MediaWatch: December 1990

Vol. Four No. 12

PBS Producers Recall Korea Through Northern Sights


It took PBS 12 hours to rewrite the history of the Vietnam War, but the Korean War took only six. Korea: The Unknown War, aired in 3 two-hour segments beginning November 12, provided a strange mix of fact and fantasy with a pronounced anti-American slant. Jon Halliday wrote the series with the help of Bruce Cumings, the program's principal historical consultant.

Halliday praised North Korea's Stalinist leaders for rebuilding "the North's powerful industries. They improved the position of education and women." How did the USSR and U.S. become involved in Korea? "In early August the Russians fought their way into northern Korea as liberators. The U.S. decided it should occupy part of Korea." Why did China enter the Korean War? "Facing what they perceived as a threat to their security, the Chinese crossed the Yalu River and attacked the two U.N. armies divided by mountains."

To place blame for 102 children who were killed by grenades, the program put on a North Korean, who declared: "I renew my resolution to get revenge on the Americans, a hundred and a thousand fold." For Cumings the incident illustrated how the U.S. was no less guilty than the communists: "In the West we tend to think that it was the North Koreans who were the most atrocious and the South Koreans who were bad and the Americans didn't do anything, but in fact all three parties committed unforgivable atrocities." A U.S. Sergeant served as an expert on the North's treatment of U.N. POW's. Not until the last show were viewers told he was one of 22 prisoners who moved to China after the war.

That's no surprise considering the views of Cumings and Halliday. Cumings boosted North Korea in a 1981 New York Times op-ed: "North Koreans are proud of their 'workers paradise' and its economic accomplishments....North Korea is a proletarian country pursuing self-reliant development, yet Mercedes sedans abound in the city...Kim Il Sug provides 11 years of compulsory, free education. The virtues that are inculcated are hard work, self- reliance, diligent study -- all familiar to Americans." Cumings wrote in a 1986 Nation article: "U.S. leaders are by no means Nazis. Nonetheless, when all the extenuating circumstances and special pleading are over and done with, a few generations hence, it will be seen that Americans visited mass slaughter on the Korean and Vietnamese peoples."

Halliday wrote for "Britain's radical New Left Review and was spokesman for the United Kingdom's Korea Committee, which wanted the West to withdraw its support of South Korea's 'repressive' regime," Washington Times reviewer Don Kowet reported. Among Halliday's historical efforts: editing the memoirs of the late Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha.