An Interview with Bruce Cumings in the Seventieth Year of the Korean War | July 27, 2020
To mark the seventieth year of the Korean War, KPI sat down with KPI associate and University of Chicago historian Bruce Cumings on May 23, 2020. Professor Cumings’s landmark account of the Korean War’s origins and his lifetime of scholarship on both the war and North Korea have fundamentally transformed the contours of public discourse on U.S.-Korea relations. More than challenge first-shot accounts of the Korean War’s June 25, 1950 start-date, Professor Cumings’s research has pointed to the critical fact that the war is not over. In this wide-ranging conversation, Professor Cumings reflected on his own intellectual itinerary, some of his key scholarly findings, the political policing of Korean studies, as well as the perils and possibilities of the Trump administration’s stance toward North Korea.
KPI: Given that it has been seventy years since the Korean War officially began, we wanted to ask you to cast a glance back on your own interest in the war. What was it about your first experience in Korea that sparked your interest in Korean history and the Korean War?
Cumings: Well, I joined the Peace Corps in 1967 wanting to serve my country in that way rather than go to Vietnam, and I arrived in Seoul in October of 1967 after thirteen weeks of training in a godforsaken place called Blue Knob, Pennsylvania, which had once been a radar station of some sort. The Peace Corps put us up there to see if we could rough it because Korea at that time was a poor country, and many of my friends and colleagues went to small villages where there really wasn’t much including indoor toilets and things like that that made a huge difference to a lot of people. I was in Seoul on a relatively easy tour living with a family of school teachers in a home in Seogyo-dong, which is near Donggyo-dong, where Kim Dae-jung had a house that was very similar to this teacher’s house. The husband eventually became a high school principal, but at the time he was just a teacher, and they had a middle-class existence for Koreans. I taught English conversation to 60 students in 10 classes, 600 students all wearing black military uniforms. This experience was not particularly enlightening, but Korea itself was absolutely fascinating. I had been interested in China but hadn’t really done any courses before going to Korea. I just got diverted, and here I am, fifty years later. I had one experience that was perfect for what ended up being my career. In January of 1968 guerillas said to be from North Korea tried to assassinate president Park Chung-hee and got all the way to the gates of the Blue House before they were killed. They came right through my neighborhood, which was north of the Blue House, and they weren’t sure how many came down so they were chasing them for weeks after that with flares all night long, soldiers in pillboxes right on the main streets. It went on for a month or six weeks and these soldiers had glassy eyes like they’d killed a lot of people. I don’t know if they had or not, but they were very fearsome looking people, and the police would come on the bus they took to go down, and check people’s IDs. I just got a very strong sense of the Korean War not really ending, but just being in suspension. Americans are talking about other wars, mainly in reference to Afghanistan, Iraq, and maybe Syria, but one point I’d like to get across is that Korea is the true forever war. It’s just an armistice holding the peace. Relations between North Korea and the U.S. remain pretty terrible. I used to tell my students that I was pretty sure that Korea would be reunified in my lifetime, but my lifetime is dribbling away while the chances for reunification don’t seem to be all that strong. But the main point is that another war could break out at any time. That has been true for seventy years. It really is our first and longest lasting forever war.
"Korea is the true forever war. It's just an armistice holding the peace."
KPI: What do you see as a lasting effect of the diplomatic initiative between North Korea, the United States, and South Korea that came to an abrupt closure in Hanoi? Do you see any lasting changes of that might bode well for Korea in the future?
Cumings: Quite a bit of trust has been built up in South Korea with President Moon being quite consistent in calling for talks, diplomacy, trying to push the U.S. to engage in diplomacy with North Korea. I don’t know if that will last. He might be replaced by a right-wing president in two years, and we would be back where we started. The Trump administration messed up almost as bad as one can imagine. I give Trump credit for reaching out to Kim Jong Un and meeting with him three times, going against the standard advice of all the so-called Korea experts in Washington. But the Hanoi meeting was a disaster, and Trump allowed himself to be basically taken for a ride, not by Kim Jong Un, but by John Bolton. Bolton raised issues that had not come up before including North Korean chemical and biological weapons, which they’ve had for decades. I mean everybody knows that they’ve had those for decades. They’ve never used them. I don’t know if they test them. I’m not sure they have biological weapons, but they have a huge chemical industry. I’m sure they have chemical weapons. Lots of countries including the U.S. have chemical weapons. Bolton brought that up. He brought up human rights issues. He basically brought up the laundry list that exists in Washington whenever you want to abort negotiations with North Korea: you just start going from one issue to another. Trump didn’t help matters by getting up and leaving in the middle of the meeting, which as bad as it gets when it comes to diplomacy with any Korean entity, but certainly with North Korea. And, of course, there’s been nothing since. I do give North Korea’s credit for—how can I put it—just being quiet: not blowing off atomic bombs and lifting long-range missiles. They basically kept to a moratorium on those things that they informally agreed to with Trump right at the beginning. Nothing is going to happen now, with the election coming up in November. What Trump’s relations with North Korea show is that there’s a hard core of career officials in Washington who don’t want summit meetings with Kim. They just want to squeeze North Korea, which they’ve been doing. Trump flips from one thing to another. He’s not really a serious president. I mean he’s not able to fixate on anything for any length of time. But there were high hopes, and right now I don’t have very high hopes for Trump and North Korea.
KPI: Could you to speculate what the possibilities are for U.S. foreign policy toward North Korea if Trump is reelected, on the one hand, and if Biden is elected, on the other?
Cumings: If Trump is reelected, he’s likely going to revive meeting with Kim Jong Un. That wouldn’t surprise me at all. I don’t have any idea whether he’s ready to make arrangements, agreements, or concessions that would actually bring North Korea and the U.S. together. For what it’s worth, I think the U.S. ought to get rid of all these stupid obstacles in the way of relations with North Korea and normalize relations with the country. President Moon would support that completely. Stop embargoing and have a normal relationship with North Korea, which would bring North Korea out of its isolation. Trump could do that, but I don’t think he has a deep enough understanding of the Korean situation to do something like that. He was so happy to bask in the glare of world attention in his meetings with Kim Jong Un, but like so much else with his administration, there wasn’t ultimately much substance to it.
With Biden I think you’d get a repeat of the Obama administration where embargos would be kept on North Korea. There would be meetings to try and get them to give up their missiles and A-bombs, and unless the U.S. is willing to offer serious concessions to the North, I don’t see why the North would give those up. The Obama diplomacy basically ended on Leap Day in 2012 when North Korea said to the U.S. that they were going to put up a satellite. Now a rocket with a satellite on its nose is a lot different from a military ICBM with a bomb in its nose, and the North Koreans felt they had gotten across to the U.S. that putting up the satellite did not violate their agreement to stop testing long-range missiles. The U.S. accused them of reneging on the Leap Day agreement, and, poof, there went Obama’s attempts to have diplomacy with North Korea. I imagine Biden would hire some of the same people that Obama did, and we’d be continuing in a stalemate situation. Biden is no maverick like Trump. With Trump you do occasionally get something that’s really new like his meetings with Kim, but I can’t see Biden doing that. I think he’s going to be elected though. Mainly because of the coronavirus catastrophe in this country.
“With Biden you’d get a repeat of the Obama administration where embargos would be kept on North Korea. There would be meetings to try and get them to give up their missiles and A-bombs, and unless the U.S. is willing to offer serious concessions to the North, I don’t see why the North would give those up.”
KPI: It was like the tale of the emperor wearing no clotheswhen Trump stated that the war exercises between the United States and South Korea were indeed provocative. At least rhetorically, his concession went against the orthodoxy of the establishment. One of the things that has characterized the Trump era is his disdain for the rhetoric of human rights. If the high-water point for the North Korean human rights industry was the George W. Bush era, we witnessed that industry persist into the Obama era, only to be almost entirely discarded during the Trump era. What do you make of the future of the North Korean human rights industry?
