Historian Bruce Cumings on slim prospects for a Korean peace treaty | By the editorial staff of Hankyoreh (Summer 2023)
July 27, 2023, marked the 70th anniversary of the signing of the armistice agreement that halted the Korean War. This 70-year milestone also represents an ongoing threat today, as concerns of clashes related to North Korea’s nuclear program have recently flared up, and no peace treaty is in the offing.
During an interview with the Korean newspaper Hankyoreh, Bruce Cumings, author of The Origins of the Korean War and a distinguished service professor at the University of Chicago, assessed that the prospects for peace in the Korean peninsula are challenging, given the “strategic patience” polices of the Joe Biden administration and the increased pressure by the Suk-yeol Yoon administration against North Korea
In particular, Cumings criticized U.S. policies of the last few decades for being too entrenched in the theory that North Korea will collapse, commenting that the U.S. could begin to solve the Korean Peninsula problem by coolheadedly perceiving reality.
The following is an excerpt of a recent interview by Hankyoreh:
Hankyoreh: In marking the 70th anniversary of the Korean War armistice, the two Koreas are each claiming that they have won and are expressing hostility toward each other. No sober reflection is to be found. What is your take on current developments regarding the Korean Peninsula?
Cumings: North Korea is moving closer to China and Russia; and South Korea is moving closer to Japan and the U.S. So it’s not quite a Cold War situation, but it is a new alignment. North Korea had wanted normalized relations with the U.S. for many years. I don’t think they want that now. And I don’t think the Biden administration would be at all interested in normalizing relations. So you have an alignment of three [countries on each side]: China, Russia, and North Korea; and South Korea, Japan, and the United States.
This is unusual because several years ago, China and North Korea were having rather difficult relations. So I think as long as the war in Ukraine is going on, and American relations with China are getting worse, and they’re very bad with Russia, this has the effect of freezing the relationship between the two Koreas.
The ideal situation from my point of view is when you have a liberal president in South Korea and a liberal president in Washington, which happened during the Clinton administration. And that showed that direct talks with North Korea could be very fruitful, including freezing their plutonium for eight years.
Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun (both past progressive South Korean presidents) did as much as they could to try and keep the U.S. and North Korea talking to each other. I think they made great achievements. And President [Jae-in] Moon also tried to do his best to engage with North Korea, but he was saddled with Donald Trump, who was a very erratic president — one day he’s wanting to blow North Korea out of the water and the next day he wants to talk to Kim Jong-un. So unfortunately, the Biden administration’s policy is one of strategic patience like the Obama administration.
We haven’t had any substantive talks with North Korea; it’s not a strategy. It may be strategic patience, but what’s the strategy? The result of it is that North Korea just piles up more atomic bombs and ICBMs, which can’t be the goal of the U.S. policy toward Korea. So I’m pessimistic now. But we hope that in the future, both in Seoul and Washington, you would find presidents interested in engaging with North Korea.
Hankyoreh: It’s been more than 40 years since you wrote The Origins of the Korean War. I am aware that a historian is not one who predicts the future, but I can’t help but ask whether you had any idea of how the future of the Korean Peninsula would turn out at the time you were writing the book.
Cumings: Well, when my first volume of The Origins of the Korean War came out in 1981, both Koreas were under dictatorships. And in the case of South Korea, the Gwangju rebellion had just occurred the year before my book appeared. The situation was quite terrible in South Korea. A crisis that began with Gwangju lasted seven years, until June 1987. I had my book banned by [then-President and dictator] Chun Doo-hwan, which only made it sell more copies. It was kind of an underground publication in Korea.
When I came to Korea, I came back with Kim Dae-jung in 1985 as part of a foreign delegation to protect him. And that was my first visit in almost 15 years, because I had not been able to get a visa. South Korea wouldn’t give me a visa because of my criticism of the dictatorship. And the KCIA people followed me everywhere. It was almost funny because, as an American, I knew I had the privilege that they weren’t going to hurt me, but they certainly did follow me.
But you’re right, at the end of that decade, historical changes took place with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of the Cold War, and the collapse of the Soviet Union. And I wracked my brain to try and figure out what might happen to the two Koreas. I was asked many times for my opinion because my book had circulated. I have argued that North Korea is not going to collapse. And we shouldn’t expect it to collapse, but have to deal with the reality that North Korea and the North Korean leadership know how to hold on to power. I took a lot of criticism, including from my wife’s family. And also for some editorials that I wrote because Koreans in the South expected unification to be around the corner when the Soviet Union collapsed.
Maybe more important, the Bush and Clinton administrations premised their policy toward North Korea on the idea that North Korea was on the verge of collapse, which lasted all through the ’90s. I consistently argued that that was foolish. I don’t like to brag about anything, but I’d been right. And the reason that I’ve been right, I think, is because I try my best to understand the nature of the North Korean regime, from its inception in the late 1940s down to the present.
