Recommended Books on Korea

So, I was recently asked for a list of my top ten books about Korean history/politics, for someone who is living here and would like to know more about the country.

Of course, asking me such a question is dangerous. Dangerous in two ways, mind:

  1. I sometimes have some pretty idiosyncratic views about books, and about historical issues that are worthwhile, and
  2. I haven’t read many, many books in the subject, so I may overlook some gems as well as recommending some books that have become dated but were important for me when I read them.

So anyway, I figured that I would put my lists up online, and others could–if they feel so inclined–critique the lists, suggest other books, and so on. The idea is to build up a nice list of worthwhile books. Hell, I’ll even throw in a fiction list, too, since there’s some pretty worthwhile fiction (and a lot of the fiction I like gives one a different perspective on history as it is presented in mainstream history books).

Two caveats: first, all the books I’ll recommend are available in English, either originally or in translation. The friend who made the request doesn’t/can’t read Korean. And second, I’m trying to stay away from books that are too academic, like, for example, the collection of essays titled Colonial Modernity in Korea (edited by Gi-Wook Shin and Michael Robinson) or Ethnic Nationalism in Korea: Genealogy, Politics, And Legacy by Gi-Wook Shin. Great books, both of them, but reading them is, more often than not, somewhat serious work.


  1. Korea: Tradition and Transformation: A History of the Korean People by Andrew C. Nahm. Actually, this is the book about which I’m most dubious. It’s one of the first I read here, and gave me a solid background–or so I thought–on a lot of the pre-20th century history… which, believe it or not, is (I think rather unfortunately, in terms of ancient regional enmities) quite relevant to modern Korean history. I recommend this mainly because I don’t know of an alternate general history text to recommend. Just take it with a grain of salt, especially in its handling of 20th century history: Korean historians are notoriously revisionist and nationalist (and therefore simplify and monolith-toting) in their treatment both of pre- and post-Korean War peninsular history.
  2. The Koreans: Who They Are, What They Want, Where Their Future Lies by Michael Breen. I’ll be honest, I read Breen’s book after I’d been here about four years, and was ready to hate it from the start. The title itself–“The Koreans,” a phrase that all but screams a monolithic picture of this place and its people, and is often heard coming from the mouths of the most ignorant expats here–turned me off immediately. And the book does have problems, of course–but show me a book that doesn’t. For all that, there are lots of insights here, and he covers a bunch of things that aren’t covered very well at all in other books I’ve read, such as why the so-called IMF crisis happened.
  3. Living Dangerously in Korea: The Western Experience, 1900-1950 (The Missionary Enterprise in Asia) Donald N. Clark. This book is one I haven’t yet read, but was highly recommended to me by Matt at Gusts of Popular Feeling (and this blog itself deserves to be on a recommended reading list for understanding Korea, actually). I have flipped through the book, though, and it is what it claims: a look at the experience of Western expatriates living in Korea from 1900-1950 or so. Matt’s quoted from the book on a number of occasions, and it has given me a sense of the book’s vast richness and detail.
  4. Faces of Korea: The Foreign Experience in the Land of the Morning Calm by Richard Harris is also a book about the foreigner’s experience in Korea, but it focuses on a very diverse range of people who live in Korea as expats in much more recent history, ie. around 2004 when the book came out. I’ve heard people also recommned his Roadmap to Korean, which is a kind of culture-focused guide to the Korean language. I’d say the latter is definitely for newcomers, as when I got to it (after about three years here) very little in it that I felt was valid was also unfamiliar to me. Someone interested in this same kind of tumbling look at Korea through interviews, but focused more on Koreans, would probably enjoy J. Scott Burgeson‘s (not unproblematic, but interesting nonetheless) collection of interviews and writings Korea Bug: The Best of the Zine that Infected a Nation.
  5. The Comfort Women: Japan’s Brutal Regime of Enforced Prostitution in the Second World War by George Hicks, and
  6. Sex Among Allies: Military Prostitution in U.S.-Korean Relations by Katharine H.S. Moon. My explanation of these two books is set together as one for a reason: you shouldn’t read the first one (which is about the enslavement and sexual exploitation of Korean women by the Japanese during WWII, and their pariah status in Korea afterward) without reading the second (which deals with the post-Korean War extension of this exploitation of Korean women by both the Korean government and the US military). Both books have their problems, but they complement one another well, and reading each will help you see the blind spots in the other more clearly. Warning, though: both books are heavily researched and it shows. But they’re quite readable and worth the look.
  7. Kwangju Diary: Beyond Death, Beyong the Darkness of the Age by Jae-Eui Lee, translated by Kap Su Seol and Nick Mamatas. The Kwangju Uprising and subsequent massacre there is, I think, the central and primary trauma of contemporary Korea. (In fact, I suspect that all of the railing against Japan we sometimes see is, in fact, a sublimation of rage and horror at the things that happened under Park Chung Hee and Chun Doo Hwan, the dictators who ran Korea for nearly thirty years.) Yes, some people will object to this book. Well, and some people in this country actually believe the lie that Kwangju was a Communist infiltration. This book is an eyewitness report by someone who was there and lived it, and while that doesn’t make it completely “true” or trump all objections, it does give the book a profound value. You might supplement it with the photo book 광주는 말한다 어느 사진기자가 본 5-18항쟁과 6월항쟁 by Shin Bok Jin, if you want to see for yourself what it looked like out on those streets that May–the film (or the photos, I can’t remember which) ended up buried until it was safe to publish the photos, long after the fact, and while the book is only in Korea, the pictures are worth many millions of words.
  8. The Two Koreas: A Contemporary History (Revised and Updated Edition) by Don Oberdorfer. This is a very readable exploration, in great detail, of the many ups and downs of diplomacy, provocation, and downright weirdness between North and South Korea, from the 1970s until about the time of the book’s publication.
  9. Sources of Korean Tradition, Vol 1: From Early Times Through the Sixteenth Century and Vol. 2: From the Sixteenth to the Twentieth Centuries by Ch’oe Yongho, et. al. These are books that collect translations of documents related to Korean history and culture. They are, as far as I’m concerned, one of the few places you’ll see explicit discussions in English of certain parts of Korean history… for example, the tradition of slavery that continued less than a decade shy of the beginning of the 20th century. They’re great for leafing through or looking up specific topics of interest.
  10. Education Fever: Society, Politics, and the Pursuit of Schooling in South Korea by Michael J. Seth. I am recommending this book to someone who is teaching here in Korea, but an understanding of the education system in general is important in a society so obsessed with schooling and “education.” Of course, I find myself wishing that John Taylor Gatto’s Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling was available in Korean translation and widely read, but if you want to know why the system is how it is, and how it got to be this way, this is the book you want to look at. (In English, anyway.) The only problem is… it’s expensive, and not even in a lot of university libraries here.
  11. I know, I know, it’s a top ten list, but… Korea’s very fond of bureaucracy, and I cannot help but add that I think Franz Kafka’s The Trial is something of a handbook to dealing with it in a manner more stoic than I’ve ever managed.


