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Korean Legends

A perverse perspective on events on the peninsula.

Jul 18, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 41 • By JORDAN MICHAEL SMITH
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No, the war did solve something, and not something trivial: an anti-Communist, independent South Korea that evolved into a flourishing market democracy. Was authoritarian South Korea worth protecting in 1950? Look at the leadership drama currently underway in the North: More than a half-century after the armistice, North Korea is a ghastly place. And yet Cumings is, at the least, a friendly visitor whose perspective proceeds directly from his political attitude: “North Korean political practice is reprehensible, but we are not responsible for it. More disturbing is the incessant stereotyping and demonizing of this regime in the United States” (italics added).

He complains that “there is no evidence in the North Korean experience of the mass violence against whole classes of people or the wholesale ‘purge’ that so clearly characterized Stalinism. .  .  . Nevertheless, North Korea remains everyone’s example of worst-case socialism.” Of course, what characterized Stalinism was not only the purges and mass violence but the thought control, suppression of dissent, destruction of opposition, widespread propaganda, cult of personality, and central control of the economy. And by these standards North Korea’s rulers do not just meet Stalin’s record but exceed it. If North Korea remains everyone’s example of “worst-case socialism,” that is because it illustrates precisely what can happen in worst-case socialism.

There are a few points of value here: Cumings provides a sobering reminder of the toll the American air war had on both Koreas, and our postwar occupation was more brutal than most Americans know. But readers interested in a brief, well-informed, and fair-minded guide to the conflict are referred to William Stueck’s The Korean War: An International History.

Jordan Michael Smith is a writer in Washington.

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