Customer Reviews: Korea's Place in the Sun: A Modern History (Updated)
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on December 29, 2000
One of the first books I read about Korea, Korea's Place in the Sun: A Modern History, illustrates the importance of interpreting history cautiously. Korean history, because of the division of the peninsula between two warring countries, is highly politicized. Cumings has been generally classified as a New Left historian and as sympathetic to the North Korean regime. The second charge is just mud-slinging, but the first generalization is still an active question in South Korean politics and academia.
First, since the book's publication in 1997, the Koreas have undergone many changes, both domestically and in their relations. South Korea's media and academic industries have also matured, and expression is more lively and open. There are more generalist and expert histories available on the market, so the importance of Cumings' work is easier to evaluate.
Cumings is generally a proponent of unification. This taints his history in several ways. First, Choson is depicted as a golden age of unified Korean power. Cumings also supports the Conservative Korean line, that foreigners wrecked Choson and downplays evidence of aristocratic factionalism and the weakness of the Korean central government. His discussion of the Japanese Occupation downplays the role of Korean businessmen in the Occupation economy and government. His account of the Korean War is heavy on politics and military leadership discussions, but spare on soldier's recollections. Cumings' sections on North Korean industrialization are competent, but since 1997 the subject has been better researched. Cumings still cannot compensate for the dearth of economic data, which plagues accounts to the present.
Cumings also burdens his account of Korean history with questionable social psychological opinions about the nature of Korean culture. He reinforces the conservative Korean view of the unique mission and origin of the Korean people as offspring of divine forces, a tactic the Koreans share with the Japanese. His account is subtly anti-global and anti-foreign. For this reason, his account is by Korean standards mainstream unificationist, but his open-minded treatment of North Korea notwithstanding, he is aligned with the forces of anti-globalization.
Not that the book does not contain valuable information about Korean history presented with colorful prose. However, what Cumings omits is damning. Most of ancient Korean history is omitted, which accentuates Choson at the expense of earlier dynasties. Discussions of religion are downplayed for politics and sociology. Cumings does not hide his bias, but readers need to examine his opinions well and use his footnotes for independent evaluation. And, by all means, read other newer books about Korea.
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on August 10, 2001
I loved this book and have read it twice from cover to cover in addition to refering to certain capters regularly. There is no other book that captures the colorful, tragic and compelling story of Korea's modern history half as well as Cuming's opus.
The book is a skillful blend of theory (he quotes Focault in the epigram), hard history and ideology. I especially enjoyed the juicy bits of gossip that more "serious" Korean histories always leave out. He writes about Kim Gu's womenizing, Sygman Rhee's paranoia and the CIA's dirty secrets.
The book has flaws that are glaring and annoying. Cumings details every attrocity that the dictators in South Korea committed, but writes only of the dubious "achievements" of North Korea, never mentioning things like how many of his own citizens Kim Il-son, North Korea's late "Dear Leader" sent to concentration camps. The harrowing accounts of North Korean defectors of life in the worker's paradise are a glaring and nearly unforgiveable.
I would be tempted to say that Cumings had two goals in mind in writing this book: getting in good with Pyoungyang (thus being assured his travel visas always get approved) and annoying the hell out of Seoul (thereby regaining the cult hero status he got in the 80s with his book on the origins of the Korean War with a new generation of South Korean college kids).
But, ultimately, I can't stay mad at Cumings. His story of Korea's painful 20th century is told with the verve and deftness of great literature.
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on November 20, 2000
It was very interesting to see rather different view on Korea. Maybe it's about time somebody getting away from the conventional view on modern Korean history as just "tragic". He discusses many aspects of modern Korean history, especially the outside influences from US, Japan and China. I agree on most of his points on modern history, however his knowledge on ancient Korean history is very questionable. Relationships among three East Asian nations: China, Korea and Japan were not as simple as the author suggests. For instance, Bruce Cumings over amplifies the effect of Japanese cultural influence on Korea while the truth is that till mid-19th century it was minimal if not zero. Until mid-19th century, Korea has been influenced by Japan militarily, but not culturally. Even after Imjinwaeran(the Japanese invasion of Korea in 1592), unlike the usual situation where victims become the recipients of the aggressor's culture, it was reverse in this case. Japan became the recipient as she intentionally captured Korean scholars and artisans and brought them to Japan. However, it's not to say that Korea was never influenced by the Japanese culture. Ever since Japan became the military superpower in the 20th century and annexed Korea, Japanese culture has been the most influential for Korea. Once the author gets into relationship between Korea and China, it gets more problematic. But because it's so complicated I can't really explain it here.. Therefore, my point is: I recommend this book but read with caution on some historical facts..
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on March 29, 2003
A South Korean college student recently told me that he learned more about his own culture from the works of Bruce Cumings than from any number of Korean scholars. I believe it. Cumings knows and loves Korea, his passion and insight coloring every page of this book. Cumings can name all the significant players in modern Korea and how they fit into the nation's long, proud and tragic history. He rightly is anguished and disappointed by America's role in dividing the Korean peninsula and in keeping it divided (even if I think he exaggerates America's sins and significantly under-emphasizes North Korea's). This is a deeply personal book, too: Cumings includes observations from his own experiences in Korea and from his own family (his wife is Korean). In the hands of a less skilled writer and thinker, these personal insights might be a distraction; in this case, they enrich the book immeasurably. The virtues of Korea's Place in the Sun easily outweigh the vices, which (for this reader anyway) include Cumings' unrelentingly leftist politics. In short, Korea's Place in the Sun is an informed, passionate, opinionated and well-written introduction to a country (two countries, sadly) we should all know a lot more about.
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VINE VOICEon December 3, 2015
This is not the book I would recommend if you are looking for a comprehensive history of Korea before the Japanese occupation. For that treatment, please see Korea Old and New: A History. However, Cumings does provide a sharp analysis of the pre-occupation period, particularly around the role of women, the development of the class system, the philosophical obsession with i vs. ki (you've got to be there) and Korea's early foreign relations, particularly with China. The insight that China's hold over Korea was stronger on paper than it was in fact- and both parties liked it that way- helps explain much of Korea's trajectory during the Choson period.

