2018-05-23 23:43 KST  
Global Voices Online - The world is talking. Are you listening?
'Korea Unimaginably Different Than 20 Years Ago'
Interview with top Korean scholar Bruce Cumings
Timothy Savage and Kang Sung-gwan (yamanin)     Print Article 
Published 2007-05-18 11:32 (KST)   
Bruce Cumings
©2007 OhmyNews

Bruce Cumings is the Norman and Edna Freehling Professor of History at the University of Chicago. Cumings first came to South Korea in 1967 as a Peace Corps Volunteer, and over the last three decades has become known as one of the leading American scholars on Korea. In addition to his seminal two volume Origins of the Korean War, Cumings has written several books dealing with Korea and U.S.-East Asian relations, the most recent being Parallax Visions: American-East Asian Relations at the End of the Century.

OhmyNews interviewed him on April 17 in Kwangju, where he came for a conference to commemorate the 27th anniversary of the Kwangju Democratic Uprising.

OMNI's New Approach to Citizen Journalism
[Opinion] Democracy's Downfall
Technology Can Save Money, Planet
[Opinion] Iran Defends Peaceful 'Right'
Couchsurfing in Gaza
Kyrgyz SDP Leader: Assassination Plot Thwarted
[Interview] Zvi Schreiber, CEO of G.ho.st Inc.
A Visitor's Fresh Impressions of Rio
Underdevelopment, Poverty and H1N1 Flu Virus
How Did You Feel About Obama's First 100 Days in Office?
You first came to Kwangju in 1972. What do you think about coming back here after 35 years?

Kwangju has changed tremendously. It's not really recognizable from then. It's much more modern, much bigger than it used to be, and quite beautiful.

Especially the Mudusan -- very beautiful. It doesn't look much like 1972 at all.

In 2002, a citizen's court held a mock trial on the role of the U.S. in the Kwangju massacre. It was reported at the time that you said that the U.S. was the driving force behind the massacre, but the U.S. has denied it. Do you think that's accurate?

I wouldn't say that the U.S. was the driving force -- clearly the driving force was Chun Doo-hwan. But I think the U.S. was directly involved in the Kwangju uprising, by virtue of releasing troops to go to Kwangju, knowing that those troops had a reputation for being brutal. But I would never say the U.S. was the driving force; I think the U.S. would like to have avoided trouble in Kwangju.

You've been teaching Korean history for around 30 years now. Do you believe that Americans are more well-informed about Korea than when you started?

Yes, but that's starting from a very low level to begin with. It's unfortunate that relatively few Americans know a lot about Korea, and the treatment of Korea in the media, particularly North Korea, leaves a lot to be desired. There are books published about North Korea that are full of lies, exaggerations, and factual errors that are so bad that if a high school student made them, you would fail him on a test. Yet those books often are well reviewed. So you can say almost anything about North Korea in the U.S. and I think that's very dangerous.

There's a better view of South Korea than there was 30 years ago, 40 years ago. Everyone understands that South Korea is a very strong industrial country. The democratic transition that South Korea underwent in the 1990s is something that many people admire, particularly people involved in NGOs, and human rights activists. But the general public still doesn't know much about Korea. The fact, is they don't know much about China or Japan, either. There's a great deal of ignorance about East Asia in the United States.

One other point: Korean-Americans are doing so well in the U.S., with so many Korean-Americans at the best universities, and going into professional careers in all walks of life -- lawyers, doctors, scientists, professors in universities -- that the image of Korean-Americans in the United States is very high.

You're an expert in Korean issues, and there are many others like Prof. Robert Scalapino of UC Berkeley who were known as "pro-Korean" scholars. But in your presentation, you mention the role of these "pro-Korean" scholars in the Carter administration, and how they were hired by large Korean corporations during the Chun period. Could you talk about that?

I don't know what "pro-Korean" or "anti-Korean" means; I was always called pan-Han (anti-Korean) by the dictators. I was opposed to the dictatorships of Pak Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan, and I refused to take any academic funding from them. That's when I was a junior professor and could have been fired. Prof. Scalapino took money from the Korean Trade Association, from businessmen, and I think also from the government during the dictatorship. Is that being pro-Korean? I am unaware of Prof. Scalapino standing on the side of the democratic movement in this country. And I think that's been true for a very long time.

All I pointed out was that Prof. Scalapino was one of the first people to see Chun Doo-hwan in April, 1980, and he came again in late 1980. And in both cases he said that the Soviet Union was behind North Korea's policy of forcible reunification. That's absolutely ridiculous; it's a totally ideological position that has no basis in fact. The Soviet Union and North Korea weren't even getting along at that time. And then after Chun seized power Scalapino became a consultant to a major South Korean firm. I'm not certain what the relationship is between that, but it doesn't look like Prof. Scalapino was opposing the Chun Doo-hwan dictatorship ...

Another professor, Richard Walker of South Carolina, came here and referred to the Kwangju demonstrators as "urban terrorists." He became Ronald Reagan's ambassador to South Korea. I considered this whole business to be pretty sordid at the time.

I have a friend who I can't name because I didn't ask his permission, but he was also a professor at Berkeley. He came to a conference here when Chun was president, and someone handed him $10,000 in a white [envelope]. It wasn't an honorarium, just $10,000. He looked at it and said, "I can't take this." So I do think that the Chun government was quite involved in trying to bribe American professors, both directly and indirectly.

Right after the Sept. 19, 2005 statement, you said the joint statement was not positive. What do you think of the Feb. 13 agreement?

I think it is very positive. President Bush finally came around to making an agreement directly with North Korea. Remember, he said he'd never talk to evil and that North Korea was in the axis of evil. Number two, he said that the U.S. would never reward bad behavior. Number three, he said we'd never have direct bilateral talks with North Korea but always within the framework of the six-party talks.

Then in July North Korea tested a long-range missile. In October, it tested an atomic bomb -- that's bad behavior. Yet Chris Hill held a direct bilateral meeting with his North Korean counterpart Kim Gye-kwan in Berlin about a week or ten days before the Feb. 13 agreement and worked out the basic agreement. Condoleeza Rice then came to Berlin at the end of her trip to the Middle East and called President Bush. That's essentially when the agreement was made.

Critics could say that Bush went back on his word, and rewarded bad behavior. My view is, better late than never. He essentially went back to the Clinton policy and worked out a deal for the dismantling of the Yongbyon reactor. The deal hasn't really begun yet because of the problem of $25 million. But I think it's positive, and that the deal represents a return to the Clinton policy, and is something that it could have been done in 2001, but it was done in 2007.

Related to that, do you think there's any reason for the change in policy for the Bush administration?

I don't think anyone knows exactly why Bush changed his policy, but in the U.S. newspapers they said that Condoleeza Rice purposely bypassed the vice president's office, and the vice president had been opposing a deal with North Korea for five or six years. Also John Bolton left the government, Paul Wolfowitz was gone, so many of the neo-cons were out of the administration. But the New York Times did report that Rice had purposely bypassed Cheney.

Personally, I think the reason for the change is that Bush is so weakened as a president and so unpopular that he's desperate to get a success with North Korea because he's in a mess in Iraq.

Last March 27 you made a speech at the Korean Embassy in Washington that the nuclear bomb in North Korea was "Bush's bomb." You also said that the relationship between the U.S. and North Korea won't go well. Why do you have such a negative perspective?

When President Bush sent Jim Kelly to Pyongyang in October 2002, he wanted to confront North Korea over the HEU, and I think he either wanted or was happy with the breaking down of the 1994 Agreed Framework, which I thought at the time and ever since was very unfortunate.

I had suspected that the intelligence on the HEU was not very good, but I didn't have enough information to go on, just news reports. But shortly before I made that speech, the New York Times had a front-page story that in fact the intelligence was lousy, just as it had been in Iraq. I thought this should have been a scandal, but generally people didn't pay much attention.

But when you realize that the intelligence was faulty, that they really didn't know if North Korea had a second nuclear program, and they gave North Korea an excuse to kick out the nuclear inspectors and gain 8,000 spent fuel rods -- of course this is first and foremost Kim Jong-il's bomb. But this didn't have to happen if Bush had he been wiser. And remember, when North Korea got back the reactor and the fuel rods and pulled out of the NPT, there was no real penalty for them, and there still isn't. So President Bush bears a lot of responsibility for the fact that North Korea exploded an atomic bomb -- a plutonium bomb.

