Critique of Anti-Americanism
in Bruce Cumings, "Korea's Place in the Sun"

Published 25 Feb 1997
First posted on website 970930
latest minor revision 020506

Copyright © 1997, 2001, 2002 by Hugo S. Cunningham
Individual, non-commercial reproduction is authorized, provided this notice is retained.

Bruce Cumings, Korea's Place in the Sun: A Modern History, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1997; cloth, 527 pages, $35.

[According to the jacket blurb, Bruce Cumings is "director of the Center for International and Comparative Studies at Northwestern University." He does not use the title of "professor," but I understand he is one.]

Bruce Cumings covers an interesting subject (Korea, especially since 1900), that has generally been neglected. His book is well-organized and well-presented.

Nevertheless, readers should be cautioned that Mr. Cumings is a man of the Left, sympathetic to the North Korean regime (though not slavishly so), and eager to interpret US policy toward Korea in the worst possible light. Not being an expert on Korea, I cannot argue with most of his details; indeed, I believe the facts he adduces in support of his views are generally true. Nevertheless, I have caught him intentionally distorting context (See comments on pp 443-448 below), as well as omitting material facts that don't fit his thesis. On pp. 385-386 (see below), he even boasts of being used as a source of propaganda by Korea's anti-American Left.

In summary, go ahead and enjoy the non-political aspects of his book. But before accepting at face value his contentions about Communism and U.S.-Korean relations, cross-check his claims against other sources, and weigh his values against your own.

Notes and comments (largely complaints) follow, arranged by page-number and paragraph.
"Complaints" are prefaced with "C:"; neutral "observations" are prefaced with "O:".
Each page begins with paragraph #1, even if it is only the end of a paragraph from the previous page.

C: p. 38, para 2. Japanophobia: "The symbolism" [of the Buddha at the Sokkuram grotto facing the ocean to the East] "is all the more striking, for beyond the horizon sits the rising sun of Japan. I thought of this once when a prominent Japanese scholar waxed enthusiastic about the heaven-sent geographic isolation of his home islands, separated by broad seas from the turmoil of the Asian mainland. He thought it was the main reason why Japan had a different (and of course superior) development. Called upon to comment on his paper, I remarked that the Sokkuram Buddha and many Koreans probably hoped to wake one morning and find that the islands were no longer there. The professor stomped out of the room, refusing to respond to me."

Comment: it is not the place of foreigners to gloat about disputes between third parties.

Chapter 2, pp. 86-138, "The Interests, 1860-1904"

O: p. 105--BC goes out of his way to shun universal terms like "traditionalist" or "conservative" to describe such beliefs among anti-foreign intellectuals in Korea. He sets up isolationist dissident Hong Chae-Hak (executed in 1881) as an eponymous symbol of a virtuous isolationist continuity from traditional Korea to the hermit kingdom of Kim Il-Sung.

Chapter 3, pp. 139-184, "Eclipse, 1905-1945" (Japanese rule)

O: The Japanese made themselves unpopular and disrupted traditional Korean society, notably with compulsory labor mobilization starting in 1937. They began to develop Korea's economy rapidly in the 1930s, under a centralized, authoritarian model readily adaptable to Communism. A certain minority of Koreans accommodated themselves to Japanese rule, profiting in business or advancing in the government bureaucracy.

Chapter 4, pp. 185-236-- "The Passions, 1945-48"

O: Pro-Western historians largely agree with BC, that the anti-Communist regime in the South was rather shaky and unstable before 1950, with a doubtful popular mandate. A political nucleus of domestic right-wingers, many tainted by Japanese connections, needed Western emigres like Syngman Rhee for nationalist legitimacy.

Chapter 5, pp. 237-298-- "Collision, 1948-53"

Return to discussion of "aggression" on BC's p. 238.

Chapter 7, pp. 337-393-- "The Virtues II: The Democratic Movement, 1960-1996"

Chapter 8, pp. 394-433: "Nation of the Sun King: North Korea, 1953-1996"

Chapter 9, pp. 434-455: "America's Koreans"

Chapter 10, pp. 456-495, "Korea's Place in the World"

[end of article]

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