A Different Hymn Sheet

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Review of 'North Korea', Bruce Cumings, New Press £14.95

North Korea was named in George Bush's 'axis of evil'. It is periodically denounced for the insanity of its leaders and for attempting to develop weapons of mass destruction. Bruce Cumings's book looks at the history of North Korea and where it is today.

North Korea is a country that has been shaped by occupation, war and the threat of war. At the end of the Second World War, when the occupying Japanese forces were driven out, two countries emerged - both weak and unstable - after a decision in August 1945 to partition Korea along the 38th parallel into US and Soviet influenced zones.

On 25 June 1950 the North invaded the South. For the US this was an unprovoked invasion. For the North it was an attempt to reunify the country - a civil war like the American one. The invasion was repulsed, but the US then launched an attack on the North, which was followed by China entering the war on the side of the North. The Korean War went on until an armistice was signed in 1953, although the US remains technically at war with the North to this day.

By the time the armistice was signed 3 million North Koreans, 1 million South Koreans, nearly 1 million Chinese and 54,000 US soldiers are estimated to have died. The US bombing campaign set out to level cities. Napalm was dropped indiscriminately, and the US seriously debated dropping nuclear weapons on the North.

Since the end of the war the border between the two states has remained one of the most heavily militarised areas in the world. The US maintains a substantial military presence, and introduced nuclear weapons to the area in breach of the armistice. These included 'atomic demolition mines', which were designed to be driven round in jeeps to stop a North Korean advance. North Korea has developed a nuclear programme that it has constantly tried to use as a bargaining chip with the US to extract concessions. It is debatable how effective this programme has been in terms of viable nuclear weapons, but it has clearly forced various US administrations into discussions.

The book documents very well how the North Korean state is heavily militarised and shaped by the perceived threat of the US. Only Israel has a higher percentage of its citizenry in the military. Cummings describes the development of North Korea's economy and government, where the guiding philosophy is known as 'Juche' - essentially the idea that the country should be self reliant and independent in all areas of economic and political life. The state-directed economy grew for many years, at times outperforming the South Korean economy. The collapse of the Soviet Union as a trading partner and various natural disasters have caused crisis and famines in recent years. Estimates of the dead in the famines vary from 200,000 to 3.5 million. North Korea has responded by trying to bring its currency into line with international exchange rates, which has caused a jump in inflation. It has also begun to create 'special administrative zones' on the coast operating market capitalism.

Bruce Cumings also covers the class nature of North Korean society, the lack of democracy and the cult of personality around the leadership. I would have liked to see more detail on both the class divisions in North Korea and the nature of the political regime. Cumings is clearly writing from the assumption that he has to challenge the propaganda of the US right about the North. He is therefore careful to put this and the state of the economy in its historical context and to point out that it is not especially 'evil' when compared to other regimes the US supports.

This is a good read for anyone looking for an introduction to this member of 'the axis of evil', especially given the lack of books on the subject which aren't hysterical denunciations from the US right or hymns of praise from Stalinists.