North Korea is a country that is little known to the Western world. A “Hermit Kingdom” that remains a mysterious and unknown place encapsulated in time. In his book “The Korean War,” Bruce Cumings, chairman of the history department at the University of Chicago and the author of “The Origins of the Korean War,” a respected two-volume survey, takes a revisionist look at the “forgotten war” shedding light on the events that led to the war and why it still continues today.
The book begins with a chronological overview of events that shaped the traditional understanding of the war, from the military attack by the Soviet-sponsored regime in North Korea on the US-sponsored regime in South Korea of June 25, 1950, to the armistice agreement (that was never actually signed by then South Korea President Rhee) on July 27, 1953. Cumings then offers subsequent chapters on the civil conflict in Korea before the war, the brutality of the war itself, and memories of the war (or lack thereof) in the United States, Korea and Japan.
As Cumings states in the introduction, this book was written primarily for an American audience because, for the majority of Americans “the war is forgotten and buried.” Still, the book does offer valuable insight into a war and an “enemy” that most did not, and still do not, fully understand.
The author does an excellent job shifting one’s view of the war from a two-state conflict, to a civil war that started long before 1950 and still continues today:
“The Pacific War began in 1931 and ended in 1945, just as the Korean War began in 1945 and has never ended, even if the fighting stopped in 1953.”
As the author reveals in his book, South Korean leaders and military spent just as much time and energy fighting internal conflicts as they did fighting their enemies in the North. Cumings dedicates a good portion of the book to uncovering, in great detail, the atrocities committed by the South on their own people, many of which were assisted, or ignored, by the United States military.
Even though Cumings seems to gloss over the actions of North Korea, he does offer insight into its history and why it came to be what it is today. With a long history of colonization, war and victimization of a brutal, imperialistic regime, North Korean leaders, all of whom are descendants of the original leaders of post WWII North Korea, remain vehemently anti-Japan. They remain bitter and fearful of the country that humiliated and brutalized them, and of the US for its support (or ignorance) of such actions. Cumings argues that it is because of this, that North Korea will do whatever it can to stay out of the hands of the South, where leaders have long-standing historical ties to Japan and are backed by the US.
While Cuming’s book offers valuable insight into the history and ideology of both North and South Korea, it has some major flaws.
The first is the title, which doesn’t adequately reflect the content of the book. While he does spend the first portion of the book giving a detailed overview of the major events of the Korean War, most of the book discusses the internal conflict that preceded the war, US political and military involvement before, during and after the war, and how this war, not WWII, “established a far-flung American base structure abroad and a national security state at home … and turned the United States into the policeman of the world.”
However, the biggest problem with the book is its structure.
“The Korean War” is informative and enlightening, offering a fresh and often overlooked perspective of the Korean War, but Cumings gets lost in his own ramblings leaving the reader to connect the dots and he often brings up seemingly unimportant information. While his writing style leaves much to be desired, Cumings does do a thorough job arguing his point, that the Korean War, not WWI or the Vietnam War, will eventually be “understood as one of the most destructive and one of the most important wars of the twentieth century.”
If you’re looking for a historical narrative about the Korean War, this is not the book for you. If you can manage to get past the academic essay style of writing, this book offers more than enough gems of insight to be able to move past the loose style. In the end, Cumings succinctly states the Korean peninsula’s stalemate as it remains today; “thus we arrive at our absurd predicament, where the party of memory remains concentrated on its main task … and the party of forgetting and never-knowing pays sporadic attention only when it must … then the media waters part, we behold the evil enemy in Pyongyang — drums beat, sabers rattle —but nothing really happens, and the waters close over until the next time.”
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