  1. Pyongyang : a journey in North Korea Guy Delisle. This is a graphic novel, and a glimpse into the life an expat foreigner living in Pyongyang for a year. Delisle specializes in finding the humor in the batshit-insane (his second book of this kind is about living in Myanmar for a year or two while his wife was there with Doctors Without Borders). It won’t tell you so much about the lives of North Koreans–Delisle was carefully shielded from anything like that–but it’s an interesting glimpse of the madness, nonetheless.
  2. The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in a North Korean Gulag by Kang Chol-hwan. The first book is a horror show, the memoir of someone who grew up in a North Korean gulag, being punished for the ostensible crimes of his… I can’t remember if it was his father or grandfather. It was a whole family deal. Quite depressing, and of course limited in the light it sheds on DPRK in general, it is full of interesting detail and is painful… and thus, I guess, also rather moving.
  3. The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters by B.R. Myers. This is a short, basic analysis of “official culture” in North Korea. There are some parallels with the South, and a lot of divergence. Myers analyzes the official culture of the North in terms of its dominant mythologies, which makes this easy-to-read and at times even amusing, even as it baffles.
  4. Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty Bradley K. Martin. Does Martin have an agenda? Yes: he wants to know what it’s like up in North Korea. So he interviews huge numbers of people who “defected” form or, rather, fled North Korea. Of course, the people who flee are going to be negative. But that’s a cheap dismissal I’ve heard too many times to buy as sensible. Like every book on this list, it has an angle, but it also has a ton of detail. It’s a huge text, though.
  5. North of the DMZ: Essays on Daily Life in North Korea by Andrei Lankov. This book was just okay, in terms of the interest it generated as I read it, but I’m not one for book that collect short columns from newspapers. Nonetheless, if I remember it right Lankov spent time up in North Korea as a student (an exchange student from Russia, no less) and he saw a lot of things that nobody else has written about in English. It’s worth the price of admission, but you might not tear through the book. Then again, you might.


