Required Korean History Books™

~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*

Korea: There, over there, that mountain is Baekdu Mountain, where, even in the middle of winter days, flowers bloom.

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

A Chinese history textbook that is somehow more readable than a lot of novels. Also, written by one of the foremost English-Language scholars on the topic. (Source: Reddit r/history Recommended List)

ii.The Japanese Empire” (2017) by S.C.M. Paine

The Japanese experience of war from the late-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century presents a stunning example of the meteoric rise and shattering fall of a great power. (Source: Goodreads)

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

The newest of the three books, Swope writes from a Chinese perspective and uses a lot of Chinese primary sources. Though his text has been criticized for providing flawed information, as a military historian, Swope gives an excellent account of the capabilities of the Ming military. (Source: Reddit r/history Recommended List)

Samurai Invasion: Japan’s Korean War 1592 -1598” (2002) by Stephen Turnbull

The second of the three books on the Imjin War, Turnbull writes from a mostly Japanese perspective. His book tends to favor the Japanese over the Ming and the Koreans. (Source: Reddit r/history Recommended List)

The Imjin War: Japan’s Sixteenth-Century Invasion of Korea and Attempt to Conquer China” (2005) by Samuel Hawley

One of the three main English accounts of the Imjin War, perhaps the only thing that comes close to a “world war” in East Asia. This is not the most comprehensive text on the war but it gives an excellent introduction. Hawley uses mostly Korean sources for this book and writes from a Korean perspective, so the book does suffer from a pro-Korean bias. (Source: Reddit r/history Recommended List)

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

Mr. Palais theorizes in his important book on Korea that the remarkable longevity of the Yi dynasty (1392-1910) was related to the difficulties the country experienced in adapting to the modern world. (Source: Goodreads)

3.Korea Between Empires, 1895-1919” (2002) by André Schmid

“Korea Between Empires” chronicles the development of a Korean national consciousness. It focuses on two critical periods in Korean history and asks how key concepts and symbols were created and integrated into political programs to create an original Korean understanding of national identity, the nation-state, and nationalism. (Source: Goodreads)

4.The Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895: Perceptions, Power, And Primacy” (2002) by S.C.M. Paine

This book examines the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-5, a significant event in world history virtually ignored in Western literature. Japan so rapidly defeated China that citizens of Europe suddenly perceived Japan, not only as the dominant power of Asia, but also as a key international player. (Source: Goodreads)

5.Offspring of Empire: The Koch’ang Kims and the Colonial Origins of Korean Capitalism, 1876-1945” (1991) by Carter J. Eckert

The book examines the activities of Kyungbang, the first large scale industrial enterprise owned and operated by Koreans. Eckert uses Kyungbang as a “window through which one can explore at a concrete and human level the origins and early development of Korean capitalism.” The book partially attributes the Miracle on the Han River to the legacy of Japanese colonial rule in Korea. (Source: Wikipedia)

6.The Wars for Asia, 1911-1949” (2012) by S.C.M. Paine

“The Wars for Asia, 1911-1949” shows that the Western treatment of World War II, the Second Sino-Japanese War, and the Chinese Civil War as separate events misrepresents their overlapping connections and causes. The long Chinese Civil War precipitated a long regional war between China and Japan that went global in 1941 when the Chinese found themselves fighting a civil war within a regional war within an overarching global war. (Source: Goodreads)

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

In “Volume I of The Origins of the Korean War”, Cumings examines the internal political-economic development of the two Korean states and the consequences, for Korea, of Cold War rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union. He investigates the intense border fighting and internal political instability that preceded the Northern invasion and challenges the notion of sudden Soviet-sponsored intervention. (Source: Goodreads)

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

Wada Haruki, one of the world’s leading scholars of the war, has thoroughly revised his definitive study to incorporate new sources and debates. Drawing on archival and other primary sources in Russia, China, the United States, South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan, the author moves beyond national histories to provide the first comprehensive understanding of the Korean War as an international conflict from the perspective of all of the major actors. (Source: Goodreads)

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)