Cumings starts making the reader squirm during his discussion of the "Comfort Women" that the Japanese took from Korea (and other Asian countries) during World War 2. While many acknowledge extensive collaboration between the Japanese and the Koreans, Cumings makes it clear that the collusion extended to the "recruitment" of the young women (and girls) who were forced into prostitution. Logical, but not the usual narrative.

Cumings also makes a credible case that it was in fact the South Koreans who started the war in 1950 and with the tacit blessing of the Truman administration, which found most of its key players conveniently out of Washington the weekend the hostilities began. The wholesale brutality of the American soldiers is enough to make the reader wince, but equally disturbing are the actions of the Rhee government, both during and after the war.

It's a given that MacArthur's "roll back strategy" was ill-advised and out of control, but what shocked me was the ease with which Truman was willing to, literally, go nuclear. It's hard for the modern reader not to share British Prime Minister Attlee's horror when he heard of the plans, which he felt were completely unwarranted in a nation like the Korea of the 1950s.

I doubt anyone will object to the criticisms Cumings levels at the dictators who ruled South Korea until 1987 (or is it 1992?). What's might surprise readers is how much praise Cumings has for the economic programs of Park Chung Hee, possibly the most infamous of all the South Korean dictators. He is guilty of numerous human rights violations, but he also helped create the modern Korean economy that so heavily favors large conglomerates (chaebol) and personally directed the creation of numerous Korean industries, most importantly steel and machine tools.

While scholars have many South Korean economic figures available, there is much less to access for North Korea. As such, the chapter on North Korea after the war is a good bit of conjecture, but again Cumings makes a convincing case. While North Korea may have used some of the trappings of modern Marxism/Stalinism and might technically be classified as a corporatist state, what they most resemble is an updated (though not by much) dynasty of Choson. While Kim Il Sung was no King Sejong, for decades he did lead a nation that surpassed the South, even if it would be a mistake to say they prospered in any way.

I was surprised by the revelation that the *South* Koreans sold weapons to both the Iranians and the Iraqis during their war, and further by the contention that the North has made several moves toward reconciliation with the South over the last several decades. Reliving the story of the Clinton-Kim Dae Jung progress in normalized relations between the Koreas, all to see it unraveled by the Bush administration, made me groan. (Was North Korea an imperfect actor? Almost undoubtedly- but Bush's reference to Kim Jong Il as a "pygmy" he "loathed" at the very beginning of his administration did nothing to help relations.) Cumings makes a case that much of North Korea's nuclear program was for show, and the fact that the bomb they did eventually detonate in 2006 was so weak it was either very small or very ineffective would seem to strengthen his case.

While much has been made of the German reunification as a model for an eventual Korean reunification, Cumings points out they are not analogous, primarily because the Germans didn't fight each other in a bloody civil war. Reunification may be a question of when, but a political resolution will come only after cultural ties are re-established.