Koreans are one of the oldest people in the world in terms of continuous occupation of their territory for thousands of years. And the primary political forum that they had for those thousands of years was a dynasty, a monarchy. And the North Koreans have never known anything but the monarchy, or Japanese dictatorship, or the dynasty of kin. And we can all deplore that and say, “Isn’t that terrible,” and so on. But it does not affect North Korea whatsoever.
President Clinton and his advisors became interested in engaging with North Korea. In 1994, Jimmy Carter flew to Pyongyang and met [North Korea founder and leader] Kim Il-sung. Working with Kim Dae-jung in Seoul, they engaged in North Korea and had a variety of talks. I was very optimistic at that time.
But then George W. Bush just demolished the Clinton policy toward North Korea, and we came close to attacking North Korea. And North Korea, I think, had no choice but to go ahead and develop nuclear weapons. I say that because if I were running North Korea in the context of the war in Iraq and the “axis of evil,” and all of those things Bush did, I would think that nuclear weapons were my only deterrent to attack by the U.S.
Hankyoreh: Since the new administration [of current president Suk-yeol Yoon] came to office in Seoul, inter-Korean relations and the relations between North Korea and the U.S. have clearly deteriorated. What do you think is behind this change?
Cumings: I think it’s a combination of North Korea continuing to build up its nuclear arsenal and shooting off missiles. We have an adversarial relationship between Pyongyang and Washington, one of the worst in a long time. And then you have a conservative president in Seoul who follows his predecessors like [right-wing past presidents] Park Geun-hye, Park Chung-hee and others thinking that the way to deal with North Korea is to get tough and confront it. And that never has worked. It yields no positive outcome. With that combination, I’m quite pessimistic right now on the 70th anniversary of the armistice that anything good is going to happen.
I can’t emphasize enough that American policy has been so stupid toward North Korea most of the time, based on fallacious assumptions, not on any kind of intelligence-gathering or real knowledge of the North. It’s based on false assumptions.
For 20 years, the assumption was that North Korea was going to collapse because the Eastern European communist countries had collapsed, and they thought North Korea was a puppet of the Soviet Union or a creature of the Soviet Union. So when the Soviets collapsed, presumably North Korea would collapse. And I’ve always argued — in my first book, and ever since then — that North Korea, North Vietnam during the ‘50s and ‘60s before the war ended, and China all represent anti-colonial revolutions, not revolutions guided by Moscow.
All the Eastern European regimes were implanted by Stalin and a country like East Germany had almost 400,000 Soviet troops on its territory when Gorbachev allowed East Germany to democratize. There were no Soviet troops in North Korea after 1948 or in China. The American policymakers from the Roosevelt and Truman administrations never understood the power and the force of the anti-colonial revolutions in the world which lasted from 1945 to the collapse of the Portuguese Empire in 1975. And it’s a very important instructive point, especially for young people, that often intelligence goes forward based on completely erroneous assumptions. And then you follow policies that are completely erroneous.
I can give one example: In 1995, John Deutch was the head of the CIA, and he gave a public testimony in Congress where he said the only question today is not if North Korea will collapse but when North Korea will collapse. And within 48 hours, the head of the North Korean army, Kim Kwang-jin, said it was no longer a question of whether we will have a new Korean War but when. This kind of summarizes what was wrong with American policies. If you have a collapse the likely outcome would be a second Korean War, not something like East Germany collapsing.
Hankyoreh: I think this is one of the reasons why you believe this kind of maximum pressure on North Korea will not work.
Cumings: The unfortunate fact is that in the last almost 20 years, North Korea has become impregnable because it has nuclear weapons and delivery systems of all kinds, from cruise missiles to ICBMs. And it’s not an arsenal like the Soviet Russian arsenal or the U.S. arsenal. But it’s enough to deter anybody from attacking North Korea. And therefore, maximum pressure on North Korea doesn’t mean much except that the country is sanctioned by the U.S. and South Korea in many, many ways, and that hurts ordinary people. But it clearly does not hurt the leadership. So I suppose maximum pressure is more related to President Yoon’s standing with the South Korean people trying to show that he’s tough and so on. But it doesn’t fundamentally work.
Hankyoreh: What do you think North Korea’s current strategy toward the U.S. is? Could we say that its intention to give up nuclear weapons has definitely decreased in the time since 2018-2019 when the North and the U.S. had talks going on? As the crisis deepens, some point out that the U.S. should have accepted the closure of the Yongbyon nuclear facility in 2019.
Cumings: One of my friends who was in North Korea asked, “How many times can you sell the Yongbyon facility to the United States?” I think this was another attempt to do so. And North Korea now has a stockpile of plutonium that’s much larger than it used to be. Back in 1994, it had 6,000 fuel rods pulled out of the Yongbyon reactor, enough for a couple of bombs. But now they have much more. So in a sense, it’s an obsolescent factory for plutonium. And I don’t think the U.S. took it very seriously.