Cumings: You’re right that Trump has not sided with human rights activists anywhere on the globe. He’s got a very difficult problem before him today with China putting the clamps on Hong Kong, which had major demonstrations all last year. That’s going to be a very tough one for Trump to finesse. He would rather meet with a dictator—whether it’s Kim Jong Un or the Egyptian leader or someone else—than put American prestige behind human rights campaigns. In the case of North Korea, the human rights issue has been there since the war, but the human rights program has never had much of an impact on North Korea. The primary impact came with NGOs that came into North Korea in the late 1990s during the famine era. They got around the country, and we got much better data on what was going on with the economy. I don’t know that North Korea was happy to have that help but they had to have it, so progress was made at that time in our understanding of North Korea. To pressure North Korea from the outside on human rights issues is an admirable task, but this is a country that can really batten down the hatches. When the coronavirus struck, they just shut the country off. They wouldn’t allow foreigners to come in. I’ve always thought that the human rights situation in North Korea would get much better the more it was open to the world economy. That’s what I thought about China too. It went for thirty years or so with more and more opening and more and more freedom, but Xi Jinping has shown you can be the second largest economy in the world and you can still crack down on your own people. I’ve never thought that external pressure would make much of a difference on North Korea because that’s what they’ve been dealing with for seventy years.
KPI: North Korean human rights are a cottage industry of basically renovated cold warriors and Korean American evangelicals. During the post-9/11 moment, it was clear that the human rights industry had no investment whatsoever in humanitarian policies toward North Korea. Figures like Erich Weingartner have noted the non-intersection between human rights and humanitarian approaches to North Korea and people like David Hawk have revealingly stated that these should not be intersecting tracks at all. Insofar as post-9/11 human rights activists pushed for U.S. intervention, including through military means and heavier sanctions, they were actually advocating for adverse humanitarian circumstances within North Korea.
Cumings: I think you’re right. I don’t have much contact with these groups because they don’t contact me. I think they think I’m pro-North Korean. Particularly the evangelicals are skating on very thin ice in pressuring North Korea. Pyongyang, at one point, was called the Jerusalem of the East, and Kim Il Sung was born in the outskirts of Pyongyang. The North Koreans are extremely sensitive to Christianity in general, and evangelicals in particular. I’ve read some of their [evangelical] stuff over the years, and my impression is they would like to take over the country and arrest every high communist official and put them in prison if not execute them, and when Christian groups occupied Korea during the fall of 1950, they carried out some horrible atrocities. North Koreans as a people have every reason to fear evangelicals, particularly those tied up either with the South Korean government, when you have a right-wing government there, or with American church groups and the U.S. government. It’s hard for Christians to take it when an entire country and its leadership rejects proselytizing and all of that. In the late 1940s the North Koreans prohibited Christian churches from taking part in politics, although not their political parties, and they left them alone. There’s a bunch of Jesuit priests who were in Wonsan until 1950 and the U.S. debriefed them when they came to the south, and they said there was religious freedom but not freedom for religious groups and churches to be political. After the war, with the saturation bombing that the U.S. carried out for three years, North Koreans identified that terrible violence with the U.S. being a Christian country. It’s perfectly understandable that they would develop a grudge along these lines so that even seventy years later, you have a deep antipathy towards Christian, particularly Christian, activists.
KPI: What was the role of figures like Harold Noble and the children of American missionaries in the development of U.S. intelligence about and war policy toward Korea? Did Christianity inform the anticommunism of U.S. policy in any significant way? So many China hands were the children of missionaries. Were there children of missionaries who were Korea hands in any commensurate way?
Cumings: I’ve met at least two, if not three, generations of Underwoods who served in the occupation. I actually quoted an Underwood who spoke about how the Korean national police and certain Japanese were not being turned into democrats by the American occupation, and he was naïve enough probably to believe that—either that or it was a public relations release. I don’t know that the Underwoods were ever involved with American intelligence, but probably they were because they could speak Korean after a fashion. When Lyndon Johnson came to Korea in 1966, one of the Underwoods translated for him. I don’t know whether it was the same one from the occupation or his son. He made a horrendous gaffe by referring to the North Koreans coming down with honorifics—instead of wasseoyo, ohshosseoyo. I don’t know how many Koreans told me that; they thought it was such a huge gaffe. He may have been involved with American intelligence, but Harold Noble definitely was. My good old friend and advisor Frank Baldwin, who was at Columbia when I was a graduate student, wrote a book based on Harold Noble’s diaries called Embassy at War about the first few weeks of the war after the North Koreans invaded. It’s a remarkable book because he’s got Syngman Rhee running away, and they can’t find him. They’re looking for him in Daejeon and he’s down in Mokpo. It took them two weeks to find the president of South Korea, and everybody was making it to the south to make Jeju Island into Taiwan so they would have a refuge. Most of them, though, the majority of the officers were making plans to go to Japan. So much for all the evil Japanese. Most of them had served the Japanese in one way or another, so the book has a lot of very interesting details like that, but Frank—and if he hears this I’ll apologize—is in his mid-eighties. He basically went to Korea ten years before I did, and he’s got a—still I think—a serious Cold War outlook on the whole thing, but he’s a great guy and that book is fascinating. Harold Noble is an interesting character. I don’t know about his religious activities, but he was definitely a missionary or related to missionaries. I don’t think there were a commensurable number of sons and daughters of missionaries who then went into Korean Studies or into the government to advise the government about Korea compared to China.
KPI: Are there aspects about the Korean War, which is paradoxically commemorated in the United States as the “forgotten war,” that the American public should know?
Cumings: They should know that the first time the “forgotten war” was used was in October 1951 in U.S. News and World Report, and Martha Gellhorn, a great journalist, particularly of wars, wrote that the Vietnam War was also a forgotten war. Korea is more of a forgotten war in the sense that it was not a matter of amnesia and forgetting so much as never knowing. The Korean War was fought for three years while Joe McCarthy was at his height. Actually the start of the Korean War gave McCarthyism a lift after several months of being fallow. McCarthy wasn’t denounced until 1954. What that meant was that any American who chose to protest the war could easily go to jail, lose their job, or be hauled up in front of a committee like the House Un-American Activities Committee. Then McArthur instituted censorship a few months into the war so you have some very interesting reporting in the summer of 1950 in the mass of magazines who see this war as a very different war from World War II. Once the censorship clamps down, people get a lot of bull, but they don’t get much news. There weren’t any TV cameras to run around with the troops like there were in Vietnam. During the Korean War, you had fifteen minutes of nightly news, and you had newsreels, sometimes in a Saturday matinee movie theater, but basically the war was going on without being reported in a serious way, so when you want serious investigative reporting, you have to go to British reporters like Reginald Thompson whose book called Cry Korea is one of the best books ever written about any war, but certainly about Korea. It’s a harrowing account of racism and rapes and massacres. That’s what Americans should have been getting from their own reporters. Just to give you an example, the U.S. attacked gigantic dams in North Korea from the air in May and June 1953, and one of those breaches of a dam led to a flood that went 27 miles downstream. The New York Times reported war coverage on the front page in several different fonts–larger to smaller to tiny—and they reported the attacks on the dams in those tiny fonts with no article in the paper and certainly no editorial comment. Those were war crimes recognized as such in protocols signed by the U.S. in 1949. It was a horrendously brutal war that went on outside the purview of most Americans and most GIs. By April or May of 1951 the war was confined primarily to the area that was the DMZ not the air war that was pounding North Korea for two more years, but the average American soldier was engaged in trench warfare, and really had no idea why he was there what the war was about. All he knew was that there were a hundred Chinese or North Koreans over the next hill. The Korean War is a very curious war. It’s a lot like Vietnam, but without people knowing it and without attention, and it’s a lot like other American wars—the three-year war in the Philippines at the turn of the 20th century is another good example. It never ceases to amaze me. I get questions from people that are so basic. It’s really just an unknown war.
KPI: You have observed that early on, the United States restrained a South Korean president from trying to go to war with North Korea. Since the Syngman Rhee era, we’ve had U.S. presidents trying to restrain South Korea from making peace with North Korea. There is a lot of discussion in South Korea as to what Moon Jae-in should do next, given that the United States is the big elephant in the room. What do you see as the future of the alliance? Are peace on the peninsula and the continuation of this alliance compatible in any way?