I won’t pretend this isn’t idiosyncratic, but I also find the Korean fiction that I respond to most, in terms of mainstream fiction anyway, is the stuff that I feel I’m also glimpsing history through. But I’ll also throw in a few oddities for reasons explained in each text’s blurb.

  1. The Dwarf by Cho Se’hui, translated by Bruce and Ju-chan Fulton. The so-called “Miracle on the Han,” as the rapid economic development of Korea during the 60s-80s is often termed in praiseful tones, was far from a miracle for many. Published in the 70s, The Dwarf looks at how things worked out for a few specific groups of people: a “midget” or “little person” and his family (the metaphor is obvious in terms of their economic status), his neighbors, and some rich and powerful South Koreans. It’s not pretty, but it is powerful. Ah, and it’s really more a set of linked short stories than a novel. The Korean title of this book is, “The Dwarf Who Tossed a Little Ball.”  I’ll also add that there is something about the Fulton translation which doesn’t come across in other translations I’ve read, which gives this novel a sort of proto-SFnal feel. The stories have some very odd (and somewhat SFnal-sounding) titles, but that’s not all… there’s something about the grit and awfulness and the way characters find a way through that feels almost — but not quite — cyberpunk. I have been meaning to finish this book, as I really have enjoyed the parts I have read. Soon, sometime soon.
  2. A Distant and Beautiful Place by Yang Kwi-ja, translated by Kim So-Young and Julie Pickering. This book is, as far as I’m concerned, of a familial relation to The Dwarf, dealing as it does with the same sort of people, but set in the 1980s… and, interestingly, at least in part in my very neighborhood. (There’s a story in it set on the mountain where I go hiking, and a freshwater spring mentioned in passing is still there, still being drunk from by hikers.) Wonmi-dong, a district of Bucheon City, is the focus of the tale (the original book is titled Wonmi-dong Saramdeul, ie. The People of Wonmi-dong) and it is, in effect, a receptacle for all those who, in the 1980s, simply couldn’t manage to stay in Seoul, mostly for economic reasons. There’s a lot of grinding poverty and pain here, but also glimpses at history — the trauma of Kwangju Rebellion, of long decades of dictatorship and control, and so on. Great stuff, though again a book that’s taking me years to finish as it’s short stories, and, well, often somewhat bleak.
  3. Photo Shop Murder by Kim Young-Ha , translated by Jason Rhodes. This is one of those Korean Portable Library of Short Fiction books, and it has two killer stories. The second tale, titled, “Whatever Happened to the Guy in the Elevator” is a work of comic brilliance. Sadly, I did not care for the novel of Kim’s that was translated first — I Have the Right to Destroy Myself — but I thought these stories were remarkable.
  4. The Wings by Yi Sang, translated by Ahn Jung-hyo and James B. Lee. Yi Sang is the Korea’s Japanese Colonial-era’s answer to Jack Kerouac: the beatest of the beat, his very penname means “weird” in Korean. His tales here present, well, freaks: losers whose lives are out of their control, who are forlorn and lost, with a lot of anxiety about sexuality, identity, and even their grasp on reality. In one, a guy’s wife is selling her body to get by, and he chucks the money into a toilet–never quite sure why, or scared to admit he knows why. Bizarre stories, by a Korean author widely regarded as important, even by those who aren’t crazy about his work.
  5. Modern Korean Fiction: An Anthology edited by Bruce Fulton. I’ve only dipped into this, but it has a lot of stories that people seem to have read as part of their education. The things I have read have been quite worth the time.
  6. The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyong: The Autobiographical Writings of a Crown Princess of Eighteenth-Century Korea by JaHyun Kim Haboush. This does fit into literature, but only in the sense of how “life-writing” comes into and goes out of vogue in literary critical circles: it could as easily fit into history if one wanted. The book is a translation (with commentaries) on the memoirs of Lady Hyegyong, the child bride of the child prince who grew up to be Korea’s most horrifyingly insane (and brutally murdered) Crown Prince, a fella named Sado Saeja. I’ll put it this way: he was something of a Korean John Wayne Gacy, but he lived in the palace and in the end, to spare his family, his father the king ended up ordering him to step into a rice chest and be locked inside… in the middle of summer… and remain inside until death. The memoirs of Lady Hyegyeong were political tracts aimed at, well, political ends: the rehabilitation of her husband’s memory as a victim, the protection of her son (who would later become a king himself), and a puzzling through of what in the world could have made her husband lose his shit so badly. It also has glimpses into the courtly life, and the superstitions of the time, as well as being a great read. Ought to be made into a movie, really. Or a stage play. (Admission: I have written a ghost story about it, but hey, it’s a fascinating moment in Korean history.)
  7. The Last of Hanako by Choi Yun. A couple of dark short stories — the title story is about a mysterious Korean woman living abroad, and the other (a piece titled “The Grey Snowman”) is about a young Korean woman who’s fallen in with the wrong (political) crowd, these are just spellbinding little stories.
  8. Between Sound and Silence: Poems of Chang Soo Ko by Chang-Soo Ko. This award-winning book is a collection of poems, I think my favorite collection of Korean poems in translation, and it was translated by the author himself! I reviewed it here.
  9. Norwegian Wood by Murakami Haruki. I’ve never actually read this, yes, Japanese book. I only recommend it here because, while it is not Korean literature, it’s one of those books almost every Korean you’ve ever met will have, for some inexplicable reason, read. It’s like how Roger Zelazny’s a god-king here in SF circles. I’m not sure exactly why this novel, of all Murakami novels, is the big popular one. (I much prefer The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and After the Quake myself, or even Underground.) Another such book is Hesse’s Demian, which seems to be Korea’s Hesse book (where, in my experience, Siddhartha is the English-speaking world’s favorite Hesse book). Aaaaaanyway…
  10. The Korean SF collection (in English translation) at The quality of the translations is nothing to write home about, but this is the only extant collection of Korean SF in translation to date, which makes it worth checking out if you have any interest in SF (as the friend who made the inquiry does have). 

