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The Peninsula

Korean Summer Reads 2017

Published July 18, 2017
Author: Mark Tokola

By Mark Tokola, Jenna Gibson, and Kyle Ferrier

With summer already well underway, KEI staff members wanted to share a few books that are on our personal reading lists before autumn is on our doorstep! All books are in English and available in bookstores or online. Make sure to share your summer reading recommendations in the comments!


Human Acts

by Han Kang

After last year’s breakout sensation The Vegetarian, Man Booker Prize Winner Han Kang’s new novel, Human Acts, is high on our summer reading list. The book centers around the murder of a teenager named Dong-ho during the 1980 Gwangju Uprising. As the Los Angeles Times said in their review of the book, “The result is torturously compelling, a relentless portrait of death and agony that never lets you look away. Han’s prose—as translated by Deborah Smith—is both spare and dreamy, full of haunting images and echoing language. She mesmerizes, drawing you into the horrors of Gwangju; questioning humanity, implicating everyone… Unnerving and painfully immediate.” Human Acts will not make for the lightest of summer reads, but based on a long list of glowing reviews like the one above, it has earned a spot on this list.


Invitation-Only Zone

by Robert S. Boynton

An amazing history of North Korea’s kidnapping program during the 1970s and 1980s, this book is a fascinatingly deep look at how ordinary people were snatched from coastal cities in Japan and pulled into the schemes of the North Korean regime. Meticulously researched by NYU journalism professor Robert Boynton, this book includes interviews with some of the abductees who were returned to Japan as part of a diplomatic agreement in 2002. Many of the others never returned after disappearing without a trace. This book is a quick read, partially because the stranger-than-fiction plot is so fascinating it’s hard to put down. For more background about the history and research behind the Invitation-Only Zone, check out our podcast with Professor Boynton!


The Accusation

by Bandi

This landmark work of fiction by an anonymous North Korean author using the name “Bandi” was smuggled out of North Korea and was published in English in March 2017.  The book is a collection of fictional short stories that describe life in North Korea from the point of view of ordinary men and women, former Communist war heroes, and starving mothers. Apart from the opportunity to learn about the lives of people struggling to survive a nightmare regime and to hear their voices, The Accusation has been acclaimed around the world (seventeen publishers are preparing editions) as literature of the highest order. Bandi continues to live in North Korea.



by Min Jin Lee

Spanning nearly a century from 1910 to 1989, Pachinko follows four generations of a Korean family that moved to Osaka just before the outbreak of World War II. Touching on themes of family, discrimination, loyalty and war, this book’s twists and turns keep you fully invested in what happens to each character as the world changes drastically around them. It is a fascinating read for those who know the history that these characters lived through and for those who don’t – by telling history through the eyes of this family, it makes these events more accessible and understandable for everyone. Pachinko is a long, but incredibly engaging read – perfect for a long plane ride on the way to your summer getaway!


An Anthology of Traditional Korean Literature

Peter H. Lee (editor)

If you’ve ever wanted to dip into Korean literature but didn’t know where to start, this new anthology from the University of Hawaii Press, with the support of the Literature Translation Institute of Korea, provides an excellent survey of traditional literature from 57 BC to the late 19th century.  The compiler of the anthology, Peter H. Lee, and a dozen translators have produced a single volume that includes origin myths, folk tales, high-brow poetry, song lyrics, traditional plays, essays, historical accounts, romances, Buddhist hagiography, and more. An introduction to Korean traditional literature has rarely if ever been so accessible in the English language.


Hard Target: Sanctions, Inducements, and the Case of North Korea

by Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland

Whether you are a veteran Korea watcher or are looking for crash course on North Korea policy, Hard Target is an insightful read on bringing about North Korea’s denuclearization through applying the right tools to its economy. The book provides an in-depth look at North Korea’s domestic economy and its international trade before assessing policy approaches to change the behavior of the Kim regime over the past decade and a half. While more academically-focused than others on this list, Haggard and Noland’s latest work is as timely as it is informative, making it a must-read if you are interested in current events surrounding North Korea.

Mark Tokola is the Vice President, Jenna Gibson is the Director of Communications and Kyle Ferrier is the Director of Academic Affairs and Research at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are their own.

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