Cumings: Let me backtrack a bit to President Rhee. It’s terribly important that in 1949, from May through December, South Korea attacked across the border much more than North Korea. The majority of attacks were by South Koreans particularly when Kim Sok-won was the commander of the parallel in the summer of 1949 through October. He had been chasing Kim Il Sung in the hills of Manchuria on behalf of the Japanese. Just think about the conflict situation where you have Kim Il Sung in the north and Kim Sok-won in the south. It’s remarkable that people are surprised by a civil war breaking out, but it goes way beyond that because several officers, all of whom served the Japanese, were supervising these attacks, and in the first week of August of 1949, it very nearly was a war. What you find is that the American ambassador was restraining Rhee, and the Soviet ambassador was restraining Kim, and saying, “There’s going to be a civil war if you retaliate or take this any further,” up to the last South Korean attack in December. They were basically always trying to get a vantage point on a mountain or a hill to look into North Korea. Syngman Rhee was told by an American intelligence officer, Preston Goodfellow, that if he stopped attacking and the North attacked in an unprovoked way, the U.S. would back him. There’s no question about it. I went through all of Goodfellow’s papers. What you had was North Koreans not wanting to fight in the summer of 1949 and then getting a lot of troops back from China where they were bloodied fighting alongside the Chinese communists. They stick them just north of the border and they decide to settle the hash of the South Korean regime, but because of the hiatus of six months from January to June, this is seen as a heinous aggression, as if it were crossing a national border. One of the things about the Korean War that I will go to my grave fighting is the idea that it started on June 25th. June 25th was a kind of day, a denouement to a period of escalating conflict on Jeju island, on the border, in the mountains. One of North Korea’s problems was—just about everybody in the world thinks I’m full of shit—that it attacked a democratic ally of the U.S. that was [perceived as] blameless. I hear it all the time. I’ve heard it my whole career.
It’s a matter of history being important, and people like Ambassador Muccio and Dean Acheson, the Secretary of State, knowing that history yet putting something over the American people. Acheson actually refers to, in 1950, guerrilla fighting going on in 1948, 49, in Korea. If I were President Moon [Jae-in], I would have no idea what the future holds with the U.S. I was watching MSNBC this morning and someone said that there are five or six allies that are standing there laughing themselves silly at all the Trump administration is doing in terms of foreign policy. His diplomacy is in complete disarray. You don’t know who’s in charge really because Trump won’t read. He will not read his intelligence briefings. He doesn’t even like to listen to oral briefings. He just wants to watch Fox News and decide what to do. But if you ask me to handicap the war with North Korea all the way to normalization of relations with North Korea, I would say we might have another summit or two and, if Trump is reelected, basically be in the same place we are today four years from now. I don’t think Kim wants a war. Trump may have learned enough, at least enough about Kim Jong Un, to try to avoid that from happening, but I don’t know any time in my career or anybody else’s where things are harder to predict than they are right now. I mean I know what would happen if Biden gets in: we’ll have the same old rigamarole of sanctions and embargos on the North focusing only on their A-bombs and missiles.
“One of the things about the Korean War that I will go to my grave fighting is the idea that it started on June 25th. June 25th was a kind of day, a denouement to a period of escalating conflict on Jeju island, on the border, in the mountains“
KPI: Could we ask you to reflect back on your career? You had KCIA agents in the 1970s in your classes, you were barred for some time from going to South Korea during the period of military dictatorship, and your book was also banned. The policing of the academy with regard to Korean studies is not over in some significant respects.
Cumings: It’s a lot better now than it was then because we had KCIA people all over the place. My first publication that the Korean government didn’t like was about the Yushin constitution in 1972. When I was trying to get tenure and publish my book and had a baby girl, I didn’t go to Korea. About 7 years later, I went to the consulate in Seattle, got a visa, and thought everything was fine. I got to Tokyo and my name was on a list and my picture, and this Japanese United Airlines guy looks at me like he’s seen a ghost and says, “I’m sorry you’re barred from going to Korea.” I did not have a visa from 1972 to 1985 when Kim Dae Jung got me a regular visa. I went to the embassy in Tokyo and said, “What’s going on here?” Frank Baldwin who speaks fluent Japanese was in Tokyo and he came with me. We were taken to the cultural attaché who spoke perfect English because he taught for 17 years at Bethany College in West Virginia. Well, he turned out to be the brother-in-law of Kim Jae-gyu, the assassin of President Park. We had a nice chat for two or three hours, and he says, “Don’t worry I’ll take care of you everything will be fine. I’ll give you a visa.” Finally, he gave me a visa for three days to buy books, see friends, eat jjajangmyeon, and one or two other things. I went to my favorite yogwan, the Sajik Gongwon Yogwan, right next to Sajik Park. The next morning I got up at 5 a.m. I was jet-lagged and started walking around the city. Four or five guys came looking for me at about 8 a.m., and they lost me so they were calling the Fulbright office. They were calling various people to find out where this evil person was. Eventually I bought my books in Insadong. The head of the Fulbright program had put them in his diplomatic pouch. I saw some friends and I went to the airport.
