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The Peninsula

5 Books on Korean History Besides “The Two Koreas”

Published September 20, 2016
Author: Jenna Gibson

By Jenna Gibson

Any student of Korea policy knows “The Two Koreas,” by Don Oberdorfer.  Famous both for its physical heft and its incredible detail, this book is regularly referenced as the go-to history book in Korea policy circles. It is bittersweet now to read the optimistic final chapter on North-South relations, but that does not take away from Oberdorfer’s rich insights.  There are dozens of further great books out there that examine different aspects of Korean history – here are five of them that can help those interested in the Korean Peninsula’s future better understand its past.

1)      A History of East Asia: From the Origins of Civilization to the Twenty-First Century, by Charles Holcombe

It’s hard to understand Korea without studying its neighbors as well. For thousands of years, Korea, China and Japan have influenced each other in myriad ways. This book is a helpful guide to the intricate network that has tied these three countries together over time. Good for beginners, this book is both informative and engaging as it goes through East Asian history from pre-historic times all the way up to the present.

2)      The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War by David Halberstam

For decades known as the Forgotten War, this book sheds light on the Korean conflict from its outbreak to the armistice and beyond. Halberstam, a journalist who covered the Vietnam War, incorporates interviews with veterans of the Korean War into his book, putting human faces on the conflict. He also includes detailed looks at the American perspective back in DC to illuminate the behind-the-scenes decision making that influenced the war.

3)      The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future by Victor Cha

Victor Cha’s 2013 book on North Korea is not only a fascinating look at what made the DPRK the DPRK, it also provides good context for ongoing challenges on the peninsula. Written in an accessible way, the book highlights  the crazy things the Kim regime has done and said, while simultaneously painting a sober portrait of the world’s most reclusive state.

4)      Korea: The Impossible Country by Daniel Tudor

If North Korea is the impossible state, its Southern counterpart is apparently the impossible country. This book focuses on South Korea, and discusses every aspect of the country’s rise from a destitute post-war state to a tech-obsessed powerhouse. What sets this book apart is the inclusion of several interviews with important Korean pioneers, including the mayor of Seoul, actor Choi Min-sik, and Soyeon Yi, Korea’s first astronaut. As someone who often writes about Hallyu and cultural exchange, I use this book is a go-to resource for its in-depth explanation of the origins of modern Korean popular culture.

5)      The New Korea: An Inside Look at South Korea’s Economic Rise by Myung Oak Kim and Sam Jaffe

For those who have heard the term “Miracle on the Han” and want to know more about South Korea’s rise from poverty to become to the 11th largest economy in the world, this book is for you. A close look at the economic and political factors that made this growth possible, this book also examines issues like chaebol culture, long working hours, and environmental concerns.

If you have other books to recommend, please add a comment!

Jenna Gibson is the Director of Communications at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

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