I'm not sure whether to be optimistic or pessimistic. Bush is a lame duck, and it seems likely the next president will be a Democrat. If that happens, I'm fairly optimistic that the next president will go ahead and normalize relations with the North -- that's what it looks like now. Don't think that Bush will normalize relations with North Korea, but I hope that North Korea will implement the terms of the agreement and that the U.S. will respond favorably. But I'm not particularly optimistic about that.

You mentioned Kelly's visit; could you elaborate on that? As you mentioned, the HEU evidence appeared distorted and last year North Korea's nuclear test was done with plutonium not uranium.

It certainly was a plutonium bomb But what was wrong was, first of all, the intelligence wasn't firm. Secondly, the Clinton administration had picked up same intelligence but didn't think it should stand in the way of continuing the nuclear freeze and getting rid of North Korea's missiles. Third, as you can see in the case of Iran, North Korea had a deep interest in enriching to the level of reactor fuel. To get reactor fuel you need to enrich to the level of 2 or 3 on a scale of 10, whereas for nuclear weapons you need to enrich to a level of 9 or 10. But the issue of whether they were going to use the enriched uranium for the LWRs was never discussed in the media.

Also it's very hard to get centrifuges up and running. It looks like Iran has more than 1,000 centrifuges, but it's taken them years to get to that point. The Bush administration just assumed that North Korea had a program to make uranium weapons, but its never been proved.

The U.S. government seems concerned about relations between North and South Korea getting more advanced. Former President Kim Dae-Jung went to Germany and said that if the Banco Delta Asia issue were resolved and the six-party talks advance, North-South summit talks would benefit. But he argued that the summit talks are not related to the six-party talks, so they shouldn't wait for progress. The U.S. was not happy about that statement. What do you think?

I think this has been a general problem since Bush came into office. President Kim Dae-jung started the reconciliation process with North Korea and held the summit meeting with Kim Jong-il before the U.S. presidential election. Once Bush came into office, he went back down the path of confrontation while Kim Dae-jung was going down the path of reconciliation, and all sorts of problems started in South Korea-U.S. relations because of that. Now the process of reconciliation has gone too far to turn back, but the Bush administration is still throwing obstacles in the way of reconciliation, especially in the Kaesong Industrial complex and things like that. So I see Ambassador Vershow's comments yesterday about the trains and all of that as more of the same.

I agree with Kim Dae-jung that the Feb. 13 agreement itself is a big step forward. Everything South Korea did -- resuming aid, getting an agreement on the train reconnection -- was part of rewarding North Korea for the Feb. 13 agreement. I think North Korea needs to get benefits from that. So I agree with everything Kim Dae-jung said, but this is just an ongoing problem in U.S.-South Korea relations. They have very different policies toward North Korea.

Many observers have argued that North Korea is eager to improve relations with the United States to help relieve them of their dependence on China. Do you agree that this is their goal, and do you think it's in the U.S. interests to pursue this?

I don't know that North Korea is interested in making an agreement with the U.S. because of their dependence on China. I wouldn't agree with that, at least formulated in that way. North Korea has been trying for 15, 16 years, going back to 1991, to use their nuclear program as a bargaining chip for better relations with the U.S. and that has been their consistent policy.

You're right that today North Korea is now dependent on China. Many of the goods sold in North Korean now come from China. I think in the long run that North Korea would probably want to maneuver between the Beijing and Moscow for its own interests, the way it used to maneuver between Beijing and Moscow. That's just a guess, but I think it's a reasonable logic.

On the part of the United States, I've felt since about the mid-1990s that we could make a friend in North Korea, keep our troops here, at least in South Korea, and achieve a balance of power where the U.S. could balance between Japan and China, have at least a decent relationship with North Korea while keeping its alliance with the South ... I think that was the motivation behind the Clinton policy, to keep troops in South Korea for the long run while normalizing relations with North Korea. China and Japan both being strong countries, the U.S. would be able to balance them from the Korean Peninsula and with its military strength elsewhere.

