Archive | Books RSS feed for this section

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.

Continue reading


B.R. Myers, A Province in Korea’s Mind

19 Apr

The World Is Our Game It’s a shame B. R. Myers isn’t as much of a team player in the academic world as he is at Dongseo University in Busan, South Korea. Reputable IR scholars could benefit from his translation skills. And, imitating his rhetorical skills as a takedown artist would help committed scholars survive an interview with Stephen Colbert long enough to boost book sales.

An upbeat outlook on one’s “issue area” is no less a career asset in academia than in business and government. The pessimist soon runs out of things to say; the optimist can go on publishing forever. Even so, there was a time when political scientists would have put a stop to all this wishful thinking. Had scholars in the 1970s known as much about North Korea as is glaringly apparent today, they would have pointed out its incompatibility with even the loos est definition of communism. But the current trend in this as in all branches of country studies is toward the application of pseudo-universal models and typologies. Some respected authority will, say, divide all dictatorships in history into those that acted out of greed, those that acted out of insecurity, and so on. Then a disciple will come along and explain which category North Korea belongs to, concluding with advice on how Washington can turn this insight to advantage. The regime’s ideology might earn mention as a “variable” to be taken into account, but that is about it.

The decline of foreign-language study has not helped matters. The Kremlinologists of old mastered Russian as a matter of course. The average North Korea expert quoted in our media cannot read the Rodong Sinmun, the Workers’ Party daily. His expertise is measured instead by the number and recentness of trips he has taken to the country. The result is an ever-growing focus on economic affairs at the expense of political analysis, which is how North Korea likes it. Through invitations to special dog-and-pony shows, the regime even helps determine which foreigners attain expert status back home. Then it turns around and sneers, through its official news agency, at “self-styled ‘North Korea experts’ who judge things according to what they hope is happening.”

Continue reading

Book Review #6

5 Apr

Reading Means of Ascent: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Volume II, I realized Machiavelli in The PrinceLBJ, 1942 would have cited the United States’ 36th president as an example of how a prince should treat “fortune”.

“I conclude therefore that, fortune being changeful and mankind steadfast in their ways, so long as the two are in agreement men are successful, but unsuccessful when they fall out. For my part I consider that it is better to be adventurous than cautious, because fortune is a woman, and if you wish to keep her under it is necessary to beat and ill-use her; and it is seen that she allows herself to be mastered by the adventurous rather than by those who go to work more coldly. She is, therefore, always, woman-like, a lover of young men, because they are less cautious, more violent, and with more audacity command her.”

Robert Caro continues in the second volume the painstaking, relentless destruction of any line between moral or amoral inclinations, or the light and dark, Lyndon Baines Johnson has straddled in his fans and political enemies alike. Caro’s second volume wades through what would appear to be the least insightful period in LBJ’s life, from his unsuccessful Senate bid in 1941 to his fraudulent Senate bid in 1948. In between Caro explores LBJ’s acquisition of a radio station and his brief period of military “service” in 1942, which basically consisted of a Congressional investigative junket in which Japanese Zero’s provided the testimony. LBJ’s treatment of his wife, Lady Bird, also figures prominently in both the management of the radio station and during the ’48 campaign. There’s also a contrasting portrait of LBJ’s major opponent, Coke R. Stevenson, a legend in Texas politics, leaving no doubt where Caro’s opinion of the winner lies.

Continue reading

%d bloggers like this: