MIA: History: ETOL: Newspapers & Periodicals: International Socialist Review: Issue 4

International Socialist Review, Spring 1998

Leighton Christiansen


Why tigers fall

From International Socialist Review, Issue 4, Spring 1998.
Copied with thanks from the ISR Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the ETOL.

Korea’s Place in the Sun: A Modern History
Bruce Cumings
W.W. Norton & Company, 1997, 527 pages $35

AS THE economies of the Southeast Asian “Tigers” sink into crisis, a new history of the leader of the pack, South Korea, is welcome. A third of Koreans who are likely to be affected by the economic crisis live north of the 38th parallel, however, and are all but forgotten by mainstream media, except during times of political crisis. Bruce Cumings attempts to unravel the mysteries of both halves of the “Hermit Kingdom” in his new book, Korea’s Place in the Sun: A Modern History.

Cumings is at his best in Chapters 2 through 5, as he details how Korea’s development was shaped by the designs of various imperialist powers. Though Korea had resisted the penetration of world commerce, it was unable to escape the grip of the big powers seeking control of the Pacific. Korean rulers signed contracts and treaties with a number of powers in the 19th century, hoping to stave off direct military invasion. American, British and Russian companies had contracts with Korea, but Japanese companies outnumbered the others by four to one.

Japan colonized Korea in 1910 and used it as a stepping stone to China. Nine years later it crushed a mass anti-colonial uprising. Japan built up heavy industry in Korea, increasing production dramatically to fuel its war efforts in the 1930s. Cumings notes that the number of Korean industrial workers climbed from 385,000 in 1932 to 1.3 million by 1943.

While many Korean landlords and officials were willing to cooperate with the Japanese occupiers, peasants and workers resisted, as they had for years. They saw the defeat of Japan at the end of the Second World War as their way to freedom. “People’s committees” sprang up around the country in late August 1945, under the Committee for the Preparation for Korean Independence. When the U.S. stepped in to replace Japan and impose a “trusteeship” over Korea, the nationalist rebellion continued against the U.S. occupiers.

Agreement to divide Korea

The U.S. and Russia agreed to divide Korea between them, with U.S. forces occupying the south and Russian troops occupying the north. Two U.S. colonels, Dean Rusk and Charles Bonesteel, took just 30 minutes to pick the 38th parallel as the dividing line of Korea between U.S. and Russian control. The choice was made because, according to Rusk, it “would place the capital city in the American zone.” U.S. troops landed in September 1945 in order to set up Roosevelt’s “40 to 50 year trusteeship” that would subjugate the Korean economy to the needs of U.S.-occupied Japan.

The U.S. installed exiled nationalist Syngman Rhee by rigging UN-sponsored elections in 1948 to ensure his victory. U.S. aid grants to South Korea equaled $100 million per year – compare this to the 1951 South Korean national budget of only $120 million. South Korea became a police state under U.S. tutelage. The Rhee government killed tens of thousands of people, putting down all opposition to his rule.

North of the 38th parallel nationalist Kim Il Sung ruled – with Russian backing. Each side bristled at the other across the 38th parallel, vowing to reunite Korea by force. Border skirmishes were frequent in 1949 and 1950. The Korean War broke out in June 1950 when northern troops, battle-hardened from fighting for Chinese independence, launched an attack on the south. The U.S. launched a major counteroffensive, driving the northern forces back. More than 2 million civilians were killed. Many were burned to death or disfigured by the U.S.’s newest chemical weapon: napalm. General Douglas MacArthur had drawn up a plan to win the war in 10 days using “between 30 and 50 atomic bombs.” Though MacArthur was restrained from fear of Russian retaliation, U.S. forces dropped tons of conventional bombs and leveled every major building in North Korea. The war ended in July 1953, without reunification.

Cumings’ chapters on Korea in the four decades after the war explore the myths and facts of the “miracle” economy of the South. Peasants uprooted by the war found their way to industrial centers looking for work. Many of the chaebols, or large family-owned companies, got their start contracting to the U.S. army. The South Korean state used huge cash grants and negative interest loans to make sure that heavy industries were created. An infusion of a whopping $12 billion in U.S. aid from 1945–1965 fueled South Korea’s economic growth.

