Back in 1998, British journalist Michael Breen published The Koreans, a breezy look at life on the southern half of that most perilous of peninsulas. In a new book, Kim Jong-il: North Korea’s Dear Leader, he shifts his sights northward, poking around the infamous “rogue state” and gathering up insights about its leader, a man Newsweek dubbed “Dr. Evil” and George W. Bush, in a customary nod toward diplomacy, called a pygmy.

More interesting, however, is another new book, which attempts to do the improbable if not the impossible: defend North Korea, at least from all the name-callers who refuse to take its people seriously. University of Chicago professor Bruce Cumings’ North Korea: Another Country is a rousing and revisionist take on the Hermit State, but it also serves as a handy rebuttal of Breen and pretty much every media pundit you’ve ever heard speak on the subject.(1)

Both books arrive at a crucial time, as six-way talks over the north’s nuclear weapons have effectively stalled. “When we next focus on North Korea, after the election,” columnist Nicholas Kristof warned in The New York Times last month, “it could be a nuclear Wal-Mart.”

Meanwhile, our ignorance of Koreans—both north and south of the DMZ—rivals only our ignorance of Afghans and Iraqis. In his grouchy but outstanding1997 history,Korea’s Place in the Sun, Cumings argues that in order to understand Koreans, an act of empathy is required. And in order to achieve that, “we should try—temporarily—to disabuse ourselves of American assumptions that get in the way of knowing, of seeing, a truly different society.”

This, of course, is easier said than done. After a year’s experience there, I can testify that Koreans are, to quote P.J. O’Rourke, “really fucking foreign,” and they see us in the same way.

I commented recently to one of my Korean colleagues that the Korean War is known Stateside as “the forgotten war.”

“Why?” she asked. After all, it killed 33,000 Americans, and 50 years later, we still have 37,000 of our troops deployed there. How do you forget that? For Koreans, on the other hand, it’s the central, cataclysmic event of their very long history, as well as the subject of a recent movie whose carnage and sheer personal suffering would embarrass even Saving Private Ryan, not to mention M*A*S*H.

I was forced to look at her dumbly. I don’t know much about the war myself, let alonewhy I don’t know.

In The Koreans, Breen asserts that Koreans baffle us, in part because they are so full of contradictions. “They combine great flaming emotion with an extremely fine sense of etiquette,” he says. “They devote themselves to work and they devote themselves to family. They often appear incompetent and yet they achieve. They ascribe to collective values and yet are probably the most individualistic of all East Asians. As Confucianists, they have an instinct for relationships. They can be quite aggressive, but extremely hospitable.”

Breen is careful to say that you can never really know Koreans.(2) But this does not stop him from affixing to The Koreans the rather presumptuous subtitle: “Who They Are, What They Want, Where Their Future Lies.” Nor does it stop former English teachers like me from sputtering, “Yeah, but . . . it’s true! They are like that!”

In Another Country, Cumings is quick to dismiss this kind of talk as nonsense, even a mild form of racism. “Every statement beginning ‘Koreans are . . .’ violates the extraordinary diversity found in Korea, or among Koreans abroad,” he huffs, leaving me to wonder how we talk about ourselves at all if not in such generalizations. Are there not profound differences between Americans and Koreans? If so, how else may we describe them?

Still, in light of all the geopolitical tension, it seems a worthy exercise to inventory our preconceptions, all the things we think we know about North Korea from watching too much CNN (or, for present purposes, from reading too much Breen), and then negate them. It’s an old Muslim mystic’s trick: The more negatives you pile on, the closer you get to God.

Or, in this case, Kim Jong-il.

* We can start with the oft-repeated claim that we don’t know anything about North Korea. Breen quotes (twice) an official who calls the state an “intelligence black hole,” where reliable information is impossible. But Breen never manages to reconcile this position with his curiously omniscient subtitle for Kim Jong-il: North Korea’s Dear LeaderWho He Is, What He Wants, What to Do About Him.

