Bruce Cumings on US-North Korea Relations

Somehow I missed this video of Bruce Cumings speaking to US-North Korea relations on the program Democracy Now!.  Although the interview with the foremost historian and fearsomely intelligent critic of U.S. policy toward North Korea is a bit dated by internet standards (May 29, 2009), it is still quite worthwhile.  Note the wonderful Freudian slip and body language around 26:00 when Cumings is asked to comment on the case of the American journalists detained along the Tumen River.  Perhaps he was in the loop earlier than the rest of us on the Bill Clinton trip to Pyongyang?

Kim Il Song’s _Works_ and Anti-Chinese Sentiment in the DPRK

Kim Il Song’s Works form part of the backbone of any serious student’s reading about North Korea.  Although this lengthy, often pedestrian, heavily edited, and occasionally fabricated collection runs to 40 volumes, there are still far too many gold nuggets in this slag mine to ignore.   In this short essay I want to root around in the Works briefly to excavate the foundations of a potential resurgence of anti-Chinese sentiment in North Korea, as this sentiment is likely only to grow among both official circles and among the North Korean populace.

Today it appears likely that North Korea has no intention of following the Chinese path to reform, and that, while trans-border trade (both legal and illegal, including substantial remittances from the estimated 300,000 North Koreans in China) and contracts with China for, say, mines outside the moribund city of Hyesan, are still important, that in terms of an emotional response, China’s ongoing economic renaissance is cause for both fear and loathing in the North. 

North Koreans like Kang Chol-hwan in 1994 may have been enraptured temporarily by Chinese wealth, but today the faces on the southern side of the Sino-Korean border are both weary and angry.   Faced with an inability to turn the rage inward, we can imagine how China and the overweight, arrogant Chinese, particularly those who drag race and then shout across the river, throwing food across the Tumen for entertainment as if feeding live chickens to tigers at a Harbin zoo ,become a target of North Korean nationalism.     

North Korean Relations with, and Views of, the Chinese

Before his disasterous attempt to unify Korea by force, Kim Il Song several times explicated his support of the Chinese Communist Party in their civil war with the Nationalists (who ultimately ended up on Taiwan).   His support was not merely rhetorical: we recall via the work of researchers like Bruce Cumings and Kim Donggil (and to a much lesser extent my own published work) that the North Koreans had loaned the CCP the services of some 50,000  troops for use in the Chinese civil war.   

It was this act of socialist solidarity, along with a host of anti-American hatreds and a keen grasp of the Korean follies of the Sui dynasty, that Mao recalled in deciding to send Chinese troops into the maelstrom of the Korean War on October 19, 1950 (discussed below by a World-Cup clad young professor in Dandong in 2007):

 

Kim Il Song’s subsequent periodic declarations of thankfulness to the Chinese brothers for their aid against the American imperialist invaders are fascinating to revisit these days when the Sino-North Korean alliance is badly, badly frayed, to the extent that the protocols have changed.  When China has a major ethnic rebellion on its hands, Beijing receives no cards of sympathy, no courteous news release from KCNA

Yet there is an intensive strain of anti-Chinese thought running through Kim’s Works, and indeed in North Korean culture.  We see it in everything from Kim’s instructions on historical research of the Koguryo period to his recollections of wicked Chinese landlords/warlords of the colonial period.  And he recalls obliquely how the Chinese Communist Party readily sold him and his comrades out in the early 1930s with the sanguine traumas of the Minsaengdan incident.   Ergo, the fact that North Korea desperately needs Chinese aid today and remains in mutually supportive treaty arrangements with the PRC does not preclude the growth of anti-Chinese sentiment in the DPRK.   And the existing criticisms of China in the DPRK’s canonical documents ranging from Kim’s Works to the novels of Han Sorya to children’s books published in Pyongyang could easily be augmented: Chinese as greedy capitalist landlords, and (though this last is much more subtle and implied) the perfidy of the Chinese Communist Party.

Think about the deep interest taken in history by the DPRK media, a media that publishes bulletins on “freshly discovered” events of 1932 or 1946 as normally and ubiquitously as celebrity gossip in the West, and think further still on how the DPRK editors manipulate or manufacture history for their own purposes.  If the DPRK wants to go anti-Chinese, the propagandistic basis for such a move has long ago been laid.     

Underneath various declarations of eternal friendship lies a veiled distrust.  North Korea’s largest cities (absent Hyesan, Sinuiju, and Musan) were only briefly occupied by American forces in winter 1950  — but all of North Korea had the experience of a (reasonably but almost completely forgotten and unstudied by the West) Chinese occupation from 1951-1958.  Or do you suppose the North Koreans, with their mastery of the memory hole technique, have simply forgotten about that aspect of their past?  It is unlikely they have, and unlikelier still that the North Korean leadership, particularly the old guard which dominates the administration of the Korean People’s Army (KPA), does not have a visceral grasp of the idea that Chinese armies can dominate all the lands north of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).   Just because China has no desire to occupy and administer North Korea does not mean that the North Koreans do not have nightmares that it might happen again. 

