Koreanist Schisms: Myers, Cumings, Hitchens(?)

Now that even Christopher Hitchens is writing about the new North Korea book by Brian Myers, people are paying attention.  For once, at least, new arguments are being presented in a monograph about North Korea.  (Would anyone seriously argue that the world needs another travel memoir about a visit to Pyongyang?)  Myers extends upon his idea of North Korea as a state constructed out of the basic DNA of Japanese fascism rather than Stalinist communism, and lays forth evidence from domestic propaganda that constructs the Kim regime as a kind of malevolently maternal force to its people.

As preparation for getting my hands on this new book, I turned to this Atlantic piece by Myers from 2004 to get a sense of his thinking.  And I thought it might be useful to clear out a small bit of angst resulting from reading his work.

Foremost, you have to admire Myers for his forthrightness in spelling out his views, his facility with language (a trait all too often neglected in academic publishing), and his originality.

Finding a point of contrast to one’s own work remains an essential element in constructing a justification for any given piece of writing.  Going toe-to-toe with someone intellectually significant implies a level of seriousness on the part of the challenger.  So, in Korean Studies, this often means butting up against the work of Bruce Cumings, which Myers does in the following grabbing fashion:

You’ve just finished your life’s work, a bold new history of the Watergate burglary in which you manage to prove that the White House was out of the loop, but the ink is hardly dry when an eighteen-minute tape surfaces in a Yorba Linda thrift shop, and soon the whole country is listening to Nixon gangsta-rap about how he personally jimmied the door open. It’s every revisionist’s nightmare, but Bruce Cumings, a history professor at the University of Chicago, has come closest to living it. In a book concluded in 1990 he argued that the Korean War started as “a local affair,” and that the conventional notion of a Soviet-sponsored invasion of the South was just so much Cold War paranoia. In 1991 Russian authorities started declassifying the Soviet archives, which soon revealed that Kim Il Sung had sent dozens of telegrams begging Stalin for a green light to invade, and that the two met in Moscow repeatedly to plan the event. Initially hailed as “magisterial,” The Origins of the Korean War soon gathered up its robes and retired to chambers. The book was such a valuable source of information on Korea in the 1940s, however, that many hoped the author would find a way to fix things and put it back into print.

With respect to Bruce Cumings’ Origins of the Korean War Volume II: The Roaring of the Cataract, I have to disagree with certain aspects of Myers’ dismissal of that text and the rest of Cumings’ work.  It’s not because Myers fails to exploit his easiest possible critique, that Cumings’ subtitle “The Roaring of the Cataract” itself kowtows to the DPRK’s identification with hydroelectric power stations.

Cumings is sometimes dismissed by his critics rather simply as a ‘left wing historian’. He’s an American historian of modern Korea, he has politics, he’s intrigued by socialist systems, he isn’t apologetic about it. His wife, a formidable academic herself, went to Chongjin for some important research not long ago and was more recently involved in producing a very moving documentary about the Korean diaspora — Stalin’s crimes in fact  — in Kazakhstan. Like his teacher James Palais, the man has done a huge amount of work about Korea, and educated large numbers of people about the place, so that the brilliant yet not certainly not ahistorical Brian Myers can stand on his shoulders and be as confidently strident as he is.

Bruce Cumings does not devote himself fully to advocacy for refugee rights (after all, he’s got a rather prestigious department to run), and was himself formed in the crucible of the anti-Vietnam War (and anti Park Chung Hee) movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s.  Do does that make him “an apologist”?  Aside from the fact that such labels are imprecise at best, does inhaling ROK tear gas in a crowd of university students in the 1970s, and being impacted by the experience, and writing about it, and being outspoken about the democratic shortcomings of the earlier ROK make one somehow not credible when it comes to North Korea? But these are questions of experience. I still think the content of his work is essential.

On Myers: In spite of his own administrative backlog in Pusan, Myers seems to be catching up gradually to Cumings in terms of prose production and debate-driving. And Myers is, perhaps, a master prose stylist because he is also fluent in German. To my knowledge, he wrote an M.A. thesis in the language.

