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Pacific Rim Report No. 18, March 2001
The Korean Peninsula at the Dawn of a New Era
A discussion with Bruce Cumings


The Kiriyama Pacific Rim Briefing recorded in this issue of Pacific Rim Report was held on December 6, 2000 on the Lone Mountain campus of the University of San Francisco.

Bruce Cumings is Norman and Edna Freehling Professor of International History and East Asian Political Economy at the University of Chicago. His research and teaching focus on 20th century international history, U.S.-East Asian relations, East Asian political economy, modern Korean history, and American foreign relations. Cumings is currently a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University.

In his written works, Cumings has explored the multiplicity of ways that conceptions, metaphors, and discourses are related to political economy and material forms of production, and to relations between “East and West.” His publications include: The Origins of the Korean War (2 vols., Princeton University Press, 1981, 1990); War and Television (Verso, 1993);
Korea's Place in the Sun: A Modern History (Norton, 1997); Parallax Visions: American-East Asian Relations at the End of the Century (Duke University Press, 1999).

His current project is a book entitled
Industrial Behemoth: The Northeast Asian Political Economy in the 20th Century, which explores the industrialization of Japan, both Koreas, Taiwan and parts of China, and the ways that scholars and political leaders have thought about that development.

In conversation with Dr. Cumings, Marsha Vande Berg has worked for major U.S. dailies, in television, and as an editorial consultant. She has taught at the University of California, Berkeley, and she is a member of the German Quandt Foundation’s Transatlantic Forum. She was also a 1997 Salzburg Media Seminar fellow.

Vande Berg’s education includes a Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University and an M.A. from Duke University.

We gratefully acknowledge the Kiriyama Chair for Pacific Rim Studies at the USF Center for the Pacific Rim for funding this issue of Pacific Rim Report.

Marsha Vande Berg (Vande Berg): I am really honored to be in this chair across from Bruce Cumings because he brings us such a wealth of experience at a time when Korea is very much in the news and on the minds of Americans and of people around the world as well. The president of South Korea leaves tomorrow to go to Oslo to claim his Nobel Peace Prize, and talk about reunification continues apace.

Bruce, I understand you are on your way to Japan and then Korea for a conference and possibly a dinner with President Kim Dae-jung right after the New Year.

Bruce Cumings (Cumings): Thank you so much, Marsha. It is always a pleasure to come to the University of San Francisco. I would also like to thank [Executive Director of the Center for the Pacific Rim] Barbara Bundy for the invitation to return here to the very idyllic Lone Mountain campus, and thank all of you for coming tonight as well.

The subject of the conference I will be attending in Seoul is the relationship between the two Koreas, which has seen remarkable change in a rather short time, starting with the summit meeting between Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong-il last June. Certainly, this year as a whole has been one of tremendous progress and change in both Koreas and in the possibilities for both reconciliation and reunification, so I am very anxious to go to Seoul again and to be able to meet with President Kim Dae-jung after he collects his very well-deserved Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo.

In terms of American involvement, there have been dramatic developments, from the very high level visits last fall that took many Americans by surprise, bringing President Clinton together with Vice Marshal Cho Myong-nok, the number two man in North Korea in the Oval Office, to Secretary of State Madeline Albright walking off the plane in Pyongyang for the first-ever visit to North Korea by any really high American official. From North Korea’s standpoint it has also been quite a year. Starting in January last year the North Koreans went on a kind of diplomatic offensive, opening up relations with many of our allies and friends—the Philippines, Canada, Italy, Germany, Great Britain—and they are talking with the French, the Japanese, and with us about normal diplomatic relations. For a country which has always had an ‘abnormal’ relationship with the world going back to its founding in1948, it is really terribly important that North Korea has embarked on this path.

Vande Berg: I sense an optimism behind your remarks, Bruce, and my own sense was that things had been looking a little dim. The missile talks between the U.S. and North Korea had really come to a standstill, the Japanese were having a little attack of cold feet, President Kim was needing to balance domestic economic issues with the implementation of his Sunshine Policy of opening up to the North, and there were questions about Kim Jong-il and the real nature of his intentions. What is driving this dramatic shift?

