Book Review: Bruce Cumings’ North Korea: Another Country

August 24th, 2012
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Bruce Cumings is the Chairperson of the History Department and Gustavus F. and Ann M. Swift Distinguished Service Professor in History and the College at the University of Chicago. In 1975, he received his PhD from Columbia University. Cumings’ professional and academic credentials make his compilation of complaints primarily in regard to the United States’ foreign and domestic policies and his fundamental admiration for North Korea in North Korea: Another Country (2004) especially grating to read because presumably he has the professional experience and academic training to produce a more informative, engaging book about North Korea for the general reader.

Cumings has written well-received scholarly books on Korean history, especially the Korean War. With North Korea: Another Country, however, he does not intend to write for other academics. Instead, he focuses on a readership with little or no familiarity with the history of North Korea or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), the Korean peninsula, and United States–Korea relations. By the end of Cumings’ 256-page book, that readership may have learned more about the aforementioned topics, but only tangentially and selectively. Unfortunately, Cumings has written a book sidetracked by his supercilious attitude.

In North Korea: Another Country, Cumings seeks to educate “the reader who wishes to learn about our eternal enemy” and wonders “if Americans can ever transcend their own experience and join a world of profound difference.” To help curious readers, even Americans, willingly enter his “world of profound difference,” the author divides the book into six chapters beginning with the brutality, particularly of the United States, during the Korean War and its continuous influence on North Korea; the history of North Korea’s nuclear program and the apparent intransigence of North Korea–United States negotiations over the former’s denuclearization; Kim Il Sung’s life, his fight for an independent Korea, and the appeal of anti-imperialism to North Koreans and Koreans overall; the history of daily life in the northern half of the Korean peninsula and the DPRK; Kim Jong Il’s life and dynamism as a leader; and the crises in North Korea, including floods, droughts, famine, and the collapse of its energy system, following the death of Kim Il Sung in 1994.

Throughout the six chapters, Cumings basically covers the modern history of north Korea and its relations with the United States to show that, contrary to Western narratives about the DPRK, the country is dynamic rather than static and more rational than not. Cumings’ objective, to increase public awareness of North Korea as a somewhat knowable country and to combat perceptions of North Korea as a hopelessly backward, mysterious country, is very worthwhile and admirable. His execution of that objective maybe well-intentioned, but it is also meandering and overbearing. Often, Cumings seems more interested in using North Korea as a lens through which to contemptuously mention and criticize the United States and whatever or whoever else annoys him; this habit frequently detracts from his attempts to educate others as completely as possible, about North Korea.

For example, early on Cumings notes a 1999 CIA study that according to him, “almost grudgingly acknowledged various achievements of this regime: compassionate care for children in general and war orphans in particular; ‘radical change’ in the position of women; genuinely free housing; free health care, and preventive medicine; and infant mortality and life expectancy rates comparable to the most advanced countries until the recent famine.” Rather than clarify whether the CIA study “grudgingly acknowledged various achievements” of the North Korean government in a vacuum, in comparison to other Communist states, or even South Korea, Cumings appears to reference the study mainly to underscore the hypocrisy of the United States, where the government and the press relentlessly pigeonholes North Korea as “our” evil Oriental enemy as, at one point, the CIA documents positive socioeconomic developments in North Korea.

Cumings does not bother to examine, point by point, the trajectory of North Korea’s early achievements in social welfare and gender equality. North Korea’s “compassionate care for children in general and war orphans in particular” led to the creation of Mangyondae Revolutionary School, initially chiefly for the education of the next generation’s political elite, the children whose parents died in the Korean War. In addition, in contrast to South Korea’s post-Korean War policy of “exporting” orphans, resulting in approximately 150,000 adopted ethnic Koreans in more than 20 Western countries, Kim Il Sung encouraged domestic adoption of the country’s war orphans although from 1951–52 at least, an estimated 2,500 North Korean war orphans were adopted in several Eastern European Communist countries, such as Poland, Bulgaria, and Czechoslovakia, as well as Hungary and Mongolia. However, the recent famine also contributed to the creation of 200,000 orphans, many becoming ‘kotchebis’ or “ wandering swallows,” street urchins living off black markets in North Korea and/or relying on crossing into the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in order to scavenge for food.

