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The Korean Miracle

KOREA'S PLACE IN THE SUN: A Modern History. By Bruce Cumings . W.W. Norton: 528 pp., $35

March 23, 1997|DONALD KIRK | Donald Kirk, a journalist, first reported from Korea 25 years ago. He is the author of "Korean Dynasty: Hyundai and Chung Ju Yung" (M.E. Sharpe)

Americans have a way of taking the Korean peninsula for granted. Only when the news reports that North Korea's "million-man army" appears on the verge of fomenting a "second Korean war" or that North Korea is building an atomic bomb, or that thousands of radical students are raising hell in Seoul are we reminded of this far-off, mysterious land.

What goes unnoticed is that the country, both above and below the 38th parallel, is extraordinarily fascinating. The history of the peninsula is as adventurous and as colorful as that of any other patch of turf on Earth. From the mythological mating 5,000 years ago of a bear with a tiger has emerged a homogeneous society forged in war after war, invasion upon invasion and bound by language, dress, appearance and an underlying Confucian veneration of one's elders and betters.

The miracle of this society--the real Korean miracle--is that it has survived for centuries at the vortex of three often predatory powers: China to the north and west, Japan to the south and east and Russia to the north and northeast. The Yi dynasty managed to accommodate China, the source of much of Korea's language and culture, by kowtowing before a succession of Chinese emperors. The Japanese were troublesome, but a fleet of Korean armored vessels, the first ironclads, defeated these invaders in the late 16th century. In defending a peninsula that juts down like a blunt Stone Age dagger from the Asian landmass, Koreans existed in splendid isolation from a barbaric world.

Such a life could not go on forever, especially with the arrival of a fourth power--the United States. Drawing on a background as a scholar and firsthand observer, Bruce Cumings sees the evolution of North Korea and South Korea through a century of calamities on top of millenniums of internecine struggle. From colonial occupation, the story moves to the division of the peninsula, war, the flight of many to America and the fear of nuclear holocaust.

Why did Korea at the dawn of the 20th century succumb so easily to the Japanese colonialists? How could this culture of energetic workers and mystical idealists, steeped in Confucianism imported from China then honed into an ornate, formalized neo-Confucianism, have sacrificed the accumulated wealth and wisdom of centuries in a generation? The blame, as Cumings makes clear, lies partly with the Koreans themselves. The Yi dynasty, so innovative under King Sejong in the 15th century, stultified creativity after Sejong by blockading foreign ideas and by perfecting a rigidly hierarchical class system that glorified leisure and relegated productivity, craftsmanship and business to a scorned underclass. It was against this background that Korean society exposed itself to the depredations of hostile foreigners.

The Americans betrayed Korea, not for the last time, by countenancing Japan's takeover. The deal, as brokered by then-President Theodore Roosevelt in 1905, was that Japan "would not question American rights" in its newly conquered colony, the Philippines, and in return, "the United States would not challenge Japan's new protectorate." This logic went even further: "As long as the direction of Japanese imperialism was toward Korea and Manchuria, which pushed it away from the Philippines or the many British colonies, it had the blessing of London and Washington."

The Americans again betrayed Korea by negotiating the division of the peninsula with the Russians before the end of World War II. Cumings delineates an uncertain period of broken promises and bumbling bureaucrats that finally precipitated the worst tragedy of all, the never-declared Korean War. Again, Cumings blames the Americans. For starters, Washington supported the very people that "the mass of South Koreans" hated most--the officials, militarists and well-to-do conservatives who had served the Japanese and who rule South Korea to this day. "The problem was that Korean society had no base for either a liberal or a democratic party as Americans understood it," he observes. The populace consisted mostly "of poor peasants," the type whose ancestors had been slaves, and "a tiny minority" of moneyed people "widely perceived to have fattened under colonial rule while everybody else suffered."

Better for North Korea and South Korea to have duked it out on their own, in Cumings' view, than for foreigners to have supported them. There might have been "a cauterizing fire that would have settled Korea's multitude of social and political problems caused by the pressure cooker of colonial rule and instant 'liberation,' a purifying upheaval that might have been pretty awful, but nothing like the millions of lives lost in 1950-'53, or the thousands in the April revolution of 1960 or the Kwangju rebellion of 1980."

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