Cumings: Well, I think that Kim Dae-jung has been driving this whole process for almost three years now. I went to his inauguration in February 1998, and in his inaugural address President Kim fundamentally transformed South Korean policy toward the North. In particular, he essentially recognized the existence of North Korea as a state and called for peaceful coexistence between the two Koreas, which was entirely new; neither state had ever recognized the other in any way, shape, or form. He also pledged himself to support diplomatic normalization between the North and both Japan and the United States. A few months later, in June 1998, he came to Washington and called for an end to the 50 year-old American economic embargo against North Korea, the first important person to do that since the Korean War. I am probably somewhat biased, but he has really been driving the process and I am full of praise for him.

Not only has Kim been driving the relationship with North Korea, but you will remember that a few years ago the South Korean economy was essentially bankrupt and the Wall Street Journal was quite worried about the prospect of this ‘radical’ Kim Dae-jung coming to power in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the end of the Korean War, and generally the people in Washington were anxious, too.

Well, the Korean economy grew about 10% last year, and it is going to grow about 9% this year; unemployment went up as a result of layoffs, but it is now down around 4% again. So, it is really remarkable that he has been able to carry out reforms within Korea, especially of the giant corporations, and not have labor unrest in the streets. I think he gets very high marks for that. He has really become a leader among emerging democratic nations, or would-be ones like Burma, where he has been a very strong supporter of Aung San Suu Kyi through various organizations that he actually set up quite a while ago. So, his Nobel Peace Prize was not just awarded because of the Sunshine Policy towards the North, but also because of his long struggle against dictatorship in Korea and his support for many other people struggling for democracy around the world. In that sense it was really a wonderful thing that he got it because he is an excellent example of what can be done when you finally achieve power after suffering in the wilderness for many, many years.

Vande Berg: Then the force of his personality is what inspires your optimism?

Cumings: Well, Kim Dae-jung does not impress Americans as having a terribly compelling personality; he is a formal, some might say a ‘Confucian’ gentleman. But I remember when he was younger, I had never seen a Korean politician who could fire up a crowd the way he could. Although he had a real charisma within the Korean context, I wouldn’t attribute his effectiveness to his personality as such, but rather to his now being a person in his mid-70s who has lived his entire life in a divided Korea. He comes from an area in the southwest of the country that has been deprived and, from the standpoint of the people there, oppressed. In that sense he just has a tremendous fund of experience.

Vande Berg: He now has less than two years left in his term and needs to have parliamentary approval for each step of any agreement with the North. How is Kim Dae-jung as a politician?

Cumings: Outside of Korea people tend to think quite highly of Kim Dae-jung, while judging from newspapers in his own country, Koreans can be very critical of him even though his popularity ratings remain quite high. He does have a very full agenda of things he wants to accomplish. He has said in particular, and I believe this is very important for understanding what is going on today, that he wants to end the Korean War.

I think most Americans, if they know anything about it at all, believe that the war ended in 1953. But the Korean War has never been anything more than an extended hostility with an armistice that is now in tatters, really, and no peace treaty or even agreement. Yet I think that the stars are aligned in a way that they haven’t been since 1953 for really bringing a final end to the conflict, and that is completely achievable in his view. Unification, meanwhile, is something that he believes should be put off for another 20 or 30 years, which is unfortunate in one sense, but in another sense is quite realistic.

Vande Berg: Your description of Kim Dae-jung makes me think of Willi Brandt. He thought there could be co-existence between East and West Germany and it was on that basis that he initiated his policy of Ostpolitik which led to his own Nobel Peace Prize.

Cumings: I do think that this is a good parallel because Ost Politik began a good 30 years before the two Germanies were unified, but it had the immediate effect of increasing contacts across the border. In order for North Korea to be brought out of its isolation, something like that has to happen, and it has to happen for close to a generation, I think.

Vande Berg: In your book you relate an interesting story from a meeting you had with Kim Dae-jung in 1985. Perhaps you would care to give us some flavor of your relationship with him over the years.
Cumings: In 1973 I was giving some summer courses at the University of Washington, and Kim Dae-jung came through in July, one month before he was kidnapped in Tokyo and nearly killed by the Korean Central Intelligence Agency.

Vande Berg: In a very dramatic set of circumstances, as I recall.

Cumings: Yes, it was unbelievable. They were going to put his feet in concrete and chains and drop him in the Japan Sea.

Anyway, I was active in a local human rights group at the time which invited Kim Dae-jung to dinner. In a much smaller group than is in this room now, with everyone speaking in Korean, he gave a very long presentation of his religious views. Although I had seen television footage of him as a politician, of him rallying people in the 1971 election when he received 46% of the vote in an election whose irregularities were far more serious than a few ‘hanging chads’, in this private setting, speaking from the heart, it was clear that here was a person who was not only political but also retained his ideals. This was impressive at a time when few Americans had any respect for politicians.