All through the seventies the KCIA was spreading money around American universities, starting with Harvard, Columbia, and Hawai‘i especially where they built a pavilion for Korean Studies instead of producing a good dissertation. Jim Palais, my mentor at Washington, and I tried to call attention to this, and most of our colleagues took the money and laughed at us—not to our faces, but I know they were laughing behind our backs. In 1985 I went back with a foreign delegation to try and protect Kim Dae-jung from what happened at the Manila airport where Aquino was murdered. I knew the Koreans wouldn’t do anything like that but on that visit, I got a visa, and then I came back a few months later. Even though I had a regular visa, I was tailed everywhere by not only these guys in tan jackets, but they had a car to follow me, and they just wanted to know everywhere I was going—a very good example of the complete waste of time and money by a dictatorial regime that had too much of both. They were just wasting their time running around after me, and I actually shook them off because I know that part of downtown Seoul very well, and I know you can go into the Bando arcade and come out one of the different entrances and there’s usually a cab there, and I just ran through the arcade quickly and came out a door and got in a cab and took off, and I lost them. It’s so absurd because I was an American. I knew they weren’t going to do anything serious to me, but it still stuff that’s in my memory like it just happened yesterday.
“All through the seventies the KCIA was spreading money around American universities, starting with Harvard, Columbia, and Hawai‘i especially where they built a pavilion for Korean Studies instead of producing a good dissertation.”
KPI: What about having KCIA in your classroom?
Cumings: I taught a summer course at Washington in 1973. Kim Dae-jung came through, and I interviewed him with the class, just set him up in front of the class and started talking to him. When he was indicted in 1980 for sedition for Gwangju, they cited a transcript of what he said in my class. The government had it. It was a small class. It could have been eight or nine people. Somebody was there taking down what was going on.
KPI: In the late eighties, Lee Young-hee, a well-known South Korean intellectual, visited UC Berkeley. The impact of your work on a whole generation of Korean intellectuals and people’s understanding of the Korean War in this country is not to be underestimated. During that era in Korea, people were reading anything they could get to shed some light on contemporaneous circumstances, and that generation of intellectuals latched onto your work. Chun Doo-hwan probably was not off the mark in saying, “Hey, follow this guy!”
Cumings: I was being ducked on in Korea by the regime from 1972 onward, and my book didn’t come out until ‘81. I had a couple of articles here and there but it wasn’t until the second volume came out in 1990 that I dealt with 1950. I didn’t say a word about it in the first volume but, in 1986 Chun Doo-hwan’s people were running around telling everybody that I said that the South had started the war, and I guess is the worst thing they could say about somebody. I get agitated thinking about that period because things were coming up that I couldn’t believe. I mean John King Fairbank and [Edwin] Reischauer took money from an organization in Korea that Congress described as a front for the KCIA. You would think that having Fairbank and Reischauer do that would make an impact, but it didn’t. What I’m saying is that I was hit with things I’d never been hit with before time and time again—a real learning experience. I was lucky to have Jim Palais in my corner because even though he studied with Fairbank and Reischauer, he thought the money they were taking was blood money.
KPI: Has there ever been any discernible kind of surveillance or interference from U.S. intelligence or the U.S. State Department regarding your scholarship or your teaching?
Cumings: I had been invited to the State Department to lecture, and I always had one or two people in the State Department who wanted to hear my views. I never got a security clearance, but John Merrill was in the State Department from the late seventies until his retirement, and we would have lunch and talk. I felt that the State Department was what it should be. They should be talking to experts about Korea. I never got a sense of interference from the State Department, except that they invited colleagues of mine, diplomatic historians like James Matray to come to Korea in the eighties and denounce me basically [and] give the other side of the story. It’s an absurdity to me because I never learned one thing from James Matray or a couple other of his diplomatic historians, more like subtracting from the sum total of human knowledge, but still it’s just bad that the State Department would do that. It probably was the Information Services [or] USIS.