I did find it frustrating at times that Cumings would quote anonymous sources, and I think it's clear from the first few chapters that he has a distinct, at times iconoclastic point of view. However, overall I was swayed by the strength of his arguments and the sources and figures he did cite. Highly recommended for anyone interested in Korean history.
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on February 28, 2014
Professor Cumings has a talent for putting people in a rage. He is denounced by his critics almost as sharply as he denounces them. If the American Historical Association offers a course in anger management one day, they should invite him as guest speaker. Views about his books are heavily polarized. He is lionized by a generation of historians, many of them Koreans, who found in his work a source of emancipation and independence from received ideas and conventional views. Likewise, he comes under heavy criticism by an earlier generation of scholars and practicians, Americans but not only, who accuse him of being too harsh on the US and too lenient towards the North Korean regime. Until recently, he was considered as the authoritative source on the origins of the Korean war, about which he wrote a massive, two-volume study. His Modern History of Korea, more than 500 pages long, has been characterized by a New York Times reviewer as "passionate, cantankerous and fascinating".

Don't expect me to take sides in this debate, or to feel passionate about this book. For a start, Cumings introduces his book as written "by an American, for Americans, and for Koreans who are now of America." Well, America is not my country, and neither is Korea. Both are, to use the title of another book about North Korea by the same author, "another country" to me. I do take Korea seriously, but with the dispassionate gaze of a student of world history. If the Korean War was the defining moment of Korean-American relations, Europeans take a longer-term view, and tend to put events into context. To be sure, the French did participate in this war, as did other European nations. France sent a battalion who fought with honors as part of the UN coalition, and is still party to the UN Command that monitors the armistice in Korea. But one thing is for sure: we didn't start this war.

I say this because Bruce Cumings distributes the blame very evenly for who is to be held responsible for the start of the Korean War. He reminds me of the game of Cluedo or of a whodunnit novel: everybody, at some point or other, is suspected of being the culprit. And, like in a good Agatha Christie novel, in the end all the suspects took part in the crime. Cumings ends his investigation with the conclusion that "civil wars do not start: they come. They originate in multiple causes, with blame enough to go around for everyone--and blame enough to include Americans." And Mr. Cumings being an American, and having accessed mostly American archives, it is not surprising that he concludes by assigning the blame disproportionately to his country: "it is Americans who bear the lion's share of the responsibility for the thirty-eight parallel."

Zhou Enlai, when asked by Kissinger about the origins and consequences of the French revolution, famously replied: "It's too early to tell." Similarly, Cumings states that "we still know too little to determine the respective North Korean, Soviet, and Chinese roles in initiating the June fighting." Part of this indetermination comes from limited access to the written archives. Despite his best efforts, Cumings was not able to get access to key US archives, even though the Freedom of Information Act provides easier access to classified documents. Archives from China and from the Soviet Union, not to mention North Korea, will have to wait for the investigation of future generations of historians. But the difficulty to answer the question: "Who started the Korean war?" also comes from the complexity of the issue at hand. It was, to use a psychoanalytic term, a case of overdetermination: everybody is to blame, and nobody bears full responsibility.

So my advice to people debating with Professor Cumings is: don't start him on the Korean war. He just cannot be stopped. He reminds me of this end-term history class assignment, when the instructor gave the following subject: "Describe the origins of the First World War. Use the next page of the answer sheet if necessary." Bruce Cumings would certainly have used this second page, and many more. The reason was because the Korean War was, as he puts it, an American war. Americans still have to come to terms with their Korean past. When the author first travelled to North Korea in 1981, a stern custom officer asked him bluntly whether he had done penance for American crimes in Korea. Cuming's act of contrition is to play on America's guilt. His conclusion is that the United States should have stayed away from Koreans' internecine war, for their intervention solved nothing. He sees the alternative counterfactual as vastly preferable: "a civil conflict purely among Koreans might have resolved the extraordinary tensions generated by colonialism, national division and foreign intervention." In the absence of the Americans, "a leftist regime would have taken over quickly, and it would have been a revolutionary nationalist government that, over time, would have moderated and rejoined the world community--as did China, as Vietnam is doing today."

It is, of course, difficult to remake history. But the opposite viewpoint can also be held: the Korean War was the first act of the Cold War, and a defeat by the allied forces would have been a terrible omen for the Western camp. If one looks at the grand scheme of things, the Korean War is the last war Americans can claim to have won. Only in Korea can they say: here we drew a line in the sand and we stood firm; here we didn't bulge. In comparison with more recent wars, Americans did not overstretch their goals in Korea. They stopped when war had to be stopped. Even more important than the doctrine of containment, they managed to contain their own demons, and exercised self-restraint when nearing the edge of the cliff. This lesson was certainly remembered when the US government was confronted with other fateful challenges in Cuba or in Western Europe. The only other clear American victory since WWII is provided by the First Gulf War, in which the US-led coalition rolled back the Iraqi invaders from Kuwait. But then this victory planted the seeds of hubris and chaos that blossomed with the war for Iraq and its aftermath. With the experience of Japan's and Korea' battlegrounds, Americans still stand as victors in Asia, a fact that certainly hasn't been lost to its allies or to China.

