How persuasive is historian Bruce Cumings?
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While neither Kim Il-sung nor Kim Jong-il might equal Stalin or Mao, measured over time the first two probably killed a larger proportion of their own people. Kim Il-sung is responsible for starting a full-scale war which resulted in millions of casualties. His son presided over hundreds of thousands or even millions of preventable deaths from famine, which Cumings acknowledges (he is no fan of the Kim dynasty). And today abundant “labor” camps are full of the politically unreliable and execution is a common penalty for individual disobedience.
Cumings’ search for the hidden story even causes him to posit that Joseph Stalin may have maintained the Soviet boycott of the United Nations Security Council because he “hoped to facilitate the entry of U.S. forces into a peripheral area, thus to waste blood and treasure.” Yet Stalin only reluctantly backed Kim Il-sung’s invasion plans and resisted Kim’s and Mao Zedong’s entreaties for aid after Washington intervened. Such a plan seems too clever by half even for Stalin, who, though a moral monster, feared a direct confrontation with America.
The consequences of the Korean War remain with us today. Bruce Cumings ably challenges us to rethink our assumptions. An easy and worthwhile read, The Korean War nevertheless should be consumed with the same air of skepticism which Cumings demands that we apply to conventional accounts of the Korean conflict.
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