongyang. They put up block after block of high-rises, modern, contemporary buildings. There are markets all over the place. It’s not a market economy, but it’s coming close to what China and Vietnam are, which is heavy state involvement with state-owned enterprises, but more and more room for market activities. They’re still not there, obviously, and Vietnam and China are way beyond North Korea, but it’s a very good sign that the country is moving in that direction. Kim has also loosened up a lot in terms of daily life, including things like the way people dress. When you’d go there in the past, most people would be wearing their worker uniforms. Now, it’s completely buried. You see it in Kim’s wife, Ri Sol-ju, who’s a modern woman. You see it in the entertainers who now come to South Korea from the North, women wearing skirts and makeup and so on. So Kim has loosened restrictions on daily life, particularly in the capital, but also throughout the country, and that’s reassuring.
HS: In your recent article that appeared in the London Review of Books, you write that there is an “unwillingness on the part of Americans to look history in the face” and acknowledge their government’s role in fomenting instability and suffering in North Korea since the middle part of the twentieth century, and indeed earlier than that. Why is it so vital that we look back and understand where we came from, to comprehend where we are going?
HS: You dedicated your 2010 book, The Korean War: A History, to Kim Dae-jung, the former South Korean President who promoted the Sunshine Policy to soften tensions with North Korea. How do you see the relationship between the North and the South evolving?
BC: It’s gotten a lot better since Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s Day address which allowed him to cut through a lot of the tension by appearing to be conciliatory and welcoming the Olympics, which meant the Games would go ahead without threat of North Korean missiles and bombs, and offered to send a team or participate athletically and also offer entertainment. Those things have developed very nicely, and the current President Moon Jae-in is deeply interested in engaging with North Korea. Moon Jae-in realizes he can’t get too far away from American policy, he’s had a very difficult job trying to balance competing priorities between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump, but I think he’s done that very well. In spite of South Korea going along with all these sanctions, North Korea still wants to engage with them, so that’s all to the good. The Sunshine Policy was inaugurated in 1998, but it was the first time ever that a President showed respect to North Korea, engaged it, talked about reconciliation over several decades before unification, and it led to a decade of deepened involvement between North and South Korea, which was then reversed by two right-wing Presidents, Park Geun-hye and Lee Myung-bak, and now they have a progressive leader in again. I’m looking forward to what he does. Yet Americans and State Department officials still want to keep Moon on a “tight leash”, which is exactly how Americans look at South Korea; the country has to, above all, toe the line on American policy.
HS: You ended your recent piece in the London Review of Books by saying, “whatever else [Donald Trump] might be, he is unquestionably a maverick, the first president since 1945 not beholden to the Beltway. Maybe he can sit down with Mr Kim and save the planet.” Have your feelings changed at all since writing the article?
BC: No, they haven’t changed a bit. He [Donald Trump] is a maverick, you don’t know what he’s going to do from one day to the next. He has wrecked the State Department, and doesn’t really respect [Rex] Tillerson. The New York Times reported a few weeks ago that Tillerson was likely to resign early this year. We still have no Assistant Secretary for East Asian Affairs, we have no Ambassador, and so Trump is essentially running our foreign policy out of his hip pocket, but he says things that no previous President would ever say, because they’d be afraid of what the foreign policy establishment would think. For example, he’s said he’d sit down with Kim Jong-un. When this issue came up after his inauguration, for several months Trump saw a chance to have a splendid little war that he would win quickly and that would boost his popularity. I think in the past year he’s learned there’s no possibility of a splendid little war with North Korea, instead it would be a holocaust for the region and maybe the world. So it wouldn’t surprise me to see Trump fly off to Pyongyang or meet Kim Jong-un in Beijing or something like that. I’m not sure if it would lead to anything because American policy in the region revolves around the demand that North Korea denuclearize, and that’s not going to happen. We’re one year into the Trump presidency, and if you want my prediction, three years from now when he’s finished, we’ll still be in a stand-off with North Korea and they will still have their nuclear weapons and missiles.
HS: How has the East Asian foreign policy of the Obama administration changed (or not) since the election of Donald Trump?
BC: Well, Obama’s policy was basically to contain China in an indirect way by trying to get Japan and South Korea to work together with the U.S. to contain them, to put more anti-missle batteries in the region. Not onyl are those directed at North Korea, but also China as they continually warn. North Korea has always been, for maybe 20 years, a stalking horse for the Pentagon, in that they can blame North Korea for all sorts of things, when China is at least as important if not more important in trying to get an anti-missile system in east Asia,.
HS: No sitting U.S. president is known to have spoken with a North Korean leader. Why is it important that that changes?
BC: Jimmy Carter flew off to North Korea in 1994 when he was no longer President and he worked out the only major diplomatic agreement between North Korea and the United States since the Korean War, which was to freeze their entire plutonium facility and plutonium fuel rods, for what ended up being eight years until George W. Bush destroyed the agreement. If that agreement were still in force, North Korea would have no plutonium, so that was a master stroke, and it showed what can happen through direct diplomacy between the President, or previous Presidents, and the North Koreans. The planet, after all, is at risk.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.