m a r k a n d e y a

Book Review: Separated at Birth

Posted by Brian on January 6, 2006

The success of North Korea as a nation-state – success here being defined as relative to most of the commmunist regimes that crashed and burned 15 years ago – is an issue that I hope future historians spend plenty of time pondering. In today’s globalized world, where the internet, telecommunications, and global culture trends continue to make the world smaller and smaller, how on earth could a father-son team like Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il keep a firm grip on their little chunk of land sitting smack dab in the middle of economic and cultural powerhouses such as South Korea, Japan, and China?

This is the question that I hoped to get answers for, or at least some possible explanations, when I purchased Separated at Birth: How North Korea Became the Evil Twin by Gordon Cucullu. Cucullu is a former Green Beret who has spent some time in the upper echelons of the American military structure here in Korea. He brings to the table Korean language skills (though I have no idea just how fluent he is), a soldier’s mind, and plenty of first-hand experiences working with South Korean military and intelligence officials. Surely, he qualifies as a commentator who deserves a careful listen.

All in all, his book was a good read. He’s a good writer with an easy, down-to-earth style that doesn’t bog the reader down in academic rigmorale that your average Korean Studies professor might be tempted to use. However, I do have some problems with the book: one regarding the content as a whole, along with a few more specific issues.

My biggest complaint is regarding the large, unexpected amount of material the book offers regarding South Korea and its history. I purchased the book hoping to get the low-down on the Kim family regime and the machinations of the communist party that run the show per the dictates of the dictator. There is some of that in the book, but there is also a whole lot of commentary on South Korea, South Korea-America relations, and the Korean War. Granted, it’s impossible to examine any country in isolation without any sort of reference to its neighbors, but as the book went on, I felt like I was reading a general modern Korean history book rather than a book specifically on North Korea. This isn’t much of a problem for readers new to Korean studies, but for anyone with a few Korean history books under his or belt, such as this writer, most of the book was a retread of the same history material you can find elsewhere.

With the generalities out of the way, here are the specific complaints I have about the book.

First, there is the writer’s softball criticisms of Park Chung-hee’s dictatorial control. Consider this passage from page 134:

Park has been roundly criticized by the U.S.media, American diplomats, internal opposition party members, and of course the ever-vocal South Korean student population. All these voices added to the usual vitriol pouring south from North Korea. Indisputably, many of of Park’s actions merit criticism. He was especially harsh in his suppresion of the opposition, including labor; he misused internal agencies such as the KCIA; and perpetrated a variety of human rights abuses. But there is more than that to the story. Despite abuses – and there were plenty to be sure – such measure were always directed aginst individuals and never institutionalized. Even though opposition figures were occasionally imprisoned, and at the most extreme, kidnapped or exececuted – inexcusable actions to be sure – the level of persecution directed against the opposition and the degree of control Park achieved paled considerably compared to what his rival in North Korea was doing. South Korea, for example, never had a gulag system under which hundreds of thousands of its citizens were worked to death or summarily executed.

The human rights abuses in South Korea, while inexcusable, never reached the degree of inhumanity that became routine in North Korea. Nor has terror ever been official policy as it has in North Korea. Park Chung-hee warrants criticism, but it must be tempered somewhat by context. Any judgement on him needs to be complete, fair, and balanced.

I found this passage to be particularly odious considering it’s pretty much the same argument offered up to excuse the actions of the American soldiers who tortured Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib: “sure, it’s bad… inexcusable, in fact, but hey, it’s nowhere near as bad as what that Hussein guy did.” This kind of wishy-washy moral relativism will get the world nowhere as long as our standard for behavior is doing better than the likes of Stalin, Hitler, Hussein, and the Kims. Yes, North Korea is run by a monster, but that in no way mitigates the indefensible actions of Park Chung-hee during his 18-year term as “president” of the country. I was incredibly disappointed that Cucullu felt the need to play apologist for Park’s actions.

I also found troubling the author’s faith in the Bush administration’s handling of the Norks vis-a-vis the efforts of the Clinton administration. He calls the 1994 Agreed Framework between America and North Korea a “duplicitous fiasco,” and rightly so, in hindsight. Yet he turns around and praises the Bush administration for having the courage to offend the “appeasement minded” by going after North Korea and referring to them as one member of the axis of evil. He writes:

Given a solid history of supplying and participating in terrorist operations and an increasing sense that North Korea continues to aspire to  be a nuclear power, Bush correctly labeled North Korea as a member, along with Iraq and Iran, of an infamous “axis of evil.” His remarks were met with shock and horror by the appeasement-minded in this country and abroad, including South Korea.

By the beginning of the new century… faces and places around the world were undergoing change. In North Korea the anachronistic heritage of a repressive regime continued unchecked. But they were about to be called to task to answer to the free world for their transgressions.

“Called to task,” he says. Yet here we are in 2006, with America participating in 6-party talks to coherce the Norks to give up their nuclear dreams (if they are still just a dream at this point). We’ve already offered them a deal that is “practically identical to the accord that President Clinton signed with Pyongyang in 1994,” and the NK human rights issue is taking a backseat to the supposedly more pressing nuke issue. Labeling North Korea as part of the “axis of evil” is well and good, but talk is cheap, and I’ve yet to see any indication that the Bush administration is any more serious about human rights in North Korea than any other recent White House team. Donald Rumsfield is on the record calling North Korea “terrorist regime,” yet here we are rubbing elbows with them at a discussion table in China. If this is what Cucullu means by taking the Norks to task for their behavior, I would hate to have to witness obsequious bootlicking.

(Parenthetically, let me note that my criticism isn’t with engaging the Norks per se. Due to the geo-political situation in and around the Korean peninsula it is quite likely that we really don’t have any other choice but to cut a deal. I’m a realist here. My problem is the suggestion that the Bush team is handling the Norks in a way that the Clinton administration never did: mainly, with a hardline stance.)

There were a few other minor quibbles I had with the book, but I think they can mostly be attributed to political differences between the conservative writer and this liberal reader. Such discord is to be expected, so I won’t bother bringing up such routine differences.

In short, I strongly recommend this book for anyone looking for an introductory primer on modern Korean history. For those with a previous background on the subject, the book might be of interest to you as Cucullu doesn’t disappoint with his myriad first-hand accounts from his life high-up in the command structure of the U.S. military in Korea. For those, however, who are satisfied with their current collection of Korean history material, the book just might not be worthwhile because it covers so much material that can easily be found elsewhere.

Separated at Birth can be purchased locally from What the Book.


One Response to “Book Review: Separated at Birth”

  1. GI Korea said

    I have to agree with you that the book is definitely for people new to Korea. I really didn’t learn anything I didn’t already know from reading the book. However, I do have to say that I think the Bush administration has definitely been more hardline than the Clinton Administration. Of course there has plenty of more rhetoric but the six way talks have been a failure because the US will not give into the outrageous demands of the Norks to build light water reactors compared to Clinton’s agreement to build the reactors. To his credit I don’t think Clinton ever had any intentions of completing the reactors though thus the slow construction but he needed an agreement at the time to end the nuclear crisis and this gave the North Koreans a face saving way out as well.

    I see the approach of the Bush administration is to not let the North Koreans win a face saving agreement. Everyone knows an agreement is going to have to be reached because war is not a possbility. War does not serve the interests for all those involved.

    As far as human rights I would have to say Bush has definitely been more vocal about human rights in North Korea and congressional legislation has been passed to provide millions of dollars to promote North Korean human rights. I definitely think this is a movement that has definitely gained momentum in recent years and I hope it continues.

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