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

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."

That's saying a lot--and leaving out a lot. Cumings does not address the questions of who would have supplied the arms or how magnanimous either side would have been in victory. While scorning America's man, Syngman Rhee, and his cohorts, he glorifies the record of Kim Il Sung as a guerrilla fighter and rejects the contrary view that Kim might have been just a Soviet front man. True, a Russian ship ferried Kim and 60 other guerrillas back to Wonsan, he observes in a footnote, but "they returned independently of Soviet authorities."

In his zeal to get across a basic story, Cumings skips over basic history. While citing the cruelty of indiscriminate U.S. bombing during the Korean War, he neglects the constant flow of men and arms from China in support of the Chinese force that saved the north for Kim Il Sung. Nor does he mention the "human wave" onslaughts of soldiers that resulted in a million Chinese dead before the truce was signed at Panmunjom.

Cumings also overlooks other details. Anxious to understand Kim Il Sung and his son and heir, Kim Jong Il, he veers into a disquisition on the idea of "corporatism," an obscure term for a system in which state entities run just about everything. While elaborating on the hold father and son have had over North Korean society, he forgets the purges they conducted or the horrifying reports of refugees who escaped from the north, usually via China, to the south. Possibly Cumings thinks such accounts lack credibility.

Selectivity, however, does not obscure one central theme in Cumings' book--the links between ancient and modern Korea. How much difference is there between the authoritarianism of North Korea and that of South Korea under Park Chung Hee and the leaders of the conglomerates, or chaebol, who dominate the South Korean economy? If there is more freedom in South Korea, it is perhaps because observers such as Cumings go there and write about it. His account of Kwangju conjures the danger of a military regime bent on wiping out obstreperous dissidents in a region left out of the mainstream.

Certainly the instincts of the leaders in the south were much the same as those of Kim Il Sung in the north, to bury all opposition in a fanatical drive to catch up with the West and Japan and to redress the wrongs of history. Cumings conveys the passion of the leaders of both Koreas for self-sufficiency. No one espoused that goal more strongly than Park, the leader behind the chaebol.

But what about juche, the concept of self-reliance propounded as a state philosophy by Kim Il Sung? Cumings' attempt at explaining why juche failed so miserably in the north while seeming to flourish in the south is not convincing. One reason may be that he is not an economist. The view that Kim Il Sung had "a pragmatic eye toward what worked in the Korean context" does not jibe with the reality of a long-deteriorating economy. His impression of Pyongyang as "one of the most efficient, best-run cities in Asia" is skewed. Visitors should know the "polite waitresses who served ample portions" and the crowds "hustling out in the morning" are stage-managed for foreigners.

When it comes to judging the progress of the South, Cumings' grasp on facts is equally dubious. He relies on wildly misleading figures from the Fortune 500 list for sales, which understate the numbers of the two largest chaebol, Hyundai and Samsung, by more than 50%. (He also confuses the brothers of Hyundai founder Chung Ju Yung, giving the wrong one credit for aiding the founder in the early days.) Paradoxically, he overstates the capabilities of these groups in such fields as motor vehicles and electronics.

Nonetheless, the book emerges as a saga of a strong people battling the odds. One "way out" for many--that is, those in South Korea--has been emigration: "If Koreans in America were dutiful, hard-working 'Orientals' useful for sugar cane cutting at the beginning of this century and 'slicky boys' in the middle, by its end they have become a model of bootstrapping your way to Horatio Alger success without help from the federal government or the welfare state." The Korean American experience in Los Angeles in spring 1992 captures the tragedy of "urban America's first multiethnic riots. . . ."

The emigration to America presents a diversion from Cumings' tale of onrushing events on the Korean peninsula. The drama careens toward a climax with the apparition of nuclear war provoked in part by American "nuclear blackmail." Cumings blames "the disturbingly mimetic quality of print and TV stories" for whipping up hysteria. The "media blitz about a new Korean War" was accurate only in May 1994, when "the United States and North Korea came much closer to war at this time than most people realize."

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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