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The Lingering War

This year marks what is widely considered the sixtieth anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War. This was the first hot war of the Cold War; the first (and only) battlefield clash of superpowers; the first “limited war.” Given that the stances of the key external actors, China and the United States, have changed little since the winter of 1950 in terms of support for their respective allies, the shadow of a scythe still hangs over the peninsula; another conflict is not unthinkable. And yet the 1950-1953 war is barely known in the West; even its start dates are disputable.

This Year of the Tiger saw the publication of two important works on the Korean War: the Korean-American novelist Chang-Rae Lee’s The Surrendered, which deals with war and post-war trauma; and They Came from the North, the second volume in military historian Allan Millett’s masterly series on the war. But the scholar who has, more than anyone in the English language, argued for an analysis of events prior to the North Korean invasion of June, 25, 1950 in order to understand the war, is Bruce Cumings. His groundbreaking (and controversial) The Origins of the Korean War (1981;1990) was a gigantic blow to conventional wisdom. In both that book and his broader history Korea’s Place in the Sun (1997), Cumings not only compared the legitimacy of the South Korean government unfavorably with that of the North Korean, he also slammed American policies on the peninsula as myopic and ill-considered. Now we have this short and accessible account, which, according to its publicity material, is designed to become the standard popular text on “the forgotten war.” That is unlikely to happen.

The book is not without merit, certainly. Cumings is solid on the conflict’s local roots. So murky is the war that many readers may be surprised to discover that the American military governed Korea from 1945-1948. A retired South Korean general once told me that the Americans “made terrible mistakes” in those years, and Cumings wields an incisive pen detailing them. His writing on the sufferings and struggles of the young Kim Il-Sung provides a corrective for those who imbibed the Cold War-propaganda that made Kim an imposter, rather than an actual resistor of Japanese imperialism; and by detailing all that had occurred in Korea and Manchuria prior, Cumings places the staggering savagery of the Korean War into context. Stating his own surprise at ongoing memory of the Civil War in the American South, he makes a fair case as to why the Korean War is still so much a part of popular consciousness in North Korea today. He offers more information than do most historians on the North Korean People’s Army. While American histories tend to consider MacArthur’s Inchon the destruction of the NKPA, Cumings shows that the NKPA was far from annihilated, and in fact conducted a masterly withdrawal into the north.

On atrocities, particularly those committed by UN and ROK forces, Cumings writes expansively. His portrait of “Tiger” Kim, a particularly brutal officer of the South Korean constabulary, is compelling stuff. (One irony here: Cumings loves nothing more than railing against Orientalist renderings of Koreans, but his portrait of Kim might have been ripped from the pages of Ian Fleming.) Cumings observes that the Nogun-ri massacre, so long unknown until an Associated Press team bought it to light in 1999, was such a major challenge to the conventional narrative of the “unknown war” that it made the Korean War seem almost new. Finally, the sobering chapter on the terrible devastation the US Air Force unleashed upon North Korea during the war offers a fine balance between opinion, data, and first-hand accounts. Given Washington’s continued reliance upon air power, this chapter deserves a wide readership.

But problems abound. Cumings makes the point ad infinitum that the government of South Korea was riddled by those who had served Imperial Japan; I would not dispute this, but the emphasis on the Japanese colonial period is unduly heavy. Oddly, Cumings declines to recognize that—as has been compellingly pointed out by Brian Myers in The Cleanest Race—the current regime in Pyongyang has far more in common with the militaristic and xenophobic Japan of the 1930s than it does with a textbook communist state, not to mention today’s South Korea or Japan.

On massacres, Cumings states that the South killed more than the North. Perhaps—although we have no idea how many the vengeful communists killed after they retook North Korea, something we cannot know until Pyongyang opens its archives. (Don’t hold your breath.) The figures that Cumings cites for executions and murders by the South—100,000 to 200,000—are not authoritative. They are broad estimates made by the former head of Seoul’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and not borne out by subsequent investigations. (I can forgive Cumings this: I have quoted the same figures myself, which I now regret.)

While he discusses Korea’s invisibility in popular culture, Cumings fails to address why this massive and brutal but intensely dramatic war failed to capture the imagination of filmmakers or novelists. In passing, he puts a well-aimed boot into the groin of David Halberstam’s massively praised The Coldest Winter, noting that it barely mentions any South Koreans and evinces very little understanding of Korea—a criticism that an American veteran of the war also made to me.

Yet Cumings himself largely overlooks the combat sphere. His position is that most American literature on the war, such as Halberstam’s, covers military history. Fair enough. But though he quotes from and discusses politicians, reporters, fiction writers, and even philosophers frequently and at length, next to nothing is heard, first-hand, from grunt or general on either side. This is problematic: Writing the history of a war without soldiers’ accounts is akin to cooking a kimchi stew without the kimchi.

Then there is his continual equation of border clashes with invasion. Cumings makes much of the issue that a South Korean regiment may have attacked north of the parallel in the third week of June 1950, but regardless of whether it did, that was tactical combat with limited objectives. North Korea, by contrast, “met” this with a strategic offensive deep into the South—in short, an invasion. These distinctions matter.

And there is Cumings himself. A specialist on both America and Korea, he writes authoritatively on U.S. politics and the local origins of the war, but he largely overlooks the broader strategic picture of East Asia in 1950, notably, the then-recent victory of Mao in mainland China and the communist insurgencies raging in Indochina, Malaya, and the Philippines. While China’s ongoing economic rise is today a key talking point wherever wonks gather, it was in November 1950 that China established its superpower status: its rout of the UN Command in North Korea was a seismic event that shook the world. Cumings evinces little interest in this. 

Soviet archives opened during the Yeltsin years have proven a strong collusion between Kim, Stalin, and Mao in the run-up to the invasion. (Cumings notes, but does not comment on, the fact that Mao’s victory was aided by North Korean troops.) These revelations add more weight to the “communist conspiracy” theory that dominated much thinking in Washington in 1950, than to the post-1970s depiction of the conflict as largely an inter-Korean affair.

So Cumings’s book provides Americans with some elements of North Korea’s worldview, but it is hardly a definitive history of the Korean War. He certainly confronts Americans and South Koreans with some unpleasant truths, which is to be commended, but his overall lack of first-person color makes his book unlikely to capture readers’ imaginations. Had he spoken to veterans, Cumings might also have acknowledged the view that provides so many of them today with redemption: given current conditions in North and South Korea, the brutal war they fought was, indeed, a just one.

Andrew Salmon is the author of To The Last Round: The Epic British Stand on the Imjin River, Korea 1951, and the upcoming Scorched Earth, Black Snow: The Commonwealth Versus Communism, Korea, 1950.