Because I'm kind of cruel to myself, and I have a bizarre desire to read things that make me frustrated, I picked up the entirety of Bruce Cumings book North Korea: Another Country in the library. OK, so it was also for research for my nationalism class because I needed someone who liked North Korea. And he does. But I read most of the rest of it and was... surprised.
Cumings spends significant amounts of time berating not only the US government but also the US population for forgetting about Korea and subsequently ignoring it. How could, he wonders, the US society simply forget about all the horrible things they did in Korea? (Because, maybe, we've done that and more in other places? And we don't think about that either?) He, as we read, accuses the US government of racism, stupidity, and cruelty.
However, for me, the hardest part to swallow was Cumings' discussion of life in North Korea. He does make the point that their rhetoric is difficult to swallow and overwhelming every part of life, that their belief that juche and Kim's philosophies will solve everything are ridiculous. But he goes on to describe how wonderful Pyongyang is. It's very clean. The people are orderly, humble, unassuming, honorable, and kind. They are so wonderfully traditional, family values are everywhere, young people don't even hold hands, let alone have premarital sex. He emphasizes their triumph over a slave-holding, class stratified society. He praises how they held on to Confucian values so strongly, that they have created a "family state". They have modern conveniences without any of the evil, awful corruption of modern society. They are egalitarian, with a very small elite ruling over a country where everyone else is equal. The people in North Korea are everything traditional Koreans should be. Even people in South Korea look up to their ability to preserve the true Korean nation. It is a modern Utopia. No, seriously, he calls it Utopia. It is perfect, rural, bucolic, serene, and wonderful. OK, yes, the government's a little repressive. But really, it's not Kim Jong Il's fault. He's a nice, sensitive man who is uncomfortable about his body, and really just wants to live a normal life. It's kind of shame about the hair, though. They have succeeded where the South Koreans have failed, in creating an independent state free of outside predatory influences. South Koreans, of course, have been dependent on the US, and cannot compete with the the North's victorious independent course in the world.
Cumings, in his book, equates North Korea's society with a perfect traditional society seeking to preserve itself. The experience of reading it reminded me, strongly, of reading the Japanese history textbooks. When you read them, it seems plausible that what is written is correct, that North Korea really is clean and wonderful, and it's really just because no one understands them that they're so despised. (I mean, really, the ambassadors don't even speak Korean! How could they possibly appreciate the perfection that is North Korea?) And yet, reading it, you also feel something... off. Cumings presents an incredibly one-sided picture of North Korea and seems to miss completely that most of the West's dislike of the country stems from a revulsion to the thought control and lack of rights or freedoms. He spends little time discussing the recent collapses, just mentions them after going into detail how wonderful and successful they were in the 70's and 80's. He completely ignores what, and I'm believing Prof. Larsen here, is a strong class society that DOES dictate how well you do in life. The military is hardly talked about at all. Communism is not the cause of any of their society's controls, it is simply traditional values (ones South Koreans wish they could emulate!) which dictate how the people behave.
In the end, I found the experience rather unnerving, because this is a scholar I've read before, who I know is generally respected, even if there do seem to be two of him. However, after writing a book with dual purposes (I can only assume his goals were to criticize American policy and public memory, as well as "changing our opinions" on the wonderful, Utopian, egalitarian North Korea), he has accomplished neither goal with me. Another review, associated with George Mason University, can be found here. Also, if you go into the comments here, there's an interesting argument by random people about the North vs. the South. There are, despite Cumings' accusations, people who agree with him here in the United States. And here's another, perhaps more respectable one? from the Atlantic.