“Who Ate Up All the Shinga?” is an extraordinary account of her experiences growing up during the Japanese occupation of Korea and the Korean War, a time of great oppression, deprivation, and social and political instability. (Source: Goodreads)

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

For South Koreans, the twenty years from the early 1960s to late 1970s were the best and worst of times―a period of unprecedented economic growth and of political oppression that deepened as prosperity spread. In this masterly account, Carter J. Eckert finds the roots of South Korea’s dramatic socioeconomic transformation in the country’s long history of militarization―a history personified in South Korea’s paramount leader, Park Chung Hee. (Source: Goodreads)

11.The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters” (2010) by B.R. Myers

Drawing on extensive research into the regime’s domestic propaganda, including films, romance novels and other artifacts of the personality cult, Myers analyzes each of the country’s official myths in turn—from the notion of Koreans’ unique moral purity, to the myth of an America quaking in terror of “the Iron General.” In a concise but groundbreaking historical section, Myers also traces the origins of this official culture back to the Japanese fascist thought in which North Korea’s first ideologues were schooled. (Source: Goodreads)

12.Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea” (2010) by Barbara Demick

Taking us into a landscape most of us have never before seen, award-winning journalist Barbara Demick brings to life what it means to be living under the most repressive totalitarian regime today—an Orwellian world that is by choice not connected to the Internet, in which radio and television dials are welded to the one government station, and where displays of affection are punished; a police state where informants are rewarded and where an offhand remark can send a person to the gulag for life. (Source: Goodreads)

13.North of the DMZ: Essays on Daily Life in North Korea” (2007) by Andrei Lankov

The Kim dynasty has ruled North Korea for over 60 years. Most of that period has found the country suffering under mature Stalinism characterized by manipulation, brutality and tight social control. Nevertheless, some citizens of Kim Jong Il’s regime manage to transcend his tyranny in their daily existence. This book describes that difficult but determined existence and the world that the North Koreans have created for themselves in the face of oppression. Many features of this world are unique and even bizarre. But they have been created by the citizens to reflect their own ideas and values, in sharp contrast to the world forced upon them by a totalitarian system. (Source: Goodreads)

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

Where would you rather live?

15.The Years Of Living Dangerously: Asia From Financial Crisis To The New Millennium” (1999) by Stephen Vines

Vines paints a picture of greed, ignorance and stupidity, challenging some of the well established myths about Asian economies, Asian companies, and Asian markets. He puts into perspective the events which plunged Asian economies into chaos. (Source: Goodreads)

16.K-Pop Now!: The Korean Music Revolution” (2014) by Mark James Russell

“K-Pop Now!” takes a fun look at Korea’s high-energy pop music, and is written for its growing legions of fans. It features all the famous groups and singers, and takes an insider’s look at how they have made it to the top. (Source: Goodreads)

17.The Birth of Korean Cool: How One Nation is Conquering the World Through Pop Culture” (2014) by Euny Hong

Euny Hong recounts how South Korea vaulted itself into the twenty-first century, becoming a global leader in business, technology, education, and pop culture. Featuring lively, in-depth reporting and numerous interviews with Koreans working in all areas of government and society, The Birth of Korean Cool reveals how a really uncool country became cool, and how a nation that once banned miniskirts, long hair on men, and rock ‘n’ roll could come to mass produce boy bands, soap operas, and the world’s most important smart phone. (Source: Goodreads)

Final Wrap-up Text

How Asia Works: Success and Failure in the World’s Most Dynamic Region” (2013) by Joe Studwell

Studwell’s in-depth analysis focuses on three main areas: land policy, manufacturing, and finance. Land reform has been essential to the success of Asian economies, giving a kick start to development by utilizing a large workforce and providing capital for growth. With manufacturing, industrial development alone is not sufficient, Studwell argues. Instead, countries need “export discipline,” a government that forces companies to compete on the global scale. And in finance, effective regulation is essential for fostering, and sustaining growth. To explore all of these subjects, Studwell journeys far and wide, drawing on fascinating examples from a Philippine sugar baron’s stifling of reform to the explosive growth at a Korean steel mill. (Source: Goodreads)

*not a real quote



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