The Chinese, for their part, certainly would do everything possible to prevent this scenario, unless of course the alternative is an American occupation of the smashed DPRK, in which case we have problems.  Although the United States has a great deal of experience in invading, occupying, and rebuilding state institutions in formally totalitarian countries, some Iraq-style occupation of North Korea is practically unthinkable from budgetary and cultural standpoints, and should be equally horrifying to Washington.  But there are probably a few planning documents over in the Pentagon and in Seoul which I have not read about this topic.  Any readers aware of discussions about post-Kim North Korea, that is to say, looking forward to the mess of a post-DPRK yet not yet functionally unified peninsula, please enlighten with comments or links.      

Citations:

Kim Il Sung, “On the Occasion of Founding the Anti-Japanese People’s Guerrilla Army: Speech at the Ceremony to Found the Anti-Japanese People’s Guerrilla Army,” April 25, 1932, Works, Vol. 1, June 1930 – December 1945, (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1980), p.47.

Kim Il Sung, “On Relinquishing the Guerrilla Zones and Advancing Over Wide Areas: Speech Delivered at the Meeting of Military and Political Cadres of the Korean People’s Revolutionary Army Held at Yaoyinggou,” March 27, 1935, Works, Vol. 1, June 1930 – December 1945, (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1980), p.89.

Kim Il Sung, “Speech at the Farewell Meeting in Honor of the Home-Going Chinese People’s Volunteers,” March 11, 1958, Works Vol. 12, pp. 156-160.

Kim Il Sung, “On Properly Preserving Historical Remains and Relics,” [on using Koguryo history for patriotic education ] April 30, 1958, Works Vol. 12, pp. 196-201.

Kim Il Sung, “Militant Friendship Between the Korean and Chinese Peoples: Article Carried in the Renmin Ribao on the Occasion of the 10th Anniversary of the Founding of the People’s Republic of China,” September 26, 1959, Works vol. 13 pp. 330-342.

Myers, Brian. Han Sŏrya and North Korean Literature: The Failure of Socialist Realism in the DPRK. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994.

Endnote: Although it is a vital, one might even argue foundational, aspect of contemprary North Korean-Chinese relations, the Minsaengdan Incident does not have a Wikipedia entry, meaning that enthusiasts and North Korea watchers who are not professional historians have to work a little harder to gain access to what happened and what it means.  (A Google search for the term appears to net a garbled array of North Korean propaganda and, for many, inaccessible JSTORS journal citations.) It is my hope that a talented history student (perhaps one of my undergraduate charges at Pacific Lutheran) might begin to fill this gap after reading credible sources by Charles Armstrong and one particular University of Washington dissertation.

The Rex

Tonight, quite unintentionally, I played a show at The Rex, a bar in Duluth, Minnesota, and with my cello and voice wrote and performed a new song which juxtaposed the pride of elite North Koreans in their system with the anger caused in the West by the North Korean people’s inability to recognize their own predicament.  Farce and sarcasm are therefore given a turn.  Speaking of farce, it appears that I captured the whole thing digitally, so that, unlike Current TV’s mysterious missing footage of the Laura Ling/Euna Lee infiltration stunt, the footage actually exists on a camera which is not being pawed over by North Korean prosecutors. 

Caution: Confessional and only semi-scholarly writing ahead:

I believe the song was a product of 1.) a smashing encounter with Duluth while generating prose about the most hermetic state of NE Asia, 2.) frustration with my inability to disgorge a more personalized response to the recent spate of North Korean news, and 3.) the fact that my falanges and brain were warmed up thanks to a bloody encounter earlier that day with the cello part of the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (6/8 Allegro section just before “Seid Umschlungen“; e.g., the buildup to 21:54 in the following clip spawned by von Karajan):

   

I had also been deeply moved by an encounter earlier in the day (thanks to my saavy aunt) with some wickedly acoustical performing arts architecture at the university designed by the firm of Argentinian design genius Cesar Pelli.

Since Duluth is a border town, I ended my show with a melodic exhortation to cross the Bong bridge and invade Wisconsin/North Korea with open hearts.  Anyway, long live the great creative energies that swirl about the gateway to the northern shore of Lake Superior! 

Wisconsinite cruiser on the streets of Duluth's Superior Street

Wisconsinite cruiser on the streets of Duluth's Superior Street