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Korea's place in the sun : a modern history

Cumings, Bruce

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서명/저자사항Korea's place in the sun : a modern history / Bruce Cumings.
개인저자Cumings, Bruce, 1943-
판사항Updated ed.
발행사항New York : W. W. Norton, 2005.
형태사항542 p. : ill. ; cm.
ISBN0393327027 (cover)
0393040119
0393316815 (pbk.)
9780393327021
일반주기 Previous ed.: 1997.
서지주기Includes bibliographical references (p. 515-520) and index.
주제명(지명)Korea --History --20th century
Korea (South) --History
Korea --History --1864-1910
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Korea's Place in the Sun
  • 8
  • 2022-05-01
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I bought this book to teach me something about Korean history when I first arrived here in the 1990s, and a re-read twenty-five years later stands up very well. Bruch Cumings has a personable, relatable, breezy style full of anecdotes from the past and present to illustrate his points. His deep knowledge of the topic is evident, and is made more relatable as his own personal story, “as American as apple pie”, is woven throughout the book. He spends a chapter dealing with the first few thousand years of Korean history, and then gets into real detail with the opening of Korea in the late 19th Century and then its turbulent 20th Century. The most notable thing about the first few thousand years is that, through prehistory and the development of villages and cities and state formation, Koreans always lived in the Korean peninsula and coalesced mostly from the tribes that already lived here. By the 15th Century Chosun Dynasty, Korea had developed a centralized, bureaucratic agricultural state with powerful landed families. A Confucian elite ruled, though the central state could not penetrate to the village level. A general decline set in throughout the 19th Century, as the elite were not taxed, so that the peasants were overtaxed and the state weak. Cumings presents the viewpoint of the losers at the end of the Chosun Dynasty very well. the Confucian scholars who looked back on a tradition of thousands of years of morality, ethics, governance and advocated for it forcefully, violently. Choe Ik-hyon died of starvation in a Japanese prison in 1906, “I was unable to repel the traitors, dispose of our nation’s enemies, restore our nation’s sovereignty, recover our territory, or hold back our four thousand year long righteous Way of Chinese civilization from falling to the ground.” He points out that it is difficult to write truthfully about the Japanese colonial period. Being colonized by the Japanese was an insult for most Koreans, because for most of history, they had regarded them as inferior, being further away from the font of Chinese civilization. Nevertheless, why did so many Koreans collaborate with the Japanese? What was attractive? Most have tried to erase that history from their families. Throughout the colonial period, the Korean economy grew faster than the Japanese. A modern road and rail network, textile factories, electricity production (coal and hydroelectric), mines, aluminum and steel production, chemical factories, department stores, vaccinations, and many of the other accoutrements of an industrial state were developed. This Japanese developmental state eventually eroded the old Korean anti-mercantilism. However, Koreans were paid less for the same work as Japanese and discriminated against in their own country. Liberation movements were put down brutally. The jails were full. The Japanese attempted to systematically erase Korean culture. Modern Korean politics was born in the colonial era. Nationalists vs Communists vs Liberals. Gradualists vs. people who wanted to use violence to end colonialism now. People who stayed in Korea vs people who went abroad. People who went to the US vs people who went to China. Collaborators vs resisters. Lastly, there was a great uprooting of Korea’s peasant population as it moved off the land, into the cities and to Japan or Manchuria. Perhaps 40% of the adult male population moved, possibly, as a percentage, the fastest, largest movement of population in history, especially when we consider how immobile it had been in the hundreds or thousands of years leading up to it. Half the book revolves around the period 1945 to 1953. This is a detailed account and the part of Korean history in which Cumings specializes. The United States is to blame for the division of Korea. Cumings states it, and I agree. The American Occupation was a disaster that alienated probably the majority of South Korean popular opinion as it put down the people’s committees that had sprung up after the Japanese surrender and utilized the Koreans who had worked for the Japanese and these in turn stymied efforts at land reform. On the other hand, Cumings says Korea should have been allowed to have its socialist, nationalist revolution and now it would be a country like Vietnam or China. I say, exactly. I wonder what a poll of South Koreans would say on this in 2021? One detail I think he has wrong because of research that has come out since he wrote this book is on how Kim Il Sung came to power in North Korea. Cumings says the Soviets did not choose Kim Il Sung, but the Korean guerilla fighters chose Kim. However, Andrei Lankov, who has seen the relevant KGB archives, disagrees. He says that the Russians put Kim Il Sung in place, wrote his speeches for him and every North Korean ministry had a Soviet advisor who wrote the speeches for their relevant ministers. Cumings’ take on the Korean War is also informative and controversial. The Korean War was actually a war between the South Korean army, which had many officers who had been Korean members of the Japanese military, and North Korea, which was bolstered by the return of 100,000 Koreans who had been fighting for the Communists in China. He details the battles and border skirmishes that raged in 1949. It is undoubtedly true, as he points out, that both Synghman Rhee and Kim Il Sung wanted to reunite Korea and Rhee was trying to do so. The Americans held him back by not giving him heavy weapons and by telling him that they would disavow him if he tried. On the other hand, Cumings leaves out the fact that Kim Il Sung talked Stalin into giving him tanks, artillery and airplanes with which to invade the South, which he promptly did in June 1950. Cumings also claims that had somebody been allowed to win the Korean War, Korea would have been reunited and this would have been a good thing. “Every country is entitled to its civil war.” He wrote the book in the 1990s. Again, I wonder what polling would reveal about the answer to this question in South Korea in 2021. My guess is most people care less about reunification and more about being rich and free. Cumings is not an economist and neither am I, but he has a decent chapter on how Korea’s economy grew so fast. The causes were a combination of: Korea had actually been industrialized by Japan, but that capacity had been destroyed so it was possible to build it back; Korea had a tradition of efficient bureaucratic management; there was a thirst for education that built a disciplined workforce; society had been levelled by the upheavals of the colonial period and war; the landlords had been more or less overthrown; billions of dollars of American aid; and timing. The Japanese developmental state formed the core of the Park Chung-hee regime. Cumings also details the turbulent post-war Korean politics, through dictatorships, protests, uprisings, revolutions and democracy. He offers an insightful analysis of the factions, where their support lay, and what people thought of them. There is a chapter on North Korea. Cumings analyzes it as an heir to Confucianism, that is, the leaders of North Korea are spoken of by propagandists there as propagandists in the past would have written about Confucian kings. I have read other books in which the authors claim that North Korea is a relic Japanese fascist state. Whatever the outcome of this debate, he shows how the state projects its legitimacy to rule to its population, something is often difficult for people from democracies to grasp, and he was right about the long-term survival of the regime. But he was dead wrong about its economy. As he was writing, North Korea was experiencing a famine and he sort of mentioned it. It is not nearly as self-sufficient as it said or he thought because since the subsidized fuel got cut off from Russia and China, it has never really recovered. As I said, Cumings wrote the book in the 1990s so some of it is dated when he talked about “Korean now” he is talking about Korea in the 1990s. His last chapter on how he thinks Korean relations might shape up in the future did not happen, but then again no one can really predict the future. However, the book is a solid, entertaining and thoughtful account of Korean history from an American point of view. All of his opinions may not be correct, but he can tell you why he thinks what he thinks, and then it is up to you to find reasons to support your disagreements. That is what true scholarship is about.

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