[BOOK REVIEW]An exasperating history of modern KoreaBruce Cumings is one of the “revisionist” scholars who came along in the 1970s and ’80s to challenge accepted ideas about post-World War II geopolitics. Mr. Cumings’s own contribution was a finding that South Korea had started the Korean War.
Revisionism had a remarkably short vogue, for the Soviet empire soon collapsed and when its archives opened, most revisionists had to look for hidey-holes. Mr. Cumings now concedes that a coordinated wave of attacks came from the North, but sneers that who started the war is the “wrong question,” though it is the question he was at pains to answer in his earlier work.
Mr. Cumings’s 1997 history, “Korea’s Place in the Sun,” is opinionated, slipshod, poorly organized, morally obtuse and self-contradictory. Unfortunately, it is also necessary and important, for no other English-language history covers the same ground.
This is no dreary tome. Mr. Cumings writes breezily, he obviously admires Korea, and he has an interesting, if perverse, thesis. The legacy of the Joseon Dynasty and the Japanese occupation, he argues, left postwar Korea with much work to do to overcome social and political divisions and build a modern, just society. American intervention in the Korean War, he holds, interrupted this work. Had Koreans been left to sort themselves out, the North would have unified the country, but that would not have been as bad at what did happen ― appalling bloodshed, economic injustice and gross violations of rights in North and South. After all, China is now liberalizing ― would Communist Korea not have done the same? Evidently, Mr. Cumings is unaware of the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution and the other convulsions in which millions of Chinese died on the way to becoming a much less just, affluent and pleasant place than South Korea is today.
Judging by the footnotes, Cumings’s principal sources ― sometimes for entire sections his only sources ― are himself and his Korean-born wife, Woo Jung-en. The reader just has to have faith in their scholarship. But such faith is hard to sustain when, for example, Mr. Cumings asserts that 60,000 were killed in the Jeju massacres of 1948. The accepted figure in Jeju itself is 30,000, though some researchers think it twice too high. Mr. Cumings’s source is “an anonymous American” quoted in a 1950 magazine article. Well, if he can’t be bothered to research the question, why should we bother to read him? Korea deserves a better history than this.
Korea’s Place in the Sun
by Bruce Cumings
by Hal Piper