~A 22-book self-directed learning course in English that will ensure a proper understanding of Korea and Northeast Asia. To be read in order, as listed below in rough chronological order.~
“Let only he speak who has a proper understanding of history.” — Confucius*
Introductory & Overview Texts
These two introductory/ overview texts are needed to properly frame Korea’s place in the sun. ^^
i. “The Search For Modern China” (1990) by Jonathan Spence
ii. “The Japanese Empire” (2017) by S.C.M. Paine
Now onto specifically Korean history. Modern Korea begins with the Imjin War (1592-1598).
1.Read the three books below all at the same time, jumping between them, one chapter each at a time, in any rotation. They’re all about the same thing, one from the Japanese view, one from the Korean view and one from the Ming view.
“A Dragon’s Head and a Serpent’s Tail: Ming China and the First Great East Asian War, 1592–1598” (2009) by Kenneth M. Swope
“Samurai Invasion: Japan’s Korean War 1592 -1598” (2002) by Stephen Turnbull
“The Imjin War: Japan’s Sixteenth-Century Invasion of Korea and Attempt to Conquer China” (2005) by Samuel Hawley
Between the Imjin War (1592-1598) and late Joseon (late 1800s) nothing happened. There were only two events of note on the Korean Peninsula during that time, both invasions of Korea from the north: one by the Later Jin (1627) and one by the Manchu/ Qing (1636). They both resulted in Seoul remaining a tributary to a new Beijing government. Of note: together, they finally cut Joseon’s ties to the classical Ming and forced Seoul to accept the new Manchu/ Qing. Nonetheless, neither is critical to an understanding of modern Korea. So let’s move on to the late Joseon period.
2. “Politics and Policy in Traditional Korea” (1975) by James B. Palais
3. “Korea Between Empires, 1895-1919” (2002) by André Schmid
4. “The Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895: Perceptions, Power, And Primacy” (2002) by S.C.M. Paine
5. “Offspring of Empire: The Koch’ang Kims and the Colonial Origins of Korean Capitalism, 1876-1945” (1991) by Carter J. Eckert
6. “The Wars for Asia, 1911-1949” (2012) by S.C.M. Paine
7.Cumings was wrong. His theory that the South invaded first on the Ongjin Peninsula was a stretch, tainted by his Peace Corps experience, anti-U.S. empire framework, and anti-U.S. military feelings. His theory has been debunked by modern researchers who rely on more modern primary documents, such as Kathryn Weathersby or Wada Haruki and others. Read them instead. Nonetheless, I include Cumings’s tome on this list for i.) his use of primary documents, though only from the U.S. side of things, and ii.) for his analysis of the 1947 land reform in South Korea. So even though his overarching theory has been proven wrong, there is still value in this large body of work.
“The Origins of the Korean War, Volume I: Liberation and the Emergence of Separate Regimes, 1945-1947” (1981) by Bruce Cumings
8.This is the best and only-needed history of the Korean War (1950-1953).
“The Korean War: An International History” (2013) by Wada Haruki
9.In her novel, Park talks about growing up in Keijō, Japan-controlled Seoul, and life in Seoul during the Korean War (1950-1953) when Seoul changed hands four times (June 28, 1950 ↓, Sept. 25, 1950 ↑, Jan. 4, 1951 ↓, March 14, 1951 ↑). The novel is quite vivid, a personal touch in a list of otherwise staid history books.
“Who Ate Up All the Shinga?: An Autobiographical Novel” by Park Wansuh (trans. Stephen Epstein, Young-nan Yu)
10.Takagi Masao/ Park Chung-hee looms over modern-day Korea like a god, both glorious and vindictive. His offspring was shamefully thrown out of office in 2017, but he, himself, brought asphalt, glass, steel and wealth to this land some 40 or 50 years ago. This is a good book about him and about whence modern South Korea came.
“Park Chung Hee and Modern Korea: The Roots of Militarism, 1866-1945” (2016) by Carter J. Eckert
11. “The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters” (2010) by B.R. Myers
12. “Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea” (2010) by Barbara Demick
13. “North of the DMZ: Essays on Daily Life in North Korea” (2007) by Andrei Lankov
14.In 1994 in the pages of Foreign Affairs magazine, Lee Kuan Yew (1923-2015) gave an interview in which he said, basically, that East Asians are unique and that there’s something “cultural” about their recently-found wealth. Thoroughly offended by such bigoted Orientalist tropes, Kim Dae Jung (1924-2009) responded, also in the pages of Foreign Affairs magazine. In the end, the Light of the East shone brighter and Kim was right. “Policies arrived at through public debate and democratic processes have the strength of Asia’s proud and self-reliant people.” Korea stands tall among its neighbors.
A Conversation with Lee Kuan Yew By Fareed Zakaria Foreign Affairs March/April 1994
Is Culture Destiny? The Myth of Asia’s Anti-Democratic Values By Kim Dae Jung Foreign Affairs November/December 1994
15. “The Years Of Living Dangerously: Asia From Financial Crisis To The New Millennium” (1999) by Stephen Vines
16. “K-Pop Now!: The Korean Music Revolution” (2014) by Mark James Russell
17. “The Birth of Korean Cool: How One Nation is Conquering the World Through Pop Culture” (2014) by Euny Hong
Final Wrap-up Text
“How Asia Works: Success and Failure in the World’s Most Dynamic Region” (2013) by Joe Studwell