Also, while North Korea for instance, on July 30, 1946 announced the enactment of the “Status on Gender Equality” with Clause I stating, “In all areas of the country’s economic, cultural and social political life, women have the same rights as men,” in terms of political power, as of 2001, women represented about 20% of the Supreme People’s Assembly, all in symbolic posts. In 1990, there were only 14 women members of 328 members in the policy-making Central Committee and the Alternative Members of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party. In addition, in the mid-1980s, North Korean defectors claimed about 60–70% of women quit their jobs after marriage.

Yet at the same time, North Korean women may have earned or earn more than 70% of the male income level. Notably, in 2010, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) reported South Korean women earned 38% less than the male income level and South Korea had the largest income gender gap in the developed world. Similarly, a Beijing Broadcast Agency report on March 6, 1988 announced a gradual increase in the number of highly educated women professionals in North Korea from the 1970s-80s. In 1963, 43,000 of about 294,000 specialists in North Korea were women. In the 1970s, there were 1,310,000 specialists in North Korea and 463,000 were women with about 220 having doctorate or semi-doctorate degrees. Most recently, in 1989, approximately 37% of the 1,350,000 specialists in North Korea are women. Women in North Korea then, are not brainwashed and incapable zombies for non-North Koreans, particularly Americans, to pity or scorn.

Cumings wants to humanize not only North Korean women, but North Koreans in general. Presumably, as a Westerner fortunate enough to have already entered the previously mentioned “world of profound difference,” he thinks and behaves just as, if not more, empathetically and respectfully toward North Koreans as anyone else. His characterization of his experience at the North Korean Museum of the Revolution, however, perfectly encapsulates the contrast between Cumings’ non-stop moralizing and his condescending tone throughout North Korea: Another Country. Commenting on one exhibit of gifts given to Kim Il Sung by foreign dignitaries, Cumings writes,

“My guide, a young woman whose English was less than fluent, paused in front of a glass-encased chimpanzee, and began to instruct me in a sing-song voice that ‘the Gleat Reader’ had received this taxidermic specimen from one Canaan Banana, vice president of Zimbabwe. I dissolved into hysterics and could not stop laughing as she continued to intone her mantra without dropping a single (mangled) syllable.”

Cumings is considered a “progressive” academic. His ostensible liberalism and unique ability to “transcend” his own experience does not make him a less dogmatic, petty person as demonstrated by his paragraph-long mockery of a North Korean woman’s English accent—obviously not up to his standards. Finally, Cumings presents himself as a person and a historian of Korean history (unable or unwilling to speak Korean fluently) who considers Korea and the United States equals culturally and socially, and in an ideal world, politically as well. Following the “cultural exchange” Cumings describes at the Museum of the Revolution, though, who had the privilege of publicly ridiculing and contributing to negative public perceptions of the “Other?” The young, female North Korean tour guide? Or Cumings, an older white guy with a comfortable job at a prestigious American university?

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About the Author

Sophia Solivio



Join the discussion

  • Guest

    It was a waste of time to read this article twice: First, trying to figure out what the problems were with the book being reviewed and second time to confirm that there was nothing really substantive in the review. Please mention something about the reviewer like for example the NY Times does – who they are, where they work, etc.

  • Guest Who

    It was a waste of time to read your comment about this review. Please mention something about yourself, such as your home, the turd-smeared and piss-scented rock you managed to crawl out from under, like for example the EAT A$$ Times does – who you are, where you don’t work, etc.

  • AmeriKKKaisAlQaeda

    Nice review. Something to keep in mind also is that Cumings has a (South) Korean wife. The DPRK knows this about him, and even had one of their women mess with him on one of his trips. He describes it in one of his other books, War and Television (also really good).