Now I have a bridge in Seoul to sell anyone who does not accept that this man is not a Machiavellian politician, but he was interested in doing something with the power he obtained. And he has, now that he has achieved his life-long goal of being South Korea’s president.

In 1985 I was part of an international delegation of Americans and others who accompanied Kim Dae-jung back to Seoul to provide him a bit of protection in a situation similar to that in which Benigno Aquino was murdered on the tarmac of Manila airport in 1983. I believed that no one was going to murder Kim Dae-jung—although some of the other members of the delegation were not so sure—but when we got to Kimpo Airport Kim Dae-jung was roughly removed from our group and placed under house arrest. He remained closely guarded in his home, all of his communications were monitored, and he was, of course, forbidden to publish anything.

This was Kim Dae-jung’s first visit to Korea since {the violent government suppression of student protests in] Kwang-ju five years earlier, and the streets from Kimpo airport into Seoul were lined on the one side by riot police in ‘Darth Vader’ helmets and on the other by a huge mass of people, many of them poor, welcoming Kim Dae-jung back to the country.

Vande Berg
: The two Koreas are eventually going to be unified. What about North Korean leader Kim Jong-il? Does he have any ‘charisma’ of his own? Please give us a feel for him as a person and also for the political situation he is up against.

Cumings: Well, his father, Kim Il-song, had a very strong personality, to say the least, and he dominated North Korean politics in a way that no other politician in the world has ever dominated a country. His son is often thought not to have the kind of powerful personality that his father had. Kim Il-song was also a very large man and was dominant even among the other very strong figures around him as he came to power. His son is much less physically imposing.

I had an interesting experience when I first visited North Korea in 1981. Since there really is no night life in Pyongyang, and they never know what to do with foreign visitors in the evening, they would show films in the hotels. One of the films I saw was about the Sixth Korean Workers Party Congress in 1980. The Sixth Party Congress might not sound very interesting, but it was at that meeting that Kim Jong-il was unveiled as his father’s successor, and it was fascinating to watch. Subsequently I was trying to exit Korea through the Soviet Union so I could take the Trans-Siberian Railway and I went to the Soviet embassy in Pyongyang to get a visa. Instead of being given a visa, I was taken to an embassy official, probably a KGB officer, who sat me down in mid-afternoon, gave me some cognac, and asked me what I was doing in North Korea. Over the course of these discussions, which went on for three days—no visa, but plenty of cognac—I mentioned that I had watched the Sixth Party Congress film and that Kim Jong-il struck me as not at all a powerful personality; in fact, he looked very dour and depressed. The KGB officer said, “Oh, you Americans are always thinking about personality! Did you notice that when Kim Jong-il stood up everybody else stood up, when he sat down everybody else sat down, and when he clapped everybody else clapped? You should come back in about 40 years and watch his son come to power.” I don’t know if that is going to happen, and frankly I hope it doesn’t, but it struck me that he was right. Many Americans—and others—have been wrong to think that the North Koreans would spend 25 years grooming a successor who was a drunk, or a nutcase, or a playboy, or a terrorist as he has been characterized by both the American and Korean Central Intelligence Agencies.

Such mistaken impressions became quite a problem though when Kim Dae-jung, and Madeline Albright for that matter, went to Pyongyang and found out that Kim Jong-il is a person with whom you can have a wide-ranging and deeply well-informed conversation. I don’t think that there is anything the Koreans as a culture take more care with than grooming their children to take over the family firm, or take over the running of the household, or, in the case of North Korea, to take over the running of the country. So it would be impossible, no matter what you think of North Korea, for Kim Il-song to have promoted a son who was not up to the task, or was mentally unstable, or anything like that.

Vande Berg: Kim Jong-il seems a shrewd negotiator and I wonder if this does not lead to some suspicion about his motives. For instance, the discussions with the U.S. broke down over North Korean demands for a billion dollars a year in exchange for North Korea halting their missile exports. Could he simply be using his weapons exports for leverage to get more money just to cure his domestic problems? Is he really committed to rapprochement with the South, even if that might result in the sort of ‘absorption’ of the North that happened to East Germany?

Cumings: Well, I don’t think that his trustworthiness or his lack of it is really much of an issue in the kind of negotiations that have been going on recently.

The 1994 October Framework Agreement that froze the North Korean nuclear facility at Yongbyon (where they had a graphite reactor making fuel that could have been reprocessed into weapons-grade plutonium) was negotiated in such a way that at every stage, if the North Koreans did not do what they had agreed to do, the agreement was finished. And that agreement went forward to the point where the fuel rods they removed from the reactor, which were the only source of plutonium they had, are now encased in concrete and under international control. Luckily we finally have some people who know a great deal about both Koreas. The negotiators who have done much of this work are, in some cases, people my age and people whom I know, who were in the Peace Corps when I was, or who were trained as Koreanists a long time ago, and they are very experienced. These people absolutely do not trust the North Koreans unless they have a way to make sure that they do what they say they are going to do.

Many North Koreans I have met are very serious people and they can be absolutely obstinate in what they want. But in recent years they have been in a real ‘survival mode’; their economy has almost completely collapsed, and, as you all know, they have had a famine that has been running now for several years. As a result they are, out of necessity, reaching out to South Korea, the United States, Japan, and other countries. Just today I was reading that a North Korean negotiator said their diplomatic offensive and their reconciliation with the South were irreversible. I am not so sure that they are, but it is nice to hear them say that.

Vande Berg: One remarkable bit of news that came out of the negotiations in June was that the North Koreans would be willing to accept the continued presence of U.S. troops in the South.

Cumings: I think that is probably the most important factor in the U.S.-North Korean rapprochement that is going on. There are really three pre-conditions for what has happened and for why Kim Dae-jung’s policies have been successful. One is that the North did not collapse after the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union disintegrated. Although predictions that they would collapse have been made constantly over the last ten years, at some point in the 1990s both the United States and the Republic of Korea realized that the North was going to be around much longer than they had expected and therefore had to be dealt with as it is.

The second pre-condition is the fact that Kim Dae-jung told the North Koreans from his inaugural onward that he did not favor a German-style unification policy, meaning an absorption of the North under the rule of law as interpreted in the Republic of Korea. The North Koreans are very much afraid of being swallowed by the South and have said so many times. The German idea of unification would mean an erasure of their laws, their history, their government, and all the people who were in that government. So, what Kim did by pledging himself to peaceful coexistence and using phrases about needing to let the North Korean people have their dignity (something no South Korean leader had done before), really gave the North a certain security to reach out rather than to hunker down the way they had been doing since 1989.

The third pre-condition is the recognition by specialists at least three years ago that North Korea might be willing to tolerate the continuing presence of American troops in South Korea. This issue has come up many times in informal conversations with North Koreans, but it came up directly when Kim Jong-il essentially said as much to Kim Dae-jung at the summit meeting in June. I had a meeting with Kim Dae-jung last February where I asked him what he thought of that idea. He said that American forces remaining on the peninsula during the reconciliation, and even beyond that, was critically important.

Now, there is some hostility towards American forces in the South, as you know, and there have been demonstrations over the years, but from the standpoint of official South Korean and American policies, they all want the troops to stay. U.S. Defense Secretary Cohen has said explicitly that he wants to keep troops in Korea even after unification. I think that all parties—the two Koreas, the United States, and also Japan—agree on this issue because Korea faces an unprecedented situation in its modern history which is that Japan and China are both strong at the same time. I have long been a critic of maintaining ground troops in Korea, but if those troops contribute in the short run to achieving a reconciliation with the North and the North wants them to stay, I am not going to voice a lot of opposition.

If the United States were to withdraw its forces, a balance of power rivalry would begin almost immediately, and Korea might well be the victim of that rivalry, just as it was 100 years ago. So, one can see the Realpolitik logic for the United States and the two Koreas viewing the American troop contingent as a real counter-balance, and the American government as an honest broker between the North and the South.

Vande Berg: What is the Japan dimension to that?

Cumings: Our troop contingent in Korea is closely connected to our troops in Japan; the Marine Division on Okinawa is really there because of a Korea rather than a Japan contingency. As long as our troops remain in Korea, Japan stays within the 1940s post-war settlement and doesn’t have to ask itself what kind of defense it would muster if it had to. I think that although the troops are still a very neuralgic point on Okinawa, and there are many good reasons why the troops should come home, from the standpoint of American strategy, our leaders and Korean leaders want them to stay. I think this is a really important development, especially since the North Koreans have been shouting themselves hoarse for 55 years to get American troops out of the South.

Vande Berg: The Japan-Korea relationship is very special and laden with so much history. What about that relationship in light of the rapprochement between the North and the South?

Cumings: As you know, relations between Korea and Japan have been characterized by extraordinary hostility through much of the past century. Many Koreans, for very good reasons, still deeply resent what the Japanese did as imperialists in Korea, and they resent the failure of the Japanese to reflect properly on that unfortunate history since 1945. It is curious that Japanese leaders show all kinds of concern about China and the depredations that Japan caused there, but they are much more insensitive about Korea. But things have changed recently, and Kim Dae-jung is largely responsible for this.

He went to Japan right after he was inaugurated in 1998 and, as he did with North Korean relations, he sort of wiped the slate clean, saying, “We are looking at the 21st century; why should we always be looking back at the 20th century? Let’s start anew.” That did wonders and set off a new and much more congenial relationship between the Republic of Korea and Japan. He has also been bringing the U.S., Japan, and South Korea into very effective coordination of their respective policies toward the North.

Still, the Japanese have been dragging their feet on normalization, and there are a number of reasons for that. Among other things they have a great deal to negotiate with the North, including allegations that the North Koreans have kidnapped individual Japanese over the years, and that North Korea has been sheltering Red Army Faction terrorists that came from Japan. Nonetheless, I think that now, with Kim Dae-jung’s efforts and some American prodding, Japan is probably much more serious about normalizing relations with the North than ever before.

Vande Berg: Is there something on the horizon that could break the apparent logjam in this normalization process?

Cumings: I think that if the North Korean missile program can be permanently shut down, it would be a big breakthrough for all parties, especially for the Japanese. In late 1998 North Korea launched a three-stage missile over northern Honshu, the main island of Japan. It entered the stratosphere over Japan, but you would think that it just cleared the treetops in Tokyo the way the Japanese talked about it. They had no idea the North Koreans could send a missile 1200 hundred miles downrange, and it really panicked them. In my opinion the North Koreans did that mostly to celebrate Kim Jong-il’s accession to total power and the 50th anniversary of the regime. I don’t think they really realized how much the world would recoil in fear at what they had done, but in September 1999 they agreed to a moratorium on any more missile testing and as you noted, they have offered their missile program for sale. You get different figures, from a half a billion to a billion dollars a year. That may sound quite crass, but that is the only export that North Korea has that reliably brings in such large amounts of hard currency.

Vande Berg
: Is a billion dollars a year too much?

Cumings: It isn’t too much when you look at how much the U.S. has spent to dismantle nuclear weapons in Kazakhstan, for example, or if you look at the enormous cost of the national missile defense (NMD) system that has been proposed—for years been focused on this North Korean threat—and which Governor Bush promises to make even bigger if he becomes president. I think maybe the Pentagon wishes the North Koreans would test another missile so they would have a good chance of getting NMD approved. But the Chinese in particular were outraged at the North’s missile test and brought a lot of weight to bear on the North Koreans not to do it again because it had the effect of making the Japanese suddenly wake up and think that perhaps theater missile defense (TMD) would be a good thing for them, whereupon people started to say that it would be pretty good for Taiwan, too. And the Chinese don’t at all want these things to happen.

I think the North Korean missile program is a bargaining chip just as their nuclear program is. I don’t think they really want a full panoply of missiles, and they know their whole country would be devastated if they ever hit South Korea, the U.S., or Japan with a missile. But I do think they want rapprochement, and they are using whatever bargaining chips they have in what is, from their standpoint, a rather effective way. So, I think the United States is moving in the direction of buying this missile program, but they are not able to say that; they will give the North aid in some other form and say it is not related to the missile program.

Vande Berg: The North Koreans are said to have significant military capability and the fifth-largest standing army in the world.

Cumings: Yes. It is important to understand how significant the lessening of tensions on the peninsula really is. North Korea is a garrison state the likes of which the world has never seen. Although most of their weaponry is obsolescent, they do possess massive firepower, and they will fight rather than disappear. When it looked like there might be a war in June 1994, the American commander in Korea told President Clinton that he would need 100,000 body bags just for the Americans killed in a war that he thought would take six months to win, and for Koreans, millions would die.

Vande Berg: Do you think that the twenty- and thirty-somethings in North Korea care much about the issues that have divided the country? Are their aspirations anything like those of their counterparts in the South?

Cumings: I think that the twenty-something generation in North Korea probably wants anything but what they have had. For the people in their 40s and 50s, whose careers have advanced as Kim Jong-il’s ascension to power has progressed, they want reform, but they want to hold on to their power, too, and I think that Kim Dae-jung has been smart to say that unification will come only after a prolonged period of federated autonomy for the North.

There has been a lot of experience now of Asian communist countries that have reformed without the Communist Party being thrown out of power, China and Vietnam in particular. I finally visited Vietnam last April, where you see all kinds of small scale private enterprise, but the Party still holds power, especially in Hanoi, while at the same time Ho Chi Minh City [Saigon] is a very free-wheeling place. I think this kind of model impresses North Koreans with the idea that they can sort of have their cake and eat it, too, that they can hold on to power for quite a while and also get their economy moving.

Vande Berg: How much penetration is there into the North from other parts of Asia and from the West?

Cumings: The elites in Pyongyang have something called the ‘Reference News’ which contains articles from the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Washington Post, etc., so they are much better informed than most people think. The general population has a lot of information trickling down to it by word of mouth, but that tends to get very distorted. Certainly the regime tries to keep most of its people in a kind of vacuum of information about the outside world, except as the government filters that information. But the spectacle of Kim Dae-jung coming to Pyongyang, having this meeting with Kim Jong-il on television, and interacting with him so effectively and very much in a Korean style was a lesson to people on both sides of the border. Just the fact that Kim Jong-il walked behind Kim Dae-jung as the South Korean president came off the plane and reviewed the honor guard was enough to undermine the commonly held belief in the South that the North Koreans are a bunch of barbarians and understand nothing of Korean culture, which is exactly the opposite of the truth; indeed, in some ways North Korea is more culturally conservative than the South, I think. This made a strong impression, even on very harsh critics of the Sunshine Policy in the South.

Vande Berg: Before I give our wonderful audience a chance to answer come questions, I would like to ask just one last question. The general impression of most Americans is that the Korean War was an international conflict, but you describe it as a civil war. Could you give us the benefit of your insight here?

Cumings
: I wanted to look at the Korean War not as something that came like a lightening bolt on a Sunday morning as Pearl Harbor did, which is the way that most Americans understood it. At the time they didn’t know much about Korea, and then suddenly we were in a war there and off our troops went. I wanted to look back at the internal origins of the war, not just in the period from 1945 to 1950, but going back into Korea’s colonial experience. I came out of that with indelible judgements. North Korea was not the Soviet puppet that it was always portrayed to be. No matter what you said about the North Korean leadership, you had to grant that those people at the top had fought against the Japanese, and if you were Korean you had to respect them at some level; they could be awful communists and all that, but they were not puppets without roots in Korea.

And in the South, although Syngman Rhee had been in Washington for 30 years, and the regime was one of America’s most favored allies, the first government of the first republic was staffed by many people who had served in the Japanese colonial administration. The information on this is abundant in the archives of the three-year American military government, which was very well documented. It is not a question of whether or not I knew these things to be true, it was a matter of how I could say so considering that the Republic of Korea was our favored ally and had defended against communism, and where North Korea was a country that often seemed to do everything possible to alienate everybody else. The origins of the war lie as much or more in these differences as they do in any other factors.

Vande Berg: Thank you very much, Bruce, for sharing your insights with us. Now, let’s take some questions from our very patient audience.

Audience Member: You mention a 20 to 30-year wait for reunification. Why not two or three years? Is this figure just a negotiating device by the South? Why shouldn’t we expect something faster?

Cumings: Well, it would be nice if we could get quicker resolution, but this process has actually already been going on since 1989, with the expectation by many Koreans that unification was just around the corner, fueled by a kind of euphoria which developed after the Soviet Union collapsed because many Southerners could not believe that North Korea would be able to sustain itself for long.

At that time I was writing an occasional column for the Kyunghyang Shinmun in Seoul, and I wrote that in spite of all this euphoria I did not think that North Korea was going to collapse or that the peninsula was going to be unified very quickly, and I suddenly got all these phone calls from friends and relatives in Korea asking why I didn’t just keep my mouth shut if I couldn’t say anything positive. Unfortunately, I was right and they were wrong. People came to understand that a quick reunification could not occur, given the North Korean system, without a complete collapse or a war. Today, I still think it is prudent to wait. Not only would it be quite expensive for South Korea if they had to build or rebuild North Korea’s infrastructure, but I don’t think the North Koreans are anywhere near ready to have a reunification that would really mean something.

The reason the North wants American troops to stay is, one, to keep the South from swallowing them, and two, to police the border the same way that the Hong Kong-China border is policed even three years after China’s resumption of sovereignty, so that only those with passports can cross into Hong Kong, thus preventing tens of millions of people from simply moving there over night. In the case of North Korea, if people are free to go where they want, most people will leave because of the country’s economic catastrophe. So, there has to be some sort of controlled reconciliation process that will last quite a while. And, one thing that the North Korean leaders know how to do is to hold on to power. In late 1950, at the very same time as the U.S. Army were scooping up the documents I later reviewed, the North Korean leadership were holed up in a small town on the Chinese border while we rained down some of the largest bombs we have ever dropped trying to destroy them, while their full territory was occupied by the enemy. Yet, not only did they survive, but Kim Il-song, who was responsible for the war, survived, and his leadership survived. So, I would never underestimate these people.

Audience Member: How enthusiastic is China about this reunification process?

Cumings
: Not very. They are anxious for North Korea to develop ties with the rest of the world, in part so that China won’t have to be giving them so much aid, especially the huge amounts of food aid that China has been quietly sending them in recent years. They see North Korea as an essential buffer state. I don’t think they would be willing to fight to keep U.S. troops off their border in the event of reunification, but the divided peninsula keeps American forces in South Korea, well away from their frontier.

At the same time the Chinese have done a lot to push North Korea out of its shell, and to push North Korea and the United States together. Many of the early discussions between their diplomats and ours took place in Beijing, and Kim Jong-il made one his rare visits to the Chinese capital just before the summit, so China is very important in this whole process.

But, it has just begun to dawn on the Chinese that Korea could be unified, or that there could be a long process of North Korea coming out of its shell, and with peaceful coexistence on the peninsula, but that American troops wouldn’t go home. The Chinese would like the troops to leave, and I believe they thought that the end result of their pressure on North Korea to open up would be that the U.S. would take its troops home. So, China is now worried that there is no end point to American involvement in the area, and we will have to see if in the next few years China backs off on supporting this rapprochement, but so far they haven’t and they have actually been very supportive of Kim Dae-jung. Certainly one thing is different in the past decade from all previous decades: there is an awful lot of horizontal diplomacy in Northeast Asia that didn’t exist before. In the past all of such efforts would go through the U.S. State Department and negotiations would take place under our auspices, often in Washington, but now Kim Dae-jung goes to Beijing, or to Tokyo, and the other leaders come to Seoul, so that is very good.

Audience Member: How would you expect America’s Korea policy to change under a Republican administration, with Colin Powell as Secretary of State and Condoleeza Rice as National Security Advisor?

Cumings
: Well, I have had to write several articles regarding this question over the last few weeks without knowing whether it will be a Democrat or Republican administration. What I have said is that at least in this sense Ralph Nader might have been right, that it is ‘Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee’ when it comes to East Asia policy. I don’t think that a Bush administration would try to change the rapprochement with the North, and I would think that Colin Powell would be even more reticent than his predecessors were in 1994 about getting into a war again in Korea.

The Republicans have said that they are not going to go back to a policy of isolating North Korea, and indeed Bush’s father was the man under whom high-level talks with the North Koreans were initiated in January 1991. So, I think that Bush would pursue a very centrist foreign policy, and in Northeast Asia Kim Dae-jung will continue to be the main catalyst for change. He is not going to take no for an answer or return to confrontation, no matter who is in Washington.

Audience Member: I am an East German, and in that unification process, East Germany totally lost out to its western partner. There was another unification in Vietnam, a military unification, and there, so to speak, the West lost out. I can understand what South Korea hopes to gain from the unification, but what about the North?

Cumings: The North definitely wants to avoid an East German situation, where some of their former leaders went on trial or ended up in exile. I do think the Vietnam outcome would be North Korea’s dream, with unification under their own auspices, but the North Koreans have given up all hope that the country could be unified under their own system as it has existed so far. In any case, I think they do hope that they can have a sort of reciprocal influence on the South, and that they can push the South away from their alliances, and that a unified Korea would be much more autonomous, even neutralized, so to speak, in terms of world politics.

The situation now is that the North has to accept the best terms it can get in the interest of survival. The most distinct risk in what is going on now is that they would achieve a sort of ‘soft landing’, their economy would revive, and then they would return to a policy of confrontation, and Korea will remain divided for another generation. But I still support the current diplomacy because the only alternative to that is that things continue as they now are.

The two Koreas do share a lot, though, and one thing they share is an enmity towards Japan. To any extent that Japan moves in the direction of reestablishing its military power, the more both Koreas will find things to agree on. Not that I see that happening, necessarily, but it would bring them closer together.

China is a very different story. Both the North and the South have a great deal of individual respect for China—it might be that China has been a much better neighbor to Korea than Japan has been through the centuries, so that relationship might deepen in ways that would surprise a lot of Americans.

Audience Member: I am curious about the strong anti-American feelings in Korea. When I lived there for a while, older Koreans seemed to harbor resentment against Japan, but the younger generation seemed to be adamantly anti-American.

Cumings: Since 1967 it was very clear to me that Korean-American relations were not all hunky-dory. I had been in the country barely three months when I was walking out of a bar with some Korean friends in Seoul, and a drunk man spit full in my face. My friends were mortified. They took me into another bar and patiently explained to me that many Koreans have deep grievances against the United States. I was beginning to understand this anyway because the more slang I learned, the more I could understand of all the names they were calling me!

I could hardly blame them. The more I saw of the official American presence—not the Peace Corps, but the bases, the AID people, etc.—the more I was appalled. Even the cross-cultural tutelage I received from Robert Kohls, who is sitting in the audience and who was the director of our Peace Corps training on a god-forsaken, windswept mountain in Pennsylvania in 1967, could not prepare me for many of the questions these Americans asked me; racist questions about “don’t Koreans do this”, and “don’t they do that”, and “how can you live with a Korean family”, and “how can you eat Korean food, by the way?” It turned me into a person opposed to the nature of the relationship that we have had with South Korea. Yet, even that experience was nothing like the 1980s, when there was a very raw anti-Americanism in Seoul, where Americans were afraid to walk down the streets due to threats of physical harm. The students of that generation felt this the strongest, and they have passed their spirit on to younger students, and this situation will continue until we get our military bases out of Seoul, if not out of South Korea altogether.

One of my advisors at Columbia was Michel Oksenberg, who is now at Stanford. His son went through West Point and became a military officer. About a year ago, Michel told me that his son had ended up being in charge of orientation for new American troops coming to South Korea who, in a curriculum of hundreds of hours, received a total of 24 hours of instruction over several weeks’ time covering all of Korean culture, customs, etc. He wanted to double this to 48 hours, and even after fighting for it for months, his proposal was turned down. We had 13 weeks of instruction in the Peace Corps, and that was not nearly enough. So, it is the case that most Americans who go to Korea don’t know a damn thing about the country, and they end up with a lot of prejudicial judgements, unfortunately, often by virtue of living in compounds and not knowing any Koreans except the ones always running errands for them. They come back with negative images of Korea, but nothing compared to the negative images that Korean young people have of Americans, so it really is a relationship that ought to end in that form.

Audience Member: This year is the 50th anniversary of the Korean War. How was the occasion remembered in the North and the South, and what aspects have scholars on both sides of the borders chosen to emphasize or forget?

Cumings: That’s a good question. There was a large conference in Washington planned on the Korean War and the anniversary, and when I was first invited I said what I usually say, which is that I am not going to go there and commemorate this war, condemning the North and lauding the Americans and the South, but if you are going to have a serious conference where we can examine the issues, then I will go. But the organizers said that it would not be like that. This was just after the No Gun Ri massacre story [about U.S. troops killing South Korean civilians during the war], and they said that they were planning to examine the war in a tragic sense. So, I prepared a paper about what a horrible war it had been. I sent my paper in, but then just before the conference began the summit took place, so all bets were off, and there were calls for having a conference celebrating the reconciliation that was going on.

As for the anniversary events, Kim Dae-jung drastically muted the usual patriotic commemoration ceremonies in Seoul, and the North Koreans didn’t hold the month of ‘anti-imperialist, anti-U.S. struggle’ that they usually hold in July. Overnight the atmosphere changed and it ended up being a very good conference in which people were much more willing to speak freely than they usually are in that kind of a setting.

We do not have exchanges with North Korean scholars about the war; it is still far too early for that. But, like any country, they do have their archives, their historians, and their point of view, and this will be quite shocking to Americans when it is finally aired by scholars because we used terrible violence on North Korea during the war, in particular a kind of scorched earth bombing campaign that went on for three years, about which the North Koreans are still quite bitter. This is not surprising, really, and it could be an obstacle to the rapid warming of relations between the United States and North Korea.

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