Sunoo Lecture Delivers Powerful Message

Cumings speaks on making peace with North Korea

By Maggie Gebhardt, CMU media content specialist

His message was clear and to the point as an attentive audience took in his every word -- words of a man whose firsthand experiences told the story of a nation he believes is misunderstood, and therefore more dangerous.

Bruce CumingsHistorian, professor, lecturer and author Bruce Cumings presented “The Last Pariah State: Bringing North Korea in from the Cold” during Central Methodist University’s second annual Sunoo World Peace Lecture Series on Thursday, Nov. 3.

The series honors the late Dr. Harold Sunoo – former chair of the department of history, professor of political science and distinguished professor of then-Central Methodist College. It was established by Sunoo and his sons to enhance the spirit of academic and professional excellence, ethical leadership, and social responsibility in the pursuit of peace throughout the world.

Through the series, Sunoo’s legacy lives on, and it was revived during Cuming’s lecture as he spoke about how for over 40 years he not only knew Sunoo, but was inspired by him. “Dr. Harold Sunoo was very kind and helpful to me when I was starting out as a scholar,” Cumings said. “Giving this lecture is a privilege for me.”

After college, Cumings served in the Peace Corps in Korea from 1967-68. Sunoo’s son, Cooke (Central Class of ’67), was in the same Korea III Peace Corps group. Cumings then met the senior Sunoo as a graduate student at Columbia University, where he earned his Ph.D.

“I began teaching at the University of Washington, and Harold (Sunoo) had taught there in the late 1940s,” he said. “I was interested in the political repression that he and other Koreans in Seattle suffered.” 

According to the lecturer, Sunoo was fired from the University of Washington, he thinks, after the Korean War began. Sunoo and other Koreans were politically opposed to the U.S.-backed Korean government in power at the time, and apparently were reported to authorities by other faculty. Many Koreans around the country were rounded up and deported during this time, as well.

“Harold Sunoo was called up in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee and grilled by Congressmen,” Cumings said. “I don’t know whether he suffered more repression after that, but I just know he had a lot of trouble getting a decent position in American academia,” though in 1962 he was hired to the Central Methodist faculty.

Transitioning into his opinion on the way the United States has chosen to handle North Korea, Cumings made it clear he believes the last 70 years have largely been a strategic failure. North Korea is the last pariah state and, according to Cumings, definitely the most dangerous if it continues to be “left out in the cold.”

The historian suggests a completely different approach in order to make any progress with the small but powerful and nuclear-armed country, which he described as having one of the strongest military forces in the world. He said the U.S. must stop treating North Korea as if they have no power or influence, and proceed from a more realistic stance.

In order to create a positive change that benefits both countries, Cumings said the correct way to handle supreme leader Kim Jong-un and North Korea is by starting a dialogue about opening negotiations to cap their bomb and missile program, before they develop an arsenal that can directly threaten the U.S.

Curbing the North Korean nuclear program in return for normalization of relations is key, “but you can’t expect them to give up every H-bomb – they need a deterrent,” Cumings said. “An embassy and trade relations will finally give the U.S. some influence over this country.”

With a new president in the White House, many “inside-the-Beltway pundits” suggest that using force against North Korea to take out its nuclear weapons and missiles is the approach that needs to be taken, according to Cumings.

“If I have one thing to say tonight that sticks in your memory, it’s that the pressure on North Korea just doesn’t work,” he said. “I worry that a big crisis is approaching. I hope everyone will understand that there are 25 million North Koreans who would like decent relations with the U.S., but have never had them in 71 years.”

Since 1987, Cumings has taught at the University of Chicago, where his field specialties are modern Korean history, international history and East Asian political economy. His first book, The Origins of the Korean War, won the John King Fairbank Book Award of the American Historical Association, and the second volume won the Quincy Wright Book Award of the International Studies Association.

Cumings was the principal historical consultant for the six hour PBS documentary, Korea: The Unknown War, has written many top-selling books, and has been the recipient of several awards and fellowships.


Posted November 7, 2016