Cumings, meanwhile, counters with common sense. “North Korea has been around for a long time,” he writes, “and contrary to media punditry, we know a lot about it—and so does our government.” The temptation to believe otherwise is simply an excuse to fill up the void with our own prejudices and agendas.

* Breen refers to North Korea’s Dear Leader as, variously, “a fairy in a tutu,” a “brat,” a “freak” and a “Fat Bastard.” He suggests that he is “mindless,” that he “may as well be from outer space,” that he “couldn’t drop and give you ten if his life depended on it” and that he “gives new meaning to the term ‘bad hair day.’”

Cumings, on the other hand, insists that Mr. Kim “is not the playboy, womanizer, drunk, and mentally deranged fanatic ‘Dr. Evil’ of our press.” The professor prefers to describe him as “prudish and shy,” “a homebody who doesn’t socialize much,” “highly intelligent and very sensitive,” although “given to towering rages, which he can’t contain.”

* Reports Breen: “As many as three million people may have died of famine” due to flooding in the mid-1990s, so that much of the north’s “population is in rags, literally living off grass, and struggling in heartbreaking misery.”

Cumings: “The best scholarship on the North Korean famine, in my unbiased opinion, is to be found in my spouse’s study done for the Asian Development Bank Institute; she estimates about half a million dead from the famine and its consequences.”

* Breen quotes from an official biography of Kim Jong-il in order to illustrate “how hatred is taught in North Korea.” In the passage, which is set during the Korean War, the young boy witnesses “the saturation bombing of Pyongyang in which the heinous American imperialist murderers destroyed factories, schools, theaters and homes viciously at random, revealing their true nature as beasts.”

Cumings points out that, in this case at least, the north’s propaganda is more accurate than our history. “‘The Forgotten War’ might better be called an unknownwar,” he spits. “As an historian of that war, what is indelible is the extraordinary destructiveness of the American air campaigns against North Korea, ranging from the widespread and continuous use of fire-bombing (mainly with napalm), to threats to use nuclear and chemical weapons, and finally to the destruction of huge North Korean dams in the final stages of the war. Yet this episode is largely unknown even to historians, let alone to the average citizen, and it never gets mentioned in press analysis of the North Korean nuclear problem in the past decade.”

It is in providing analysis of the nuclear problem where Cumings, in the end, succeeds and Breen so dismally fails. Cumings too often provides benefit of the doubt to a dictator who kidnaps Italian chefs just to fix him pizzas. But it’s his empathy for the Korean people and his wide-ranging knowledge of their history and culture that enables him to cut through all the conventional wisdom to something almost like an understanding.

More than that, I think the professor may even like North Korea. He recalls a story out of Michael Herr’s Dispatches in which the Marines call in air support to destroy a stubborn Vietnamese sniper. After tons of ordnance fall, the Americans wait and wait, only to have their enemy pop up for one last shot. The Marines applaud.

“That’s what I feel when the North Koreans refuse to collapse and go away, and tell us where to get off for the umpteenth time,” Cumings says. “We may not need it, but we do deserve it.”

Kim Jong-il: North Korea’s Dear Leader by Michael Breen (Wiley, 200 pages); North Korea: Another Country by Bruce Cumings (The New Press, 241 pages)
Concord (NH) Monitor, 2004



1  If you review books, perhaps you’ve had this experience: Soon after your review appears, another is published that takes the opposite tack, arguing its position so forcefully and articulately that you wonder if maybe you didn’t get the whole thing all wrong. That’s part of the fun of reviewing, I suppose. I once heard an editor say that a review shouldn’t try too hard to be right; rather, it should make a strong, straightforward argument with an eye toward starting a dialogue. Easy advice to understand, sometimes difficult to follow, for me anyway. But I always like those reviews that appear a bit later and take into account other critical opinions in order to offer a contrary view.

The king of this practice is B. R. Myers. His Atlantic essay, A Readers’ Manifesto(2002), was a revisionist and often very funny polemic that argued that so-called great writers like Don DeLillo aren’t everything we’re told they are. It launched a thousand rebuttals across the Web—it was a great debate about what makes good criticism and good writing. (Same could be said for the l’affair Dale Peck.)

Anyway, turns out that Myers, besides being a literary critic, is a Korea scholar who speaks Korean, and in the September 2004 Atlantic, he turned his critical attention to Bruce Cumings. He wrote:

[…] But now we have a new book, in which Cumings likens North Korea to Thomas More’s Utopia, and this time the wrongheadedness seems downright willful; it’s as if he were so tired of being made to look silly by forces beyond his control that he decided to do the job himself. At one point in North Korea: Another Country (2004) we are even informed that the regime’s gulags aren’t as bad as they’re made out to be, because Kim Jong Il is thoughtful enough to lock up whole families at a time.

The mixture of naiveté and callousness will remind readers of the Moscow travelogues of the 1930s, but Cumings is more a hater of U.S. foreign policy than a wide-eyed supporter of totalitarianism. The book’s apparent message is that North Korea’s present condition can justify neither our last “police action” on the peninsula nor any new one that may be in the offing. It is perhaps a point worth arguing, particularly in view of the mess in Iraq, but Cumings is too emotional to get the job done. His compulsion to prove conservative opinion wrong on every point inspires him to say things unworthy of any serious historian—that there was no crime in North Korea for decades, for example—and to waste space refuting long-forgotten canards and misconceptions. Half a page is given over to deriding American reporters who once mistook Kim Il Sung’s neck growth for a brain tumor—talk about a dead issue.

I think Myers makes an excellent point. In my review, I was far too forgiving of all the outrageous things that Cumings said (and he does argue that imprisoning whole families makes survival in the gulag easier). My face was positively red after reading Myers. On the other hand, if Cumings makes points “worth arguing, particularly in view of the mess in Iraq,” then that counts for than Myers will acknowledge. I say this not simply because I tend to sympathize with Cumings’ politics. There are too few books that say anything of real interest or intelligence about Korea. I know—I look for them. I’m no Korea scholar, but I’m someone who lived in the country for a short year, who reads whatever books are available, and who watches the news.

Even given his failings, Cumings has many more valuable things to say about Korea than Michael Breen. Perhaps this is why, even though Myers listed Breen’s book as one of the four under review, he barely mentioned it, much less reviewed it. But Breen is also outrageous (the name-calling he resorts to—in the guise of humor—is enough to dismiss his book entirely), without advancing even an amateur’s understanding of North Korea. The fact that Myers mentions Breen’s book without calling attention to this fact gives it some credence by default.

2  It seems like a rather self-evident observation, that you can never really know Korea. But then you attempt to assuage your interest in the place by writing about it, and in order to get a gig, you have to sound knowledgeable. And that fake authority, present in this review to some extent, has always bothered me. It’s rampant among foreigners in Korea, who all think they’re experts. Joel, an American blogger in Korea, attended a talk given by Breen in Seoul in October 2004 titled “Being a Foreigner in Korea.” Here’s part of what he reported on his blog, About Joel:

My biggest complaint came at the end, when Michael Breen opened it up to the audience for questions. Now I agree with him that experts have a hard time defining Korea, but I think even a chimp (and not the smart ones who use sticks to eat ants negating the definition of man as the only animal who uses tools) can understand foreigner culture in Korea. So knowing that, he should never have opened the forum to questions. What proceeded were five separate guys giving us their analysis of Korea and their world travel logs getting on their soapboxes and spouting nonsense.

Only one legitimate question, offered by Stephen from Arirang’s Korean language program, was worthy of a response. Stephen asked, “What can Korea do to better explain itself to the world?” Michael said he thought what Korea needed to do was revamp its educational system to a system more conducive to criticism and critical thought. This was the one thing that he said that I could agree with whole-heartedly. I felt like applauding then, but he then offered one more person the chance to speak and it deteriorated into a bickering forum of tens of “experts” on Korea. The semi-normal foreigners began to clap for Michael Breen just to drown out the bickering and usher us out of the hall.