And here’s a bonus book recommendation for the person who asked, since I think he might like this book especially, even though it’s not really politics or history like he specified:

Pop Goes Korea: Behind the Revolution in Movies, Music, and Internet Culture by Mark James Russell. This isn’t a book of literature, but it is a book about pop culture, a field that has become part of literary study. There are all kinds of books and articles out there looking at Korean film, at telecom or in Korea, at Korean culture, but this is the best one for an overview of Korean pop culture in general, in terms of roots and history, industry, and recent shifts and changes felt in the past decade or so… and he manages to do it in such a way that you feel he’s telling you the coherent story of a cultural development. Disclosure: he’s a friend… but he also knows his stuff.

In any case, if anyone has other books to recommend, objections to books on this list, or other thoughts, feel free to hit the comments section with all your might! As I said, I hope this is not just a list for the friend who asked, but for anyone interested. Your suggestions will help provide a better picture of what’s out there, beyond what I happen to have read or looked into.

4 thoughts on “Recommended Books on Korea

  1. for books on NK I read, many years ago, The End of North Korea by Eberstadt

    Koreas Place in the Sun is on my bookshelf, but I haven’t got around to reading it yet – have several more books packed in boxes due to running out of shelf space…

  2. Sean,

    Ha! I knew it! I emailed the person who originally asked, and told him that I bet someone would mention the Cumings book sooner or later, and mentioned my reservations about Cumings. (Which are not only expressed by articles like this one by Myers, but which are also formed by reading part of the book you mention and being, well, dubious about it. I’ll likely read it eventually, but I’m not sure it’s best to have it in the first pile of books one reads on Korea, North or South. Then again, one could say the same of other books in my list.

    I won’t quite discard Cumings, but his uncanny ability to be quite wrong about so many important things — and always in a way that makes DPRK look less bad than it turns out to be — seems for me to place his work in the same unfortunate crowd of historians who are actively apologists for nations and systems. It’s probably just a little more off-putting to me that he’s an apologist for such a repugnant regime but I find apologists of all stripes off-putting.

    Whereas, while Myers really is on the offensive against DPRK, and definitely sees the DPRK’s systemic anti-Americanism and anti-foreignism as a negative, I don’t think he’s likely to shut his eyes to contradictory evidence; I can’t see him being half the apologist for the USA that Cumings at times seems to be for the DPRK (at least in the bits of the book I’ve read, excerpts online, and articles here and there that I have come across).

    BTW I’ve never read the Eberstadt.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *