Lifting the Veil on North Korea

Lifting the Veil on North Korea

Mini Teaser: Is North Korea an irrational state or a survivor against all odds?

by Author(s): Bruce Cumings

North Korea approached its chuch’e-based idiosyncrasy, Lankov suggests, only after a period of outright Soviet dominance, where barely a word was uttered, barely a thing moved, without Soviet authorization. If Kim Il-sung first used the term chuch’e in 1955, it did not emerge full-blown as the raison d’être of the regime until the 1960s. Lankov is correct in this. But when Soviet troops were on the ground in the late 1940s, Kim used many nationalist synonyms to convey such sentiments as self-reliance, an independent economy and defense, and Koreans pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps. The Korean People’s Army—not the Worker’s Party—was always the real basis of the Kim family’s power (here is the biggest idiosyncrasy: this is the most fully realized garrison state in the world). At this army’s inauguration in February 1948, thousands of its soldiers goose-stepped past a podium where only Korean officers stood, bereft of Soviet officials. Meanwhile, highly secret North Korean documents show that among hundreds of officers in the fledgling army, two-thirds had fought with the Chinese Communists either as guerrillas or in the ongoing Chinese civil war, imprinting Maoist concepts of people’s war into their consciousness.

In that same year, Kim’s favored ideologues smuggled Maoist doctrine in through the front door in the party’s lead journal, going so far as to plagiarize Mao’s famous “mass line” doctrine and putting the words in Kim’s mouth instead. From its start in 1946, the Worker’s Party was not the representative of a class (vanguard of the proletariat), but a “mass party” enrolling a huge percentage of the adult population. Nor was the land reform in 1946 another example of Soviet “people’s democracy” directives, as Lankov claims. Rather, it drew upon ancient Korean regeneration palliatives going back to “practical learning” scholars of the seventeenth century and upon contemporary land-redistribution strategies in nearby Manchuria, by then under Chinese Communist control. It was a land-to-the-tillers strategy that, compared to the bloody Soviet or Chinese experience, was relatively nonviolent. Landlords who were actually willing to work the land as farmers were given small plots outside their home county, thus breaking their age-old local power and, well, giving them a break. Most of them, however, ran off to the South.

I MENTION these examples because they reflect a flaw in this book—namely, a consistent tendency to interpret DPRK history in the light of the Soviet experience and especially its demise. This is unsurprising: Andrei Lankov is part of a generation that lived through an utterly unexpected rupture, perhaps the most singular unanticipated grand event of the last century. Harking back to the abject collapse of a global superpower, Lankov foresees a DPRK death rattle. He does not know when it will come but thinks it inevitable and most likely to happen—you guessed it—utterly unexpectedly. In the wake of the demise of Western Communism (save Cuba), Lankov cannot imagine how this regime can sustain itself and particularly how it can revive its economy. Such socialist economies are ipso facto inefficient, he argues, and thus doomed to fail. North Korea’s only way out is to mimic Chinese economic reforms. But that too will mean the end of this regime because it cannot stand the fresh brush with reality that would inevitably come with a genuine opening to the world.

Lankov shares another similarity with most Russian scholars and those who base their interpretations on Soviet documents. Like them, he inflates Soviet control over the direction of Korean affairs. (This is the opposite of the outlook of most Americans, who view themselves as innocent bystanders during post-1945 Korean history, save for the war years in the early 1950s.) It is a historical fact that Soviet troops left North Korea at the end of 1948, never to return. This contrasts sharply with the Soviets’ practice in Eastern Europe; 365,000 Soviet troops were garrisoned in East Germany, for example, when the Berlin Wall fell. Stalin, who famously dismissed the pope’s significance by asking how many divisions he had, never thought he could control satellites without troops on the ground. After the Soviet troops left Korea, Kim and his allies promptly proclaimed their state to be the inheritor of the anti-Japanese guerrilla tradition, not that of the USSR. In 1949, on the first anniversary of the North Korean army’s founding, Kim’s retinue went so far as to give him the moniker suryong, an ancient Korean term translated as “great leader.” This title, up until that point, had been reserved for Stalin. This was utter heresy in the Communist world of the time, but it remained Kim’s title until his death in 1994.

Strong evidence of this remarkably swift Koreanization is hidden away in the one concrete thing that General Douglas MacArthur carried back with him from his disastrous run-up to the Yalu River in 1950: thousands of archival boxes of secret North Korean materials, otherwise known as Record Group 242, “Captured Enemy Documents.” They reside in the U.S. National Archives, where they were declassified in 1977. Lankov does not appear to have used these materials, which accounts for some of his misinterpretations.

Nor does Lankov seem to grasp the salience of the new history pouring out of South Korea from numerous scholars since it democratized twenty years ago. He is quick to dismiss this history as the product of starry-eyed leftism or puerile anti-Americanism—and to chide these scholars for not using Soviet documents. Thus, the author makes much of Kim Il-sung’s membership in the Chinese Communist Party during his guerrilla days as “a junior officer in the essentially Chinese guerrilla force.” Here he seems to draw upon forty-year-old scholarship by Chong-sik Lee and Dae-sook Suh (both now retired from teaching at American universities). But South Korean scholar Han Hong-gu showed in his 1999 dissertation that upwards of 80–90 percent of what was officially the “Chinese Communist Party” and the guerrilla units in Manchuria were Koreans; that Chinese Communists arrested and nearly executed Kim (while the Japanese murdered his first wife, scholars believe); and that his sojourn in a Soviet-Chinese training camp along the two countries’ border near Khabarovsk in the last few years of World War II was far less influential on Kim and his subsequent regime than his decade-long anti-Japanese resistance. In slighting this history, Lankov chooses instead to focus on the Soviets’ tutelage of Kim and their subsequent puppetry.

It may strike readers as odd, but Soviet and Chinese Communist leaders who knew Kim Il-sung well could be just as bone-headed and ham-handed in their dealings with him as were American leaders trying to rid themselves of former allies such as dictators Ngo Dinh Diem, Rafael Trujillo or even South Korea’s first president, Syngman Rhee (against whom the United States considered fostering coups at least twice, in 1950 and 1953). Moscow and Beijing knew so little about Kim and his close associates—and so little did they understand their deep base in the DPRK’s huge land army—that the two supposedly allied capitals conspired with weak pro-Chinese and Soviet internal factions to overthrow Kim in 1956. Lankov downplays the external impetus for this failed gambit and seems to miss the historical reality that from 1945 onward there were no formidable rivals to Kim’s guerrilla group because it controlled the guns.

LANKOV NOTES correctly that Kim came out of the Korean War much strengthened in his leading position, but this war—so crucial for understanding Korean affairs then or today—gets little attention in the book. Koreans are portrayed decrying “American imperialist wolves,” but we get only a sentence on the three-year American incendiary-bombing campaign that razed every North Korean city and, according to U.S. Air Force statistics, was proportionally more effective at city busting than the World War II assaults on German and Japanese urban centers. One in four North Koreans died during the war, 70 percent of them civilians (compared to 40 percent in Vietnam). One of my guides on my first trip to the country, as companionable as anyone I met there, told me he had lost his brother to the American bombing. One wonders if Americans would forget, a couple generations later, having Washington or New York or Chicago reduced by 75 or 80 percent. Yet most Americans are blithely unaware of the real history of this “forgotten war.”

But not so the generals. Senior officers on all sides are still fighting that war. American war plans still say we would need half a million American forces in Korea to defeat an invading North—which is how many we had there in the fall of 1950, when we decided to march north of the thirty-eighth parallel. In 2006, Diane Sawyer of ABC News journeyed to North Korea and interviewed General Yi Chan-bok, who commands the demilitarized zone on the northern side. She asked how long he had been there. “Forty years,” he replied. She seemed amazed. General Yi has been getting up every morning to riffle through the enemy’s order of battle since the year Lyndon Johnson ordered the U.S. buildup in Vietnam to 550,000 troops. Literally millions of Americans have served in Korea and know the quotidian tension that hovers like a plague over the middle of the peninsula, yet so much of the writing about North Korea elides the American part of the equation. It’s as if the Americans were merely innocent bystanders.

Pullquote: The Korean People's Army—not the Worker's Party—was always the real basis of the Kim family's power.Image: Essay Types: Book Review