There is a second issue for which Cumings is bound to enrage some people: the way he deals with North Korea. Here I have to confess that I found his treatment of the Pyongyang regime more even-handed and balanced that his reputation for revisionism would have led me to expect. He provides a convincing explanation of the regime's ideology, which obeys its own rules and forms a coherent whole. He exposes North Korea for what it is: "a tightly held, total politics, with enormous repressive capacity and many political victims--although no one really knows how repressive it is." He prides himself of having made the right prognosis on the regime duration, forecasting a smooth transition from father to son when other pundits were predicting immediate collapse following the death of Kim Il-sung.

I was not convinced, however, with his treatment of the North Korean economy. Here again, I am not an expert, but as an economist I have learned to treat some facts and figures with caution. The author provides a vast array of data to demonstrate that, until the early 1980s, North Korea was at least as prosperous as the South, and outpaced its neighbors on some dimensions ranging from production of electricity and fertilizers to life expectancy and social welfare. There is no denying that North Korea is quite unlike third-world countries: it is modern, urbanized, and has the technological ability to build an atomic bomb. But is official data to be trusted, even when validated by CIA estimates? What is one to make of the statement that "the North's total production of electricity, coal, fertilizer, machine tools, and steel was comparable to or higher than South Korean totals in the early 1980s, even though its population was half that of the South"? Transition economics has taught us that command economies were based on false metrics, and produced a tremendous amount of waste. More than current production levels, one should also assess a country's growth potential and its resilience to external shocks. People who bet their dollars on the North Korean economy, as some foreign investors did in the 1980s, ultimately made the wrong bet and lost their capital, as Pyongyang fell heavily into debt and accumulated arrears.

Bruce Cumings, or so the book cover tells us, claims for himself the role of a "leader in the fields of Korean history, East Asian political economy, and international history". I don't know where he got his economics credentials, but to me his economic analysis seems plain wrong. As for his talent as a historian, I will defer to the opinion of members of the profession. But there are things that can be tolerated from the part of a historian and other things that put him squarely outside the boundaries of the discipline. He laces his narrative with constant references to the present, mixing periods and genres to offer a very personal vision of history. He alludes to Jihad in the context of resistance to imperialism, compares Korea under Japanese rule to Vichy France, and refers to the Shinkansen when discussing railroad building before 1939. His scholarly references include an uncanny roster of modern philosophers, from Deleuze to Foucault and to Wallerstein. The real subject of Korea's Place in the Sun is actually himself: how he encountered Korea, how he came to his conclusions on the Korean war, as well as his direct observations of street scenes and everyday life of ordinary Koreans. Other historians have put a lot of themselves in their books, offering essays in auto-analysis or personal history. But they were careful to separate the genres and to keep disciplinary boundaries. Not so with Cumings: he treats Korean history as a pretext for subjective digressions and personal aggrandizement. This, and not his controversial opinions on the Korean War and on North Korea, is what I found most irritating.
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on May 21, 2015
too much talking jumping around past and present but it is worth reading and get some point of views. i just didnt like the fact that Cummings portrayed as just another state rather than a failing mobsters.
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on February 7, 2015
I rarely read books more than once. But my continuing interest in all things Korean and my appreciation of Cumings' book induced me to read it a second time.

Cumings has a unique perspective on Korea not just as a scholar, but also as someone who has a personal connection with Korea going back to at least the 1960s. His perspective is not ideological -- not left or right. A good example is his two chapters on modern Korean history. In the first, he presents the positive aspects of the regime of Park Chun Hee, and how Korea went from a 3rd world country to an industrial powerhouse. In the second, he discusses the brutal measures used to get Korea there and the heroism of those who fought it. (He's not ideological, but he's definitely pro-Korean.) He's no fan of North Korea, but does a good job of trying to understand why they are the way they are, and to see the current regime in light of Korean history.
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on August 14, 2015
For those who are beginners in Korean history, this book is for you. It is a great intro to modern Korean history. Provides enough details and information for the reader to have a good grasp on Korean history! Highly recommended!
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on November 23, 1997
This book was easy to read and offered valuable insights on modern Korean history, and presented a lot of useful and interesting information. However, the author interjects entirely too much of his own rather extreme political opinion into the text, making the dissenting reader feel alienated when trying to read the other more pertinent information in the text. These comments are peripheral to the message of the text, and serve only to advertise what the author thinks about US domestic affairs, and other issues esentially unrelated to Korea. I think he gives a well-documented fair and balanced critique of both Korean regimes, but it is the frequent off-the-cuff political remark (not to mention the elitist comment that Americans might be better off if we placed our scholars in higher esteem) that were very distracting and annoying while trying to read this otherwise timely and well-written book.
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