Reimaging North Korea
A critical analysis of the work of Bruce Cumings
Correct understanding of historical and global dynamics is the foundation for politically intelligent social and political action in any nation. In order to understand the Korean socialist revolution and the other anti-imperialist revolutions that were born in the middle decades of the twentieth century (I refer to the Vietnamese, Chinese, and Cuban revolutions), we must know the fundamental facts, which are hidden from us by imperialist and capitalist ideologies and by our own natural inclination to not study sufficiently.
In The Korean War, published in 2010, University of Chicago historian Bruce Cumings teaches us the fundamentals. At the same time, some of Cumings’ interpretations could be critically analyzed, from a perspective grounded in consciousness of the four twentieth century anti-imperialist revolutions.
In today’s commentary, I review Cuming’s lessons concerning the fundamentals, and I also attempt to critically analyze his interpretations.
On the fundamentals
Let us note the fundamentals of Korean history, as explained by Cumings in The Korean War.
Korea was a Japanese colony from 1910 to 1945. According to what I had previously read, Japanese colonialism in Korea was different from European colonialism in East Asia and other regions, in that Japanese colonial policy sought to promote a Japanese-directed industrial development in Korea. Cumings indirectly confirms this view.
Korea had been a unified kingdom and united people for centuries, and the 38th parallel was a demarcation invented by the U.S. military and accepted by the Soviet Union, a convenient dividing point between two allied but rival armies operating on the Korean Peninsula in 1945. If North Korea did indeed send troops into the South in 1945, as some have charged, this would hardly be like France invading Indochina in the late nineteenth century, Germany invading Poland in 1939, or Japan attacking Pearl Harbor seventy years ago today.
There were two Koreas in 1945, but it was a political and ideological, not geographical, division; which had been emerging since the 1930s It was a division between, on the one hand, those Koreans militantly opposed to Japanese imperialism and allied with Chinese communists with the same militant opposition to Japanese domination of the region; and on the other hand, those Koreans that were collaborators with Japanese and American imperialisms, both of which had similar economic projections for the region of East Asia. A conflict between the two Koreas had been unfolding since 1931; by 1950, it had taken the form of a military conflict, expressing itself throughout the Korean peninsula, both North and South. It was, in other words, a civil war, in which the United States had been intervening since 1945, more aggressively in 1950.
In the summer of 1950, the Korean People’s Army (KPA) of North Korea inflicted humiliating defeats on the U.S. Army, until Gen. Douglas MacArthur mobilized U.S. battle-ready troops from around the globe to stabilize the situation and emerge victorious in the “war for the South.” But instead of containing the KPA at the 38th parallel, the USA opted to march North in order to roll back “communist aggression.” This decision, which in retrospect can be questioned as not practical from the point of view of U.S. imperialist interests, was made by U.S. civilian authorities, without the collegial civilian-military decision-making process of World War II; and it was made against the advice of the U.S. Department of State.
The U.S. decision provoked China to enter the war, partially motivated by solidarity with Korean communists, who had sacrificed in defense of China against Japanese imperialism. Indeed, Koreans constituted 90% of the Chinese Communist Party in the Japanese puppet state of Manchuria in northeast China; and Koreans played a central role in the guerrilla resistance in Manchuria. Kim Il Sung, the historic leader of the Korean Revolution, first became known as a formidable guerrilla leader against the Japanese in Manchuria in the 1930s.
Initially, the U.S. forces had success in the move to the North, but to some extent they were being lured into the interior, where they would be overextended. The Chinese People’s Army and the KPA was able to rapidly drive the U.S. and UN forces back. MacArthur ordered air strikes behind the advancing communist forces, destroying cities, towns, villages, and factories. The Chinese/North Korean advance was halted near the 38th parallel, where it resulted in a stalemate and armistice, but not a peace treaty, although it did include provisions for the mutual release of POWs.
For three years, the United States bombed the North with little concern for civilian casualties. The United States dropped more tons of bombs on Korea than in the entire Pacific theater during World War II. Seventy-five percent of the capital city of Pyongyang was destroyed, and more than 50% of eighteen major cities was obliterated.
It was a war that resolved nothing. It simply created an endless geographical division between the two political/ideological Koreas. But it was not a war over nothing. It was a war between two fundamentally different social and economic systems, a conflict that still unfolds on a global scale and that has given rise to numerous wars.
People’s Committees and their suppression in the South
Often understated in discussions of socialism is the formation of people’s councils or people’s committees. In 1917, Lenin observed that the workers, soldiers, and peasants were developing discussion meetings in which the great majority participated, and which elected representatives to councils that were beginning to assume functions of government. The emergence of soviets, as the popular councils were called in Russia, convinced Lenin that the workers were prepared for an immediate transition to socialism. When Lenin put forth the slogan, “all power to the soviets,” the people turned to support of the Bolshevik party, fueling the victory of the October Revolution.
The Chinese and Cuban revolutions also have developed people’s councils, and they have institutionalized them in structures of people’s power and mass organizations. People’s power is a structural alternative to representative democracy, guaranteeing that following the triumph of a people’s revolution, power would be in the hands of the people. People’s power is a defining characteristic of the anti-imperialist revolutions that triumphed in the middle decades of the twentieth century.
Cumings informs us that the CIA reported in August 1945 that “left-wing people’s committees” had been established throughout Korea. He adds that, above and beyond the U.S. establishment of a military government in the South, the Korean People’s Republic had declared independence in Seoul. The Seoul government was independent of the government in Pyongyang in the North; and its declaration of independence spawned hundreds of people’s committees in the countryside. Cummings further notes that a rebellion in the South in October and November of 1946 was characterized by the emergence of guerrilla resistance as well as the formation of hundreds of “locally powerful people’s committees.”
Cumings discusses the situation in South Cholla in southwest Korea, an area that since the 1890s had been characterized by concentrated wealth, rice exportation with super-exploitative labor by peasants, and the control of rice exportation by Japanese merchants. He notes that people’s committees were formed in 1946, and there occurred an indigenous peasant uprising in November in response to the U.S. military government’s suppression of the people’s committees. At the same time, self-governing committees had been formed in factories, which were declared illegal by the military government in December 1945; factory leaders and leftists were arrested.
On Cheju Island, leftist people’s committees emerged in 1945, Cumings reports. And there occurred a rebellion in that year, demanding unification of the Korean peninsula, a rebellion that was provoked by the announcement of the holding of separate elections in the South. A peasant army was spontaneously formed, with only a few trained organizers, none of them from the North. The island was subjected to extreme repression: arrests and relocation of villagers; and killings by police and right-wing youth squads. By 1949, 70% of the villages had been burned out; of 400 villages, only 170 remained.
A rebellion in Yose was provoked by the refusal of the troops of the Republic of Korea (South Korea) to combat the insurgency on Cheju Island. The South Korean government gained legitimacy in Washington by appearing to have defeated the rebellion. Their strategy had been the indiscriminate destruction of villages, accompanied by false claims that the government of North Korea had sent advisors and equipment.
Cumings stresses that the people’s committees and guerrilla resistance in the South were indigenous, led by local actors not under the direction of the government in the North. They had emerged in response to the local conditions of peasant impoverishment, caused by unequal land distribution and abusive rent and taxes imposed on local peasants.
One would assume, however, that many of the committees and guerrilla units in the South, even though a local indigenous phenomenon, were ideological allies of the North. Indeed, when the KPA advanced against the American and UN forces in the South, they often were joined by local guerrilla units.
I would like to address five themes in my critical commentary of Cumings’ The Korean War.
(1) Cumings is critical of the exaggerations of the leadership qualities of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, a criticism that he expressed more fully in his earlier 2001 book, North Korea: Another country. In my view, Cummings does not appreciate the importance of exceptional leadership in forging and sustaining a revolutionary project in a nation. Indeed, it is impossible to imagine the triumphs and subsequent achievements of the revolutions in Vietnam, China, and Cuba without the exceptional leadership of Ho, Mao, and Fidel.
Exceptional leadership in triumphant and sustained revolutionary processes is an objective reality. Before the triumph of the revolution, the situation is characterized by a confusing myriad of ideologies and conflicts of interests, and it appears impossible to forge a unified political process out of the confused mix. But when revolutions triumph, exceptional leadership can be observed. There emerges a leader, supported and aided by a few close comrades, who is capable of identifying the useful ideas from those that ought to be discarded, and to persuade a majority of the people to make necessary sacrifices in support of the correct road, bringing the revolution to an astonishing triumph. This phenomenon can be observed by an objective observer who studies the speeches of the revolutionary leaders; it is not merely a rhetorical claim of the revolutionary leaders in retrospect.
