Friday, November 15, 2013

Reconsidering North Korea

Think North Korea and what are the images that come to your mind?

A 'hermit kingdom' full of goose-stepping soldiers, precision parades and ballistic missiles. Of anachronistic 'great leaders' who spend so much on their military that they have little left to feed their own people. Images of a generous and prosperous South Koreans trying hard to be nice - only to be thwarted by their petulant siblings across the 38th Parallel.

What if this picture is  incorrect? What if you turn around and realize that all this while you've been hearing just one side of the story?

An American author, Bruce Cumins, has been trying to do just that - presenting the other side of the story - through his book, "Korean War - A History".

Cumins starts by pointing out that Korea had most prerequisites for nationhood long before most other countries: common ethnicity, language and culture, and well recognized national boundaries since the tenth century. Over the last 1000 years it has also developed the Yangban - one of the world's most tenacious aristocracies, which had survived because it "fostered a scholar-official elite, a civil service, venerable statecraft, splendid works of art, and a national pastime of educating the young."

Trouble started with the Japanese warlord , Toyotomi Hideyoshi's invasion.  As a performance incentive to his soldiers he linked their rewards to the number of noses they severed and brought back home. Then, in a gesture that is touching, sensitive and callous at the same time, the Japanese erected lovely memorial mounds for this vast collection of chopped cartilage.

A few centuries later, the Japanese returned again. This time they stayed longer, and left in their wake a deep sense bitterness and suspicion that lasts to this day.

Cumins's narrative runs completely contrary to popular notions about North Korea. In this version, a new picture emerges of a proud people who stood up to bullies; Of leaders who gladly sent their men to help China in its fight against the combined strength of the European and Japanese imperialists.

If it were not for the tactical error of leaving Incheon undefended in the summer of 1950, North Korea could have easily routed the quislings who dominated the South Korean ruling elite. US intervention would have come to naught, and the history of neighboring countries like Vietnam too would have taken a completely different turn.

 Bruce Cumins's book, "Korean War - A History" reminds you that history, even if it is written by victors, needs to be taken with a pinch of salt.

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