Cumings On Lankov On North Korea

27 Apr

The Tribes of Korean HistoryBruce Cumings’ review of Andrei Lankov’s latest book, The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia, exhibits the most annoying aspect of scholarship directed at North Korea, parochialism.

I mention these examples because they reflect a flaw in this book—namely, a consistent tendency to interpret DPRK history in the light of the Soviet experience and especially its demise. This is unsurprising: Andrei Lankov is part of a generation that lived through an utterly unexpected rupture, perhaps the most singular unanticipated grand event of the last century. Harking back to the abject collapse of a global superpower, Lankov foresees a DPRK death rattle. He does not know when it will come but thinks it inevitable and most likely to happen—you guessed it—utterly unexpectedly. In the wake of the demise of Western Communism (save Cuba), Lankov cannot imagine how this regime can sustain itself and particularly how it can revive its economy. Such socialist economies are ipso facto inefficient, he argues, and thus doomed to fail. North Korea’s only way out is to mimic Chinese economic reforms. But that too will mean the end of this regime because it cannot stand the fresh brush with reality that would inevitably come with a genuine opening to the world.

Lankov shares another similarity with most Russian scholars and those who base their interpretations on Soviet documents. Like them, he inflates Soviet control over the direction of Korean affairs. (This is the opposite of the outlook of most Americans, who view themselves as innocent bystanders during post-1945 Korean history, save for the war years in the early 1950s.) It is a historical fact that Soviet troops left North Korea at the end of 1948, never to return. This contrasts sharply with the Soviets’ practice in Eastern Europe; 365,000 Soviet troops were garrisoned in East Germany, for example, when the Berlin Wall fell. Stalin, who famously dismissed the pope’s significance by asking how many divisions he had, never thought he could control satellites without troops on the ground. After the Soviet troops left Korea, Kim and his allies promptly proclaimed their state to be the inheritor of the anti-Japanese guerrilla tradition, not that of the USSR. In 1949, on the first anniversary of the North Korean army’s founding, Kim’s retinue went so far as to give him the moniker suryong, an ancient Korean term translated as “great leader.” This title, up until that point, had been reserved for Stalin. This was utter heresy in the Communist world of the time, but it remained Kim’s title until his death in 1994.

Strong evidence of this remarkably swift Koreanization is hidden away in the one concrete thing that General Douglas MacArthur carried back with him from his disastrous run-up to the Yalu River in 1950: thousands of archival boxes of secret North Korean materials, otherwise known as Record Group 242, “Captured Enemy Documents.” They reside in the U.S. National Archives, where they were declassified in 1977. Lankov does not appear to have used these materials, which accounts for some of his misinterpretations.

Nor does Lankov seem to grasp the salience of the new history pouring out of South Korea from numerous scholars since it democratized twenty years ago. He is quick to dismiss this history as the product of starry-eyed leftism or puerile anti-Americanism—and to chide these scholars for not using Soviet documents. Thus, the author makes much of Kim Il-sung’s membership in the Chinese Communist Party during his guerrilla days as “a junior officer in the essentially Chinese guerrilla force.” Here he seems to draw upon forty-year-old scholarship by Chong-sik Lee and Dae-sook Suh (both now retired from teaching at American universities). But South Korean scholar Han Hong-gu showed in his 1999 dissertation that upwards of 80–90 percent of what was officially the “Chinese Communist Party” and the guerrilla units in Manchuria were Koreans; that Chinese Communists arrested and nearly executed Kim (while the Japanese murdered his first wife, scholars believe); and that his sojourn in a Soviet-Chinese training camp along the two countries’ border near Khabarovsk in the last few years of World War II was far less influential on Kim and his subsequent regime than his decade-long anti-Japanese resistance. In slighting this history, Lankov chooses instead to focus on the Soviets’ tutelage of Kim and their subsequent puppetry.

It may strike readers as odd, but Soviet and Chinese Communist leaders who knew Kim Il-sung well could be just as bone-headed and ham-handed in their dealings with him as were American leaders trying to rid themselves of former allies such as dictators Ngo Dinh Diem, Rafael Trujillo or even South Korea’s first president, Syngman Rhee (against whom the United States considered fostering coups at least twice, in 1950 and 1953). Moscow and Beijing knew so little about Kim and his close associates—and so little did they understand their deep base in the DPRK’s huge land army—that the two supposedly allied capitals conspired with weak pro-Chinese and Soviet internal factions to overthrow Kim in 1956. Lankov downplays the external impetus for this failed gambit and seems to miss the historical reality that from 1945 onward there were no formidable rivals to Kim’s guerrilla group because it controlled the guns.

It’s this constant back-and-forth between the various national and ideological tribes of scholarship about North Korea that bedevils compiling that elusive white whale of the field: an objective portrait.


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