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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)

Did Jimmy Carter save the day by meeting Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang? The point, before and after Kim's death, was to obtain foreign aid for nuclear power plants and to feed a desperate people. Cumings claims that only a few--himself included--believed that North Korea "would give up its nuclear program in return for better relations with the United States." That aim was obvious.

The Korean drama, though, goes on. Like everyone else who has watched it, Cumings puzzles over how to prevent more suffering. If he gives North Korea the benefit of most doubts, he gets it right when he sees elites in the north and the south too entrenched to reunify. The division springs from the history of an isolated, authoritarian society, divided and held apart by great powers that prefer two Koreas to one that might fall into an enemy's orbit. The dilemma is as old as Asian rivalry--with a late entry, the United States, also contributing to the confusion, the tragedy and even some of the success of Koreans at home and abroad.

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