I’m talking about serious people, not President Trump. I believe President Trump did some good things in Korea like suspending South Korean and American joint military exercises that the North sees as quite threatening. And he met twice with Kim Jong-un, which was good. But he was very erratic and knew nothing about the Korean situation or hardly any other international situation. But I give him credit for doing something no other sitting president had done. And I’m sure he got to know Kim Jong-un a bit during their meetings. But when Trump and his aides walked out of the meeting in Hanoi, without even eating lunch with the North Koreans, it was very humiliating and made things very tough for Kim Jong-un to go back to Pyongyang empty-handed. It was gratuitous and stupid. Even if nothing was going to be accomplished, they could have at least had lunch together. And since then, relations have really gone downhill.
Hankyoreh: On the topic of Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader is making gestures that his daughter Kim Ju-ae could be his successor. What should we make of this display?
Cumings: I could be wrong, but I think the North Koreans are just playing with the world opinion and South Korean opinion. Let’s face it, Kim Jong-un is not going to retire anytime soon. He’s in his late 30s. I would expect him to hold power for several decades. Why is he parading his daughter? I don’t know. But it could be that he thinks it’s funny that world opinion and the world press suddenly says, “Oh, this must be the successor.” He has a son as far as I know. Nobody has seen him. Given the kind of conservative dynastic arrangements of North Korea, I would expect the son would succeed Kim Jong-un, not the daughter. Kim Jong-un is a little overweight, but he’s very robust. He doesn’t seem to have chronic health problems. And so even the South Koreans and many Americans wouldn’t like to hear this, I’m pretty sure he’ll outlive both of us. Well, maybe not you.
Hankyoreh: The U.S. government seems to have returned to the “strategic patience” of the Obama era, emphasizing unconditional dialogue but with no action. Do you think it would be possible to resume North Korea-U.S. dialogue under Biden?
Cumings: The Biden administration will say any day of the week it is ready for unconditional talks with North Korea at any time about denuclearization. It’s kind of like if you were to be holding a machine gun and I say I will be happy to talk to you about gun control when you get rid of your gun. Meanwhile, I have 50,000 machine guns trained on you.
In the case of North Korea, the U.S. intimidates North Korea time and time again with American nuclear weapons, in bombers and the USS Kentucky nuclear submarine full of nuclear weapons which came to Busan recently. This has been a consistent policy of one president after another to use nuclear blackmail against North Korea. I think it should be outlawed to threaten a non-nuclear country with nuclear weapons. The U.S. did so from 1950 to 2006. Then North Korea got the bomb and now it’s asking North Korea to give up their deterrent. For the U.S. to continue to send the USS Kentucky to South Korean ports politically means it has no interest whatsoever in talking to North Korea because it’s putting an insurmountable obstacle in front of the opening of talks. And then combined with North Korea and China and Russia being closer than they have in decades, it’s just a stupid policy.
Maybe when Biden is re-elected, he’ll have the freedom to pursue a more constructive policy toward North Korea. I was at a conference with Siegfried Hecker, a physicist who directed the Los Alamos National Laboratory for many years, and has done wonderful work on North Korea. He’s been there many times. Siegfried said that he gave a presentation to the U.S. Senate after he had been to North Korea. He talked to the Senate and testified about his trip to North Korea.
And after he was done, Biden came over and sat with him for two hours to talk about North Korea. Biden could not have a better advisor than Siegfried Hecker. So that gives me a little bit of hope. Right now, because an election is coming up, he doesn’t want to go overboard and try something new with North Korea. But in a second term, we’d have a president who at least knows a lot about North Korea.
Hankyoreh: If Trump were to pull out a victory in 2024, what kind of approach do you think he would take? Do you think Kim Jong-un would anticipate Trump coming back?
Cumings: That’s a very hard question to answer because I think he was very happy to meet with Trump. I think it was just awful that Trump and his people got up and left the table in Hanoi. However, Trump did several things like suspending the military games and meeting directly. The trouble is, if Trump were reelected, this country would be in a crisis unlike any before because vast numbers of Americans really love Trump, and he would try to be a dictator.
Trump is very hard to predict because he’s a mercurial figure who says one thing on Tuesday and the opposite on Wednesday. The best thing I can say about Trump when it comes to foreign policy is that he couldn’t care less what the foreign policy establishment in Washington is saying and thinking. He’s the first president like that. He would be more experienced. He came into office in 2017 completely inexperienced, but he had four years in office and three after his presidency to learn something about foreign affairs. But my assumption is he won’t be reelected.
