Victor D. Cha and Ramon Pacheco Pardo, Korea: A New History of South and North
For a long time, perhaps for much of their history, the people of Korea have found themselves, in so many ways, dominated by, and ignored or disregarded in favour of, the more powerful nations that surround them. In the twenty-first century, this is most certainly not the case. Be it the aggressive stance of North Korea with its weapons tests and threatening rhetoricThe art of effective or persuasive speaking or writing., or the soaring popularity of South Korean technology, sports personalities, pop groups and TV shows like Squid Game, interest in this compact but culturally rich place is at an all-time high. Now, for those keen on learning more about how the two Koreas and their people have come to find themselves where they are, co-authors Victor D. Cha (a former Director for Asian Affairs at the White House National Security Council) and Ramon Pacheco Pardo (Professor of International Relations at King's College London) have released Korea: A New History of South and North, a perfect primer.
Rather than attempting a full history of the Korean peninsula, which reaches back millenniaThousands of years., the authors have chosen to focus on the two countries that occupy it now, their aim being to look at how two nations of people who share the same language and culture have developed so very differently. The book is structured chronologically, rather than thematically, starting in the nineteenth century and taking readers on a concise, well-written and easily accessible journey through roughly a century-and-a-half of history, right up to the situation in 2023. As the book is intended to be read by the casual reader as much as by anyone with a deeper interest in Korean affairs, the chapters are uncluttered and to-the-point, bringing us a clear narrativeA story; in the writing of history it usually describes an approach that favours story over analysis. with just enough anecdotes and detail to avoid the sense that truly important things are being missed out. Time is spent, of course, on the extremely damaging period of Japanese annexation, but most of the book is set after the Second World WarA global war that lasted from 1939 until 1945. and independence, when the two separate Koreas came into existence.
What is particularly pleasing about Korea is the balance in the amount of attention paid to North and South. While South Korea has developed into a modern powerhouse of industry, technology, popular culture and ideas, it is still the North that sometimes seems to have a monopoly on exposure in the media and in the global consciousness, thanks in no small part to its bizarre dynastic leadership, bellicose posturing and ceaseless weapons testing. Here, the South is given at least as much time to shine and proves, through its political and social journey, every bit as interesting and complex. Each section in the book is a look at both Koreas, analysing the challenges they have faced as time has passed, with a particular focus as the book draws to a close on the various attitudes and approaches there have been towards the idea of unification, with all the challenges – and perhaps opportunities – that could bring. And while throughout there is often the sense that both countries' fates have been constantly influenced, and even controlled, by the 'bigger' nations that surround them, what ultimately comes through, particularly in the case of South Korea, is an inspiring feeling that this may no longer need to be the case.
If the book does have a possible shortcoming, it is one that many books of its length – just over 230 pages, not including the endnotes – share. In dealing with so much in such a concise manner, the narrative inevitably touches only very briefly on some aspects of the topic. With the authors’ personal experiences and interests naturally directing them towards looking at government policy, geopolitical issues and economic changes, there are times when one wishes for more analysis of sociological and cultural development, for example. The recent explosion in demand for South Korean popular culture is referred to on many occasions, but the reasons for it are mainly left to our imaginations, as is analysis of why the music, television and film industries in the South have developed the styles that have proven so attractive. Similarly, significant changes in attitudes towards both women and the LGBT community in South Korean society are described, but the authors do not delve any further into why the younger generations in the country have the opinions they have, or what may have influenced a change. It is not that these elements are absent, simply that they need more space than a book of this size can allow. Socio-cultural changes in the North are dealt with even less, although the authors themselves acknowledge that this is because sources of information are so unreliable.
Yet to criticise Korea for a lack of depth in some areas seems unfair, as it is not the aim of the authors to give an exhaustive breakdown of every aspect of life in the Koreas over the past one hundred and fifty years. The book is comfortably short, an easy-to-read crash course rather than an in-depth analysis. The extensive bibliographic information at the end of the book, and the list of the authors’ other own works at the start, provide good signposts for more focused study, and the book ultimately achieves what the authors set out to do. It provides an enjoyable, engaging, timely and often surprising explanation of how the Korean people got where they are today, the perfect starting point for anyone even vaguely interested in a fascinating people, culture and part of the world.