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The Peninsula

Our Summer Korean Reading List

Published July 30, 2020
Category: South Korea

By KEI staff and interns

For those of us lucky to be able to stay home during the coronavirus pandemic, there has never been a better time to pick up a good book. Last week, we presented a list of our favorite Korean movies. This time around, we are back with several Korean book recommendations to help keep you both entertained and informed. From Korea’s tumultuous 20th century history to its modern-day transformation, these selections provide a window into not only the Korean Peninsula, but also the thoughts and memories of the Korean people. Perhaps you will decide on a graphic novel or an autobiography or a classic tale. Whatever floats your boat, we hope KEI’s book suggestions below, sorted into fiction and non-fiction, will give you the respite you need.


If I Had Your Face (2020) — by Frances Cha

Set in contemporary South Korea, this novel depicts the lives of four young women as they navigate a world defined by absurd beauty standards, complex social hierarchies, and secret room salons. Woven together, their stories tell a gripping tale of modern South Korean culture and obsessions.

Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 (2016) — by Cho Nam-joo

This book follows the story of an ordinary Korean woman named Kim Ji-young, who starts to impersonate the voices of other women, both known and unknown to her. As she plunges deeper into her psychosis, she visits a male psychiatrist, to whom she recounts her entire life.

Pachinko (2017) — by Min Jin Lee 

This multigenerational saga focuses on a Korean family living in Korea and then later in Japan from 1910 to 1989. This sweeping saga focuses on people in exile from a homeland they never knew, all while exploring themes of faith, family, and identity.

The Grass Roof (1931) — by Younghill Kang  

“The Grass Roof” is a semi-autobiographical novel that uses the character of Chungpa Han to depict Kang’s life growing up in a poor, literary family in colonial Korea. This vivid story closely follows Han as he decides to leave Korea and becomes influenced by Western literature.

East Goes West (1937) — by Younghill Kang

“East Goes West” takes up the story with Kang’s alter ego arriving in New York during the Depression. The April 23, 2020 edition of The New York Review of Books revived awareness of Kang with a review of East Goes West that begins, “What if the finest, funniest, craziest, sanest, most cheerfully depressing Korean-American novel was also one of the first?”

Uncomfortably Happy (2017) — by Hong Yeon-sik

In this graphic novel, Hong tells the story of a contemporary couple’s move from Seoul to the countryside, its problems and pleasures. As the book progresses, it delves into rural Korea and the universal relationships humans have with each other as well as with nature.

Umma’s Table (2020) — by Hong Yeon-sik

“Umma’s Table” is a graphic novel of a young man’s efforts to deal with his impoverished parents: an ailing mother and an alcoholic father. To cope, he finds himself reminiscing about the family kitchen and meals he had with his parents.

The Hole (2017) — by Pyun Hye-young, translated by Sora Kim-Russell

In this novel, a professor trapped inside his own body after a car crash grapples with his new reality and the circumstances that brought him to it. Covering the same bleak terrain of marital strife as Han Kang’s “The Vegetarian,” Pyun Hye-young’s thriller may surpass the Man Booker winner. It is a tighter tale and laced through with more venom.

Classic Korean Tales: With Commentaries (2018) — by Choe Key-sook

“Classic Korean Tales” features 11 classic Korean myths, legends, and folk tales. With thoughtful commentary accompanying each tale, Choe writes about the dreams and hopes of Korean people.


The Power of Nunchi: The Korean Secret to Happiness and Success (2019) — by Euny Hong

In this simple yet wise guide, Hong explores the art of nunchi — the Korean sixth sense for winning friends and influencing people. This book carries lessons on how to build connections and hone skills of emotional perception.

Korea’s Place in the Sun: A Modern History (2005) — by Bruce Cumings

This book looks at the modern history of Korea, which Cumings describes as a small country overshadowed by historical and modern challenges. While unification is not bound to happen anytime soon, what rings true on both sides of the peninsula is the dynamic nature of politics, economy, and society.

Korea: The Politics of the Vortex (1968) — by Gregory Henderson

“Korea: The Politics of the Vortex” is an early, relevant, and still debated analysis of Korea’s political culture and what shaped it. Written by a former American diplomat with deep experience in Korea, this study explores patterns that exist within Korea’s homogenous society.

Who Ate Up All the Shinga? (2009) — by Park Wan-Suh

This memoir is an account of Park Wan Suh’s life growing up during the Japanese occupation of Korea and the Korean War. It captures Park — one of South Korea’s greatest postwar writers — in her formative years as she witnesses Korea’s national development.

A Sketch of the Fading Sun (1987) by Park Wan-suh

“A Sketch of the Fading Sun” is a collection of Park’s penetrating stories of the lives of ordinary people in the harsh but hopeful early days of the Republic of Korea. Told in the first person, this tale revolves around an elderly woman who has a guilty conscience.

Pyongyang (2007) — by Guy Delisle

Pyongyang is a graphic non-fiction story that documents Delisle’s time as an illustrator in North Korea, where he stayed for two months. Throughout the memoir, Delisle shares his observations of this secretive and mysterious nation.

Asia’s Next Giant: South Korea and Late Industrialization (1992) — by Alice Amsden

In this seminal study of Korea’s industrial policy from the 1960s to the 1980s, Amsden identifies factors that yielded the meteoric rise of this latecomer economy. Some of Amsden’s unconventional takeaways (competition as a derivative of growth; institutions as determinants of productivity; state monopoly of finance and commodities as a market-disciplining tool) also contextualizes some of Korea’s current economic ills.

Developmental Mindset: The Revival of Financial Activism in South Korea (2016) — by Elizabeth Thurbon

Thurbon seeks to answer a question that is frequently raised across the Asia-Pacific region: are strategies employed by the Asian Tigers in earlier periods of industrialization still potent vehicles to transform themselves into leaders of future industries? Building on the works of earlier economic historians like Amsden, Thurbon looks at Korea in particular and sees space for both continuity and needed reforms.

The recommendations above are the views of individual KEI staff members and interns and do not represent an institutional endorsement. KEI Intern Sonia Kim helped in compiling and editing this list.

Photo from Pesky Librarian’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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