I thought that was a very strong policy for a long time, and it seemed to be working in the late 1990s. But Bush abandoned it. Still, I wouldn't be surprised to see a Democratic president return to that line of thinking.

The U.S. in both the Sept. 19 and Feb. 13 agreement showed the possibility for normalization between the U.S. and North Korea and going beyond the armistice. Do you think this is possible? Does the U.S. government have the urge or willingness to do so?

I think North Korea will never give up its nuclear program without normalization. That has been their goal for 15 years, and the Clinton administration in the 1994 Agreed Framework committed to normalization. In 1996-97, they held four-party talks on a peace treaty to end the Korean War. At the time people said the talks went well. So there are longstanding diplomatic commitments to both normalize and to replace the armistice with a peace treaty. I think that someone in the State Department could pull out all papers they wrote 10 or 12 years ago to justify doing this. So I think this would be fairly easy to implement, but it's up to the president. If President Bush is not willing to normalize, there won't be denuclearization while he's in office.

So you have a positive view of the 213 agreement, but your view on normalization doesn't sound very positive. The two issues don't seem compatible. Without the Bush administration, will the two issues be compatible?

North Korea won't give up nuclear weapons without normalization, but it may be able to give up Yongbyon, which is very old and poorly maintained. But they won't get normalization until they give up their nuclear weapons. So that gives them an ace in the hole, another bargaining chip that they can use down the road. If they don't get normalization, they don't have to give up their nuclear weapons. But normalization won't happen unless President Bush is committed, and I don't think he is. Maybe Condoleeza Rice is, but Bush isn't.

There seem to be two opposing views of the rise of China in the U.S. Some think that China's rise can be "managed" in a way that will promote its emergence as a "responsible stakeholder." Others believe that China is a threat to the U.S. that must be contained militarily. Do you think we're heading into a new Cold War with China, or will cooler heads prevail?

No, I don't think so, because a huge business coalition in the U.S. wants access to China, and wants to put subsidiaries in China to export back to the U.S. That coalition has been very successful in bringing China out of isolation and into the world economy in the last 20 years. That's because it's bipartisan -- they lean slightly more Republican, but it's fundamentally a bipartisan business coalition. Their stake in China is so high, and China's stakes are so high in maintaining access to the U.S. market, that they won't allow this kind of containment. There will be problems along the way, but we're not heading to a new Cold War. Wal-Mart subsidiaries, for instance, constitute one-eighth of China's exports to the United States. And there are many other companies -- KFC, McDonald's, General Motors -- selling in China. General Motors is actually making more money in China than in the U.S. So these are hugely important interests, and I think they will keep Sino-American relations from veering toward a new Cold War.

During detente we sold wheat to the Soviet Union, and some other things, but we never had a deep economic relationship. So the Sino-American relationship is going to be a great test of the old liberal concept that expanding trade brings peace rather than conflict. So far, since Deng Xiaoping's reforms, that seems to be true. We can test that in the next few decades.

Korean political parties have changed a lot in both positive and negative ways. What do you think about that?

The situation today is almost unimaginably different from that of 20 years ago. I came here with Kim Dae-jung when he returned from exile in the U.S. Riot police were everywhere, tear gas everywhere, protesters everywhere. People were still following me around -- I'm just a professor, what was I going to do? But they were still following me around.

But in the 1990s, Korea had one of the most successful democratic breakthroughs in the world. I don't know how to say this, but after Kim Dae-jung was elected, I was glad, but I kind of lost interest in Korean politics because it's no longer crucial to follow it. I was surprised Roh Moo-hyun was elected, but I was happy. I know some of the candidates in the next election -- well one in particular.

As an older person, I think it's great to see Korean people criticize their president in a free atmosphere. Koreans have always been critical of their leaders when given the freedom to do so. Much more so than most Americans, who don't follow politics as closely. Today coming on the plane from Seoul to Kwangju, I noticed most people were reading newspapers. I don't see many Americans reading the papers like that. I feel very comfortable about the situation today, and I always felt very uncomfortable when I came to Korean when Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan were in power ...