A similar process can be observed following the triumph of the revolution. Difficult decisions must be made by the revolution as it confronts an assortment of internal and external enemies. Through study of the speeches of the leader, one can discern an exceptional, indeed unnatural, capacity to discern the necessary policies and to explain them to the people.
The careful observer of revolutions can see something else. Many of the people do not think primarily in terms of abstract principles and scientific analysis. They arrive to trust particular leaders, whose advanced understanding and patriotism have been demonstrated in the unfolding of events. Accordingly, many of the people personalize the revolution, identifying it with the teachings, leadership, and decisive actions of particular persons.
The revolution cannot ignore or combat this personification of the revolution by the people, even as it attempts to educate the people toward fundamental principles and analyses. The revolution must treat the personification of the revolution in the leader by the people for what it is: a source of strength for the revolution, which must be drawn upon to sustain the revolution in the face of the attacks of its enemies. In the case of Cuba, for example, even though a conscious effort has been made to avoid “the cult of personality,” which is considered an error, Fidel is constantly referred to with honorific titles, such as “comandante en jefe” and “the historic leader of the Cuban Revolution.” His teachings are constantly quoted, and study of his discourses is enjoined by scholars, who appreciate the exceptional insights in his teachings. In Cuba, Fidel and his teachings live eternally; and it is the foundation of hope for the future.
In the case of Korea, these tendencies toward the personification of revolutionary leaders are strengthened by particular tendencies in Korean culture, in which there are traditional legends that exaggerate the characteristics of leading figures, a phenomenon that Cumings points out in North Korea: Another Country. And there also is a tendency in traditional Korean culture, as Cumings notes, for families to pass on leadership roles from father to son. Our evaluation of Korean leadership should not be based on characteristics that seem strange to us Westerners, but on scientific evaluation of the analyses, proposals, and policies of the leader, as expressed in his speeches to the people.
(2) Cumings maintains that when the revolutionary guerrilla leaders took power in Korea in 1945, they constituted themselves as an elite, putting guerrilla leaders in charge of everything. I am not sure what Cumings expected. Perhaps we should recall Trotsky’s criticism of the February Revolution: the people brought the leaders to a situation in which they had political power in their hands, and they proceeded to turn it over to the bourgeoisie, thereby betraying the trust of the people. The same historic error was made during the Mexican Revolution: two peasant armies occupied Mexico City, but they abandoned it so that the educated bureaucrats could run things, undermining the attainment of the goals of the revolution, from the vantage point of the peasant. The central question here ought to be whether or not the triumphant revolutionary leadership established permanent structures of people’s power, which in the case of Korea they appear to have done, but Cumings does not explore this issue.
(3) Cumings maintains that the triumphant guerrillas, converting themselves into an elite, preach self-reliance in defense. Cumings presents this as a psychological orientation rooted in the brutal struggles against Japanese and American imperialisms. He seems not to appreciate that self-reliance is an objective need of the colonized, as they seek to attain true independence in the global neocolonial situation. Self-reliance is a fundamental principle that has been proclaimed by the antiimperialist revolutions of the Third World, given formal codification by numerous declarations of the Non-Aligned Movement from 1961 to 2019. The concept of self-reliance is given advanced and clear expression in the formulation of the Juche idea; which is not, as Cumings thinks, a rejection of Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism, but a reformulation of Marxism-Leninism, taking into account the objective conditions of the Korean situation.
(4) Cumings criticizes the Korean “totalizing politics that brooks no dissent.” Again, he sees this in socio-psychological terms, as rooted in the need for unity in the anti-Japanese guerrilla struggle, but as inappropriate for governing a nation. He appears not to appreciate the need for unity in the ongoing revolutionary struggle and in the construction of an alternative society. He also appears not to appreciate that the Western democracies have not necessarily figured this out. In the West, dissent and protest are normal, and consensus is almost impossible. Perhaps we in the Western representative democracies have arrived to a situation of ungovernability. Are we in a position to lecture others on how to approach the complex dilemma concerning the right of the individual to speak and the need of the society for social order and for widely accepted norms and values? Perhaps we should study others and learn from their experiences, as we seek to forge an understanding that is appropriate for our own conditions and challenges.