“Do Not Forget the American Jackals,” North Korean poster, courtesy Dr. Brandon Palmer.

And of course most of his Atlantic essay stands up when you get down to it. However:

Myers savages Cumings’ survey text Korea’s Place in the Sun for not acknowledging the suffering of the North Korean famine that spread after 1994.  But even the standard scholarly work on that famine — Marcus Noland’s Famine in North Korea –indicates that western consciousness of the great North Korean famine was only at a very bare trickle in 1997, the year Myers slams Cumings for not recognizing North Korea’s weakness when _Korea’s Place in the Sun_ came out. It’s Marcus Noland, for heaven’s sake! It’s his area of supreme credibility! (If you like, you can check Noland’s book index under “Good Friends” to corroborate what I’m asserting here.) So how can we tackle a historian writing a survey text for my undergraduates, who was probably working on the book since 1994, for not smashing his rhetorical hand on the table and denouncing the great famine in the DPRK as the book is going to press?

And so to go to another of Myers’ assertions, I don’t find Cumings’ writing at all reminiscent of travelogues to Moscow in the 1930s. Was Pyongyang really some hellhole in the 1980s? Cumings’ extended account of his travels in North Korea in the often-overlooked text War and Television might be a better source here. There are a couple of places where the man wants to vomit, literally, at what he is seeing.  Cumings seems to me a very thoughtful person with a strong sardonic sense; someone to admire if not imitate.

On the Moscow travelogue front, instead I would recommend Freda Utley’s 1946 book Last Chance in China for a look at how Stalin managed to alienate or kill the very Anglophones who were lauding him in the 1930s. I think Cumings knows a thing or two about Stalin, and I don’t believe he’s under any illusions that his own life, or the lives of South Koreans, would be somehow better in North Korea. I also don’t believe Cumings has some sinister idea that North Korea should have won the Korean War. (In this sense, he and the punching bag for the rollback crowd, Selig Harrison, have something in common. Remember what Sig Harrison said to Dana Rohrabacher? “I didn’t say anything, Representative, about building a better world, and I do not like the North Koreans any more than you do.”)

What Cumings does have is a very grave sense of the documentary legacy of the Korean War, a legacy which includes some very horrific figures about war crimes on all sides, and more to the point, of an untrammeled aerial punishment which North Korea sustained for three years (yes, in a war its leadership began) which would cause anyone to recalibrate their views of North Korea.

When it comes time for the US and North Korea (if they still exist) to reconcile, I think Cumings’ work is going to play some small role in that endeavor.  And at the end of the day, Bruce Cumings is more than capable of taking care of himself, and probably doesn’t give a bowl of mandoo guk what Brian Myers, or I, write about him. He is just going to go on clunking out books for the rest of us to chew on for the rest of our lives. Along those lines, maybe a Five-Year Plan isn’t such a bad idea after all.

Where I like to read such things, and where Cumings will roam again on May 4, 2010 — University of Washington, Suzzalo Library, Seattle


  1. There’s a really great, humorous quote somewhere in Cumings’ new book where he gets back at all of his detractors–I flipped through the book again this afternoon looking for it but of course I couldn’t find it.

    Anyways, Myers strikes again at Cumings in the “The Cleanest Race” (which I am enjoying ~50 pages into) several times, as you might have anticipated.

  2. Cummings own tales of how his research unfolded and the origins of his POV have always seemed persuasive to me (see his interview in the book Pioneers in Korean Studies, for example). So many people distort his position. I wonder what they will say about Myers. (If it is the Travelogue crowd, I guess it doesn’t matter). I’m not sure why it took so long for somebody to trace the genetic connections from Pyongyang to Imperial Japan, but Myers deserves the credit for bringing it out into the open. I think he could have made an even stronger case for North Korean racialism and racism. One also wonders if there will be any critical responses from Japan.

    1. Good points all the way around, Uri. The question of responses from critical Japanese readers is a viewpoint I hadn’t considered but would be equally eager to understand.

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