New South Korean ruler Park Chung Hee turned to exports, holding “Export Day” celebrations in the 1960s. Park hit upon new labor-management schemes, with slogans like “treat employees like family” – while keeping unions out. The Korean miracle growth rates of 8 percent and higher every year were built on large-scale state intervention, cheap labor and long hours. “In the early 1960s the labor cost savings for firms in the United States willing to move to Korea,” writes Cumings, “was a factor of 25, since workers were paid one-tenth of American wages but were 2.5 times as productive.” Following the Vietnam War, Park announced a program of developing the largest six industries: steel, autos, ships, machine tools, chemicals and electronics. This big push fueled the 12 percent annual growth in the mid-1980s as exports took off.

The largest gap in an otherwise useful book is Cumings’ failure to see how the growing workers’ movement has changed politics in South Korea. While all of Chapter 7 is dedicated to the movement for democracy in South Korea, Cumings spends little time on the explosive workers’ movement of the late 1980s. All that Cumings says about the 1988 workers’ movement is:

The regime also removed controls on labor organizing in the summer of 1987. During the period June 1987–June 1988, unions increased their membership by 64 percent, adding 586,167 new members; some 3,400 labor disputes, strikes, and lockouts occurred from July through October 1987, involving 934,000 workers. Most labor actions were over wage rates, but this was nevertheless a historic advance for Korean labor.

Surely an event as historic as that deserves more than three sentences out of 500 pages!

In fact, in the struggles of 1987–88, workers occupied factories, blocked railroads and formed unions, forcing unwilling companies to recognize them. Workers forced President Chun Doo Hwan to remove controls on organizing. From January to July 1988, another 860 strikes broke out, bringing Daewoo, Kia and Hyundai to a standstill. The lessons of the 1980s guided the general strike of December 1996/January 1997 over anti-union legislation. The strike of 270,000 workers, the largest in South Korean history, shook Kim Young Sam’s government to its core.

Cumings is at his weakest where he gets carried away with semi-mystical descriptions of Korean national character. To give just one example:

The Korean mind-heart is attuned to the spirits that inhabit the nature of all things (bears, crickets, trees, flowers, homes, rivers, mountains), the ghosts and goblins that walk the night, the shamans who cast spells, the heterodox women who unite mind and body in the writhing incantations of the mundang sorcerer.

Much of this comes in Chapter 1. The reader will have to patiently wade through it to get to the better points in the book.

Approach to history

Cumings’ account of North Korea after the Korean War is the scantiest part of the book. This can be excused, perhaps, because North Korea has been such a closed society. But part of the problem is Cumings’ own approach to the history. Whereas the longer chapters on South Korea are mostly historical description and analysis, in the 39 pages allotted to post-1953 North Korea, the first several pages describe the national character of North Korea, including a long philosophical digression to show that North Korea “is closer to a Neo-Confucian Kingdom than to Stalin’s Russia.” Cumings quotes North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Il that “[t]he basic factor which gives an impetus to social development must always be ascribed to ideological consciousness.” This thinking may or may not have roots in ancient Chinese philosophy, but Cumings’ idealist and ahistorical view of North Korea fails to grasp the economic dynamics.

Kim Il Sung’s statement is similar to Mao’s voluntarism in China – the idea that an economically backward country can by sheer force of will develop a fully modern economy. Like Russia and China once were, North Korea is a state capitalist economy that has sought to build up the national economy through state-directed exploitation of the mass of the population. Like China, its ruling class has used the cult of the leader to exhort the population to greater heights of production. Older ideological tradition in Korea no doubt has some parallels in more modern ideas, but by placing Confucianism above Stalinism in its impact on modern North Korea, Cumings creates the impression that the country stands in a historical time warp.

Cumings ends on the issue of Korean unification. He’s right to say that neither group of rulers, at least at this point, seems interested in unification from above except as an act of military aggression. But his answer – “people to people exchanges, trade, tourism” – seems a weak alternative. Cumings ends with, “It is time to imagine a unified, dignified, and modern Korea, with a liberty ‘perfected by civil discord’.” Imagining will do nothing to unify Korea on workers’ terms: it will probably take civil discord on a scale Korea has yet to see.

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