(5) Cumings concludes The Korean War by speaking of the Northern invasion of the South in 1950. Here he seems to have forgotten his own lessons, in which he explains that the Korean War was in 1950 an ongoing civil war in which the United States was intervening on one political/ideological side. In his teaching of those lessons, Cumings ridicules those who would accuse Koreans of invading Korea. Yet in his concluding comments, he does not take up the implications of his important lessons for reimaging North Korea; he lapses into the prevailing stereotypes.
The November 21 Webinar on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, sponsored by the International Manifesto Group, provided an excellent introduction to North Korea. I reviewed the seminar in my November 26 column, noting that the panelists saw the Korean Revolution as a significant anti-imperialist revolution, worthy of study. The panelists advocated defense of the sovereignty of the DPRK.
The panelists made reference to the Juche idea, the central concept of Korean socialism, and to the socialist manifesto written by Kim Jong Il, “On the Juche Idea.” I reviewed the historic document in my commentary of November 30. I found the manifesto to be an important historic document, reformulating Marx from the vantage point of the neocolonized, and formulating concepts consistent with the people’s, anti-imperialist, socialist revolutions in Vietnam, China, and Cuba.
My December 3 commentary explains further the concept of independence in the Juche idea: ideological independence, political independence, economic self-sufficiency, and self-reliance in defense. I concluded that the Juche philosophy provides a reasonable justification for the development of nuclear arms as a strategy of self-defense and deterrence of another imperialist invasion of Korea. I noted, however, that the development of mutually beneficial trade among nations is a more secure road to international peace, as the PDRK proposes, but the imperialist nations disdain.
The panelists in the November 21 Webinar on the DPRK also made reference to two books by Bruce Cumings. Lamentably, I do not believe that Cumings’ work takes us to where we need to be with respect to Korea. North Korea: Another Country, published in 2003, is in some moments an ethnocentric bashing of North Korea as an economic disaster and as a totalitarian society with absurd idolization of its leaders. The Korean War, published in 2010, does much better, providing important lessons with respect to fundamental facts. Nevertheless, as I endeavor to indicate above, several of Cumings’ interpretations of the DPRK reflect a Western bias.
As Derek Ford pointed out in the November 21 Webinar, there is a significant development occurring among intellectuals in the North, represented by those associated with the International Manifesto Group, namely, the emergence of “anti-Marxist Marxists” who take as their starting point the actually existing socialist projects in the Third World plus China. However, considerable work remains to be done in this direction.
The socialist projects in the Third World plus China have developed alternative political structures of people’s power, formed by exceptional leaders and characterized by vanguard political parties, popular assemblies, and mass organizations. This alternative political process is emerging as the prevailing Western structures of representative democracy are experiencing a crisis of legitimation, unable to reach consensus and not prepared to understand, much less resolve, major social problems that humanity confronts. This needs to be explained to our peoples in the North.
The socialist projects in the Third World plus China also are developing new socialist economic models, in which economic development is directed by people’s states and is partially driven by private enterprise. These new models are registering gains with respect to economic productivity directed toward the satisfaction of human needs, precisely when the capitalist world-economy has fallen into parasitic, unproductive decadence. This too needs to be explained to our peoples.
The socialist projects also have developed structures of direction of the media by people’s states, and they may be better prepared to respond to the challenges today posed by the mass media and by social media. This too we need to address.
We need intellectual work that appreciates the essential logic of the Third World revolutions as a reasonable response to a world that has been built on a colonial foundation, and that seeks to explain the logic of Third World revolutions by finding it in the formulations of their leaders. I attempt to do this with respect to Cuba in my 2016 book, which seeks to explain Cuban socialism in the context of the neocolonial world-system. My effort to defend Cuban socialism, of course, remains an unfinished work.
There is an emerging alternative, more just, democratic and sustainable world-system, being forged in practice by the revolutions of the Third World plus China. They constitute the best hope for humanity in the context of the current civilizational crisis. We need to see them, understand them, and explain them to our peoples.
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