I first went to North Korea in 1981 for a two-week Potemkim village tour, and when I came back, a local CIA guy in Seattle came to see me and he had a name card with just his name and his phone number, and he said, “You wanna tell your government what you saw in North Korea?” And I said, “Well, I’ll tell you what I told my students,” and I gave him a short report on my visit that I had given to graduate students and actually I gave to John Merrill. Then he said something about “Do you have tenure?” and I said, “No.” I figured out who sent him: a political scientist named Don Hellman who worked on Japan who was one floor above me. Once I saw this [CIA] guy in the elevator two or three times going to talk to Hellman. But then I got my credit report because I was buying this house, and I found out the FBI checked my credit on my bank account shortly after I got back. Then I went to Chicago in 1987, and the KCIA was intimidating people all up and down Lawrence Avenue where the so-called Korea town was at that time. Two FBI guys visited me and said, “There’s a guy in the consulate here who thinks you’re a communist, that you’re an agent of North Korea.” I said to these guys, “What are you talking about? Who are you talking about?” We had a brief discussion and they left. I had my next-door neighbor come in to verify that they had just been there. He interrupted the meeting. Well, I went to a great guy in Chicago who dealt with town-gown university relations and he laughed his ass off when he heard this story. I didn’t think it was quite so funny, but he then got the State Department to kick this Korean CIA guy out of the country. Apparently a lot of people on Lawrence Avenue breathed a sigh of relief because he had been intimidating people in a situation where they voted for president, and the vote had been 50/50. Chun Doo-hwan may have won by one or two points right at that time, so that particular FBI visit made me want to throw up because the FBI is listening to some scumbag from the KCIA and they come to a University of Chicago professor [to] try to scare me. That’s one experience I could have done without.
KPI: We wanted to ask you about critical Asianists whom you’ve worked with or whose work perhaps you followed who did an about-face in terms of North Korea, in particular.
Cumings: I was very close to John Halliday in the eighties. We did a documentary and a picture book on the Korean War together. I’ve seen John in the last few years. I’ve always enjoyed his company, but he got married to Dr. Jung Chang and did a book on Mao that is just a disgrace. It’s just awful, and that makes it rather hard to have a close relationship. Aiden Foster Carter saw himself as a protégé of John Halliday, and Aiden has been all over the map ever since I first met him. I wouldn’t be able to pinpoint his politics or a turning point, but he and Gavin McCormack thought it would be cool to attack me right after the Berlin Wall fell in the New Left Review, claiming they knew how the war actually started and I was retrograde because I didn’t know that. Of course the documents came out two or three years after my book came out. I haven’t spoken to Gavin McCormack in fifteen or twenty years. Although Gavin does quite good work, when the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union collapsed, people suddenly wanted to run away from any sense that they might be sympathetic to North Korea, which they all had been by the way. Gavin would refer to the democratic forces in Korea and I would say, “What are you talking about?” He was talking about the North. Let me just say one more thing about Aiden Foster Carter. In the early mid-nineties he was writing that North Korea was going to collapse. I saw two or three pieces along these lines so I finally emailed him and I said, “Are you clairvoyant? What gives you the notion that North Korea is going to collapse?” And he publicly, about seven or eight years ago, said I was right about North Korea not collapsing, which I give him credit for.
KPI: Following the fall of the Berlin Wall, released Korean War documents disclosed that Kim Il Sung had been in conversation with the Chinese and the Russians. It seems unsurprising that he conferred with allies before deciding to push across the 38th parallel on June 25, 1950. That he did so does not mean that he was a puppet of the Russians. Can you explain the hullabaloo about the release of those documents?
Cumings: The documents that came out after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which Yeltzen personally brought to Seoul, basically reinforced the official story that Washington had always argued—that this was, if not Stalin’s war, a war that Stalin backed. I had assumed for years that American intelligence had access to these documents through their own intelligence. They had tapped into Soviet codes in the 1940s in the so-called Venona papers, and then those abruptly stopped in 1949. There wasn’t anything particularly surprising there, but I had just read so much North Korean stuff that I saw them as independent actors. I had argued that they had been in the thirties. Even though they had been under some Chinese commander’s alleged command, they did what they wanted with their guerrilla activities, and they basically did what they wanted while Soviet troops were on the ground in the late 1940s. I erred in giving them too much leeway. This was my own fault. I have intelligence documents showing that Soviets pulled back their submarines from Dalian and other places the minute the war began and that they pulled their advisors back. They clearly wanted to signal to the U.S. that they weren’t going to fight for North Korea, and I may have taken that stuff too far, but I just felt that the North Koreans were itching to take care of the officer corps in the South Korean army and the national police who, almost all of them, had served the Japanese. That was the core of the civil war between the North and South Korean leadership. When you look at those documents, they show Soviet restraint on North Korea right through January 1950 when Stalin decides to authorize not a general invasion but an attack that would maybe take Kaesong and maybe Seoul. If they got lucky, maybe the South Korean divisions would collapse, which is what happened. The question is why did Stalin change his mind? I can’t prove this, but I think it had everything to do with NSC 68, the most important Cold War document that the U.S. was developing, which called for tripling defense expenditures and a worldwide anticommunist policy backed by enormous resources, not just for the Defense Department, but for the CIA and other things. Stalin would have gotten those documents from Kim Philby and Guy Burgess and [Donald] Maclean. Philby was right there in Washington, meeting with the head of counterintelligence and the CIA every week in 1949 and ‘50. I think he decided there’s a boil developing with the U.S. going all out on the world scale, and we need to answer that boil and we don’t want to do it in Germany or Poland or along the central front because that would be World War III. Let the Americans get bogged down with a war they can’t win in Korea. They win it—so what? Stalin is on record in the fall of 1950 saying, “Korea goes–so what? No big deal.” He told that to the head of KGB. If the North Koreans win, that’s a big gain for the communist camp, but the ideal would be to get the U.S. bogged down and hemorrhage blood and treasure for three years without winning in a peripheral area from Stalin’s viewpoint, and lo and behold, that’s what Stalin died witnessing. For historians who work in secret documents, you have to see the whole flow of things rather than the ten documents that Nelson had under his wing, but I know why people got all bent out of shape when those documents came out. It’s because “Yay, South Korea’s going to win. North Korea’s finished.” That also proved to be false.
KPI: There may have been a period of time when the North Koreans were looking for a strategic moment to take action, but they were clearly preparing a way to do it, and they were ramping up their military. It seems likely that they were expecting less an enthusiastic send-off from Stalin than a nod. It would have been the reasonable thing to do to get some assurance that the Soviets were not going to stop them. From the point of view of the North Koreans, Kim Il Sung had to deal with Stalin, and from the South Koreans, and Syngman Rhee had to deal with the U.S.
Cumings: That’s exactly right. The question was who would succeed in getting big power backing in the first six months of 1950. The U.S. was smart not to back Syngman Rhee if he wanted to attack, which he was saying all the time; he told John Foster Dulles that before the war started. Acheson played this beautifully. The onus would be on the communists for starting this war. Acheson kept Syngman Rhee and Chiang Kai-shek and other people in South Vietnam off balance before the Korean War so he wouldn’t be saddled with Chiang Kai-shek trying to attack the mainland again, or South Korea attacking North Korea. Stalin wasn’t stupid either. The war probably ended up just about the way he wanted it. He was a ruthless person and would have been happy to get rid of Kim Il Sung because he saw him as a nationalist and the whole regime as a bunch of nationalists. The North Koreans lose, we get rid of an obstreperous ally. If they win, good. Best of all: the U.S. gets bogged down. Stalin wins no matter what.
KPI: Well, seventy years later, we’re still all bogged down. What do you think are the necessary conditions for ending the Korean War?
Cumings: At two points we were getting close. One was during the Clinton administration when the Four Power talks were happening in 1997, 98, specifically to get a peace treaty or a peace agreement. Two years of important diplomacy developed between the Clinton administration and Pyongyang—the two best in history. I thought we had a good chance to get a peace agreement then. The other moment is Trump. He was talking about a peace agreement. You have to say, “agreement,” because the Senate isn’t going to pass it as a treaty. It would be so easy for Trump to call an end to the Korean War with a peace agreement, and he would get a lot of credit for it. Trump doesn’t know anything. He found out that Lincoln was a Republican and was talking about it to everybody: “Did you know Lincoln was a Republican?” And then he found out the Korean War wasn’t over yet. This was before the first summit. He said four or five times, “Hey, the Korean War—can you believe it it’s not over yet?” He really got a bee in his bonnet about the Korean War and then it didn’t work out.