Hankyoreh: It seems that North Korea and China are growing closer, as well as North Korea and Russia, as demonstrated by not only the Chinese delegation attending the armistice ceremony, but the Russian defense minister as well. Russia was not a direct participant in the Korean War. There is a lot of talk about a “new” Cold War. As you know so well, the Korean War broke out at the beginning of the Cold War.
Cumings: Yes, it’s a very important development. I was surprised that the Russian defense minister showed up in Pyongyang. I wasn’t surprised by the Chinese delegation, because they signed the armistice. And because China and North Korea are much closer than they were back in 2014 or 2015, when there was a lot of difficulty in the relationship between Pyongyang and Beijing. But it’s almost a physical principle that when the U.S. is hostile to China, it’s always hostile to North Korea. This would bring China and North Korea together.
In the case of Russia, Russia has very few friends in the world because of its invasion of Ukraine. And so, they’re all over the world trying to make friends. There are rumors, I think that haven’t been proven, that North Korea is supplying weapons to Russia in this war. In any case Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran have closer relations today than they have many years and they form a kind of foursome of anti-American regimes.
I’m sure North Korea feels that it has more backing now than it did 10 years ago. And this directly affects the sanctions on it because China and Russia are not really very serious about implementing sanctions on North Korea. So it gives North Korea more breathing space. But as you said, it’s reminiscent of the Cold War. And one of the dangers of the war in Ukraine now for a year and a half is that somehow the U.S. and Russia would get into military conflict and that would be very bad. From the Korean standpoint, it suggests it’ll be a long time before positive developments happen on the Korean Peninsula between the two Koreas.
Hankyoreh: You have emphasized U.S. responsibility for the division of the Korean Peninsula. You’ve also stated that you felt a sense of responsibility as an American. Do you think there is anything the U.S. should do regarding that kind of historical and moral responsibility?
Cumings: John J. McCloy, one of the four figures in American foreign relations in August 1945, told Dean Rusk and Charles Bonesteel to go into an adjoining room and find a place to divide Korea. That was on August 10, 1945, 24 hours after Nagasaki had been obliterated by the second atomic bomb. The Soviets were not directly notified about this, but MacArthur included in his August 15 declaration of victory over Japan that Korea will be divided at the 38th parallel. The U.S. bears a tremendous responsibility for unilaterally dividing Korea.
In my second volume on the Korean War — it’s Chapter 33, called Who started the Korean War? — I developed three different scenarios for how it might have started, including a provocation by the South supported by the U.S., but I made no commitment to that position. And in the conclusion to that chapter, I said that asking who started the Korean War is a political question and if you keep asking it and answering it one way, you will never have reconciliation between the two Koreas because the two Koreas and the U.S. and the Soviet Union and China were all responsible for this war.
The older I get, the more I just find it unfathomable that during the occupation before the war, the U.S. rehired every Korean who worked for the Japanese, particularly in the national police and the military. And then you have anti-Japanese guerrillas running to the north — a civil war is going to break out sooner or later. And, of course, most Americans, including a lot of historians, don’t accept that and they say that North Korea was a Soviet implant and puppet. But I was able to read through a lot of captured North Korean documents relevant to the origin of the war and the North Korean regime, which took me two years. And I came to think it was a classic anti-colonial nationalist regime. And it still is. So the U.S. bears a terrible responsibility for being so stupid as to take traitors and put them in power in the late 1940s.
Americans, not knowing anything, are calling it the “Forgotten War.” It’s an unknown war because Americans even at the time were not able to know what was really happening. You had censorship in Korea under Gen. MacArthur and you had McCarthyism in the U.S., where you could lose your job if you said the wrong thing about the Korean War. It was the most repressive period in American political history. So it’s an unknown war and the more people know about it, the better the chances that reunification might someday happen.
Hankyoreh: The Origins of the Korean War has been republished in Korea in a new and complete translation. Is there anything you would like to say to the readers of this book, especially young readers?
Cumings: I was very gratified that a good Korean translation finally appeared for my two volumes. (Volume I of Cumings’book was translated into Korean in the 1980s; a new and complete translation of both volumes was published last month). And I’m deeply indebted to the translator for his very hard work. It represents 20 years of hard labor in the archives and writing it on my part. I don’t think it’s usual that one book published in 1981 and another one published in 1990 would be translated and published in 2023. But I guess, if I can say so, it shows the importance of the questions I tried to deal with in that book.
This article originally appeared in Hankyoreh.
Hankyoreh is a daily newspaper in South Korea. It was established in 1988 after widespread purges forced out dissident journalists, and was envisioned as an alternative to existing newspapers, which were influenced by authoritarian governments at the time. When it launched, it claimed to be “the first newspaper in the world truly independent of political power and large capital.” It was voted the most trusted news organization by Korean journalists for nine consecutive years. It has online editions in English, Chinese and Japanese.