This year is 27th anniversary of Kwangju, and 20th anniversary of the June 10 democracy movement. Do you think democratization is really established? In case of FTA, Roh had very positive attitude, but some were concerned that Korean democracy is moving backwards. What do you think?

I don't think Korean democracy is moving backward. It's been very successful compared to other countries that had dictatorships in the 1970s and 80s, particularly in Latin America. If you look at Brazil, Argentina, or Venezuela, they had dictatorships in the 1970s and 80s, and their economies were very bad. Korea, on the other hand, has had a good economy whether under a dictatorship or a democracy. Korea is different in that it has prospered in a free trade environment, and I think it will prosper under this agreement. I think they may get more benefits than the U.S. Without studying it too much -- I'm not a professor of economics -- I think this is a pretty good deal for Korea.

As you know, this December there will be a new presidential election. How do you think Korean society will progress through this election?

I think the Korean presidential system is a strong one, because you get five years, one term, then you're out. And vis-a-vis the National Assembly the president is quite strong. Whoever occupies that office has a lot of power, so I think it's very important who wins the election. As I said, I don't think the Korean economy fluctuates that much based on who is president. It did well in the late 80s when Chun Doo-hwan was at his worst. But I think it does matter a lot who is elected.

I'm supposed to be a scholar, so I not supposed to advocate any candidate, and I don't know who will be elected. But I do hope for continuity from Kim Dae-jung to Roh Moo-hyun that their successor will continue their general reconciliation policies with the North.

You said you want to see the policies of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun continued. Could you be more specific? You think that way just because of the Sunshine Policy?

I hope the next president will follow generally in that path of reconciliation. I think that it's hard to go back, but you can push it hard or you can push it not much at all.

But I'm always happy to say that Korean politics are up to Koreans now. In the past I felt I should always criticize my own government for supporting Park Chung-hee or Chun Doo-hwan, and the Korean people didn't have a voice. But now I think I can stand aside as an innocent bystander, worried about history and not the present political situation.

As a historian, what is you view on the continuing historical disputes in the region. Has Japan done enough to atone for its past aggression?

I think Japan is going in the other direction. I think Japan had better policies and attitudes 10 years ago than they do today. Twelve years ago, Socialist Prime Minister Murayama made a profound apology for Japan's transgressions during and before World War II. Today things are going in a very bad direction, I think.

For a long time -- I have to admit decades -- I discounted alarmist stories of Japan moving to the right and wanting to revise the constitution. Generally those forces weren't important 10 or 20 years ago, but they're very important now. They've been moving closer to the Bush administration, particularly Rumsfeld when he in office, and Cheney and what they want Japan to do.

I think Japan is playing a dangerous game. I worry about it and I think everyone should worry about it. Japan is a democratic country and I don't think the right-wing can get enough power to revise the constitution. But fact that they're trying it is worrisome enough.

Prime Minister Abe came into power wanting to repair relations with Korea and China. And almost the first thing he said was to deny the government's responsibility for the comfort women. That was a very reprehensible statement. I'll just end by saying that I think the Japanese leadership is getting worse instead of better in owning up to its crimes in World War II.
©2007 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Timothy Savage and Kang Sung-gwan

Add to :  Add to Del.icio.usDel.icio.us |  Add to Digg this Digg  |  Add to reddit reddit |  Add to Y! MyWeb Y! MyWeb

Ronda Hauben
Netizens Question Cause of Cheonan Tragedy
Michael Werbowski
[Opinion] Democracy's Downfall
Michael Solis
Arizona's Immigration Bill and Korea
Yehonathan Tommer
Assassination in Dubai
[ESL/EFL Podcast] Saying No
Seventeenth in a series of English language lessons from Jennifer Lebedev...
  [ESL/EFL] Talking About Change
  [ESL/ EFL Podcast] Personal Finances
  [ESL/EFL] Buying and Selling
How worried are you about the H1N1 influenza virus?
  Very worried
  Somewhat worried
  Not yet
  Not at all
    * Vote to see the result.   
  copyright 1999 - 2018 ohmynews all rights reserved. internews@ohmynews.com Tel:+82-2-733-5505,5595(ext.125) Fax:+82-2-733-5011,5077