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I read a little about Korea before the first time I came here and have subsequently picked up a reasonable amount of disjointed information through visits to museums and such like, but this book, which covers pretty much the entire history of the peninsula, was long-overdue reading for me. I was looking forward to getting a stronger grip on Korean history, but that hope was thwarted in large degree by the dryness, obscureness and incohesiveness of the text.

Korea has a long history, and for much of that history has regarded itself as the little brother of China – even in Korean, the name for China is ‘middle land’, referring to its place at the centre of the world. In recent centuries though, it has also been terrorised by the upstart Japanese (which culture, the author asserts, lagged behind Sino-Korean culture for a long time) – the Japanese tried and failed to use the peninsula as a staging post for an invasion of China in the late medieval period, and later occupied Korea until the end of the Second World War.

Pre-war Korea is the first main part of the book, and the rise and fall of the kingdoms of Shilla, Baekje, Goryo, Goguryeo and so on are described in fairly brief detail. The Korean War takes up a fair amount of space, and the development of modern South and North Koreas are gone into fairly comprehensively. The last two chapters are a tangential look at Koreans in America and a more relevant exposition of Korea’s place in the world. This last chapter is given over quite a lot to criticising American media coverage of North Korean affairs.

I’m sure I learned a lot from this book, but I can’t really remember most of it. I found the writing style to be the enemy of comprehension on various levels. Firstly, it’s written in a strange amalgam of, on the one hand, a very dry academic style full of difficult vocabulary, fact and figures and references to writers I’ve never heard of and world events I know little about, and on the other, what seems to be a deliberate attempt to get the reader to love, or at least forgive, the Koreas, both North and South, despite all the atrocities that have been committed on either side of the border since the war, and which the author freely describes.

Another stumbling point is the disjointedness of the narrative. Some of the chapters are thematic – so a pair of chapters describe South Korea’s economic development and politcal development during the same period. But even within these chapters, the author refers forward to things I didn’t know about and backward to things I’d forgotten about – or didn’t know about either. Part of this, I’m sure, is an editing problem. For instance, one apparently relevant writer is mentioned a couple of times before he is actually introduced. There are many minor typesetting problems early in the book. It also used the old-fashioned McCune-Reischauer system of Romanisation, which was continually distracting.

Some of the specific incidents described are quite fascinating. The chapter on the Korean War was particularly interesting. Apparently, some in the US military – MacArthur, in particular, if I remember rightly – wanted, in the wake of the success of nuclear weapons in precipitating Japan’s surrender, to drop atomic bombs all along the North Korea-China border, thus preventing both the DPRK army’s escape into China and China’s forces entering the peninsula. After the war, it was mere indecision that led the Allies to divide Korea between American and Soviet administration, thus allowing Kim Jeong Il to establish the Democratic People’s Republic.

And after the Korean War, Syngman Rhee (or Yi Seung-man), the South’s first president, was a wily manipulator of competing US interests (military, intelligence, diplomatic etc), and was, apparently, continually champing at the bit to provoke the North into attacking and therefore force the US to lead a war of reunification. Rhee was the head of a police state just as brutal as anything the North. Such regimes only ended in the Republic of Korea in the late eighties, and it was only in the nineties that truly independent reformers were elected to the ROK presidency. Modern South Korea is painted as a land of capitalist aristocracy, where a handful of powerful families run the all-encompassing jaebol (Korean for zaibatsu) and the government, marrying off daughters to form alliances like the medieval yangban (Korean aristocracy).

As I mentioned before, the author lays into western coverage of Korean affairs, stating that American broadcasters and newspapers simply parrot hysterical reports from South Korean government bodies about Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il’s psychopathy. In the chapter on North Korea, while the author doesn’t neglect to mention famine and brutal re-programming camps for dissidents, he does imply that the country is a pleasant, quiet, well-run and egalitarian society. He asserts that if it weren’t for the controversial 2000 presidential election requiring Bill Clinton’s presence in the US, a major breakthrough might have occurred leading to a groundbreaking warming in relations with the ‘Democratic’ People’s Republic of Korea.

It is undoubtedly part of the contemporary American grand narrative that there are evil countries in the world that need combating and that are unrelentingly demonised in the popular media – which leads to great ignorance about the truth about such countries. The corollary of which is that the US is the heroic good guy righting wrongs across the globe, bringing the white light of democracy to benighted regions. North Korea does itself no favours by being so eccentrically isolationist, still less by the ruthlessness with which it punishes dissidents and perceived dissidents.

In the end, this was an interesting but disappointing book. I wanted more of a blow by blow narrative, but the book was almost random in its continual back and forth and in what it included and what it left out. I also would have prefered something less polemic, but the book was full of loaded vocabulary implying the greatness of both North and South Korea. I have no doubt that Bruce Cumings loves Korea – both Koreas, the whole historic nation – and that comes across, but it didn’t help him construct an easily comprehensible narrative of the thousands of years of history in the Land of Morning Calm. Now, I feel that I want to read more books that focus on specific eras – the Three Kingdoms, or the Korean War – to really get a strong feel for Korea’s history.

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