Saturday, May 22, 2010

North Korea: Another Country

North Korea: Another Country
© 2004 Bruce Cumings
241 pages

"It helps in understanding North Korea if you have lived in a fundamentalist Christian community...just like the North Koreans, we believed in the absolute purity of our doctrines. We focused inward and didn't want to be tainted by the outside world." - Anthony Namkung, quoted in both this and Korean Endgame.

I think of Korea as a small, impoverished, and underdeveloped military dictatorship ruled by a religious icon with silly hair. This is the impression established in my mind by intermittent television news, political speeches, and newspapers. Bruce Cumings has issue with this view, not chiefly because my own view is so shallow but because the US government’s own understanding isn’t much better. To Cumings, the United States treats North Korea like a perpetual and mysterious ’other’,  a place with no history and no substance beyond being a villain state. Cumings’ book attempts to broaden the readers’ understanding of Korea: unfortunately, while providing many interesting facts, his approach is scattered and incomplete. Another Country reads less like a focused book and more like a collection of six essays slightly edited so that they slightly connect.

Another Country’s two opening chapters document the devastation wreaked on North Korea during the ‘forgotten war’ and US presidential responses to the state’s nuclear aspirations. These two chapters constitute half the book, and are followed by a chapter chronicling the life of North Korea’s founder and “great leader” Kim Il Sung as a guerilla warrior during Japan’s invasion of China and Korea, with emphasis placed on the brutal way Koreans were treated by China, Russia, and Japan. Later chapters examine daily life in North Korea,  Kim Jong Il’s place in history, and the current living conditions of North Koreans. These last three chapters all reference Korean culture and its perceptions of good and evil as the foundation for Il Sung‘s “family state“.

If you gave this book to someone to read who had never heard of North Korea, they would after reading it have the impression that North Korea is a marginalized, misunderstood country ruled by a man who never wanted the position, and who in fact just wants to go home and play video games with his kids. Prison camps and human-rights violations are scarcely mentioned.  Perhaps Cumings assumed that his readers would be well-versed with North Korea’s reputation as a charter member of the “Axis of Evil” and wanted to shed light on other aspects of the nation, but the resulting bias is problematic.

I think Cumings succeeds in his overall goal to communicate why North Korea is the way it is, drawing on pan-Korean culture, the experience of Il Sung, and North Korea’s treatment at the hands of its neighbors and the United States. I don’t think this book does it as well as he might like. It helped me, but I will look elsewhere for an introduction to the nation.


  1. It is our ignorance of places like this that causes the misunderstanding that often leads to war....

  2. PBS did a wonderful show about the division between North and South Korea that was extremely enlightening. I wish I could remember the name of it for you. In any case, I certainly recommend you do more research. Korea is a fascinating place with an ancient history, one that seems overwhelming for most of us folks with our short American history.


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