A History of Korea

Kyung Moon Hwang

Palgrave 2010
A book review by Danny Yee © 2014 http://dannyreviews.com/
Hwang presents the history of Korea in twenty seven chronological chapters, each beginning with a list of half-a-dozen or so key dates, but makes no attempt at a continuous narrative. Instead, each chapter of A History of Korea starts with a key episode, then works outwards from that to consider other aspects of the period and broader themes. (The mid-point of the volume falls around 1900, so half the work covers the last century and decade.)

So "The Unified Silla Kingdom" starts with an account of the life and assassination of southwestern strongman Chang Pogo in 846, using that as an opening to explore social stratification, links to China and the broader region, and the role of local warlords in the fall of Silla.

The return of Pak Chega from China in 1778 is the starting point for "Intellectual Opening in the Late Eighteenth Century", which traces the rise of a "northern learning" emphasizing "utility for the greater good" and explores the extent of its influence with a brief biography of the scholar-official Chong Yagyong.

The chapter on "The Long 1920s" opens with an exhibition of Na Hyesok's paintings in 1921. The background for this is the March First Movement, ruthlessly suppressed in 1919, and the social and cultural changes that followed; Hwang focuses on the situation of Korean women and the unusual success of Christianity.

"Early North Korea" starts with Kim Il Sung's "Juche" speech in 1955, introducing the idea of self-sufficiency, but looks more broadly at the Soviet impact and Kim's gradual purging of rivals and creation of a cult of personality. A separate box describes the capture of the USS Pueblo in 1968.

The June Declaration of 1987 is the starting point for the chapter on "South Korean Democratization", but that then goes back to the Kwangju Uprising of May 1980 and the experience of the "democracy generation" that grew up in its aftermath before returning to the background and course of events in 1987, leading up to the election.

Hwang hardly touches on social or economic history, does a solid job with political history, and is particularly good on intellectual and cultural history, on identities and ideologies and gender and so forth. He only occasionally glances at sources or general historiography — was the Koryo-Choson transition, for example, driven by socioeconomic forces, an ideological revolution, or of relatively limited significance? But he regularly highlights the way Korean history features in current popular and political concerns and debates. So he passes over mythical pre-history and starts with Koguryo, writing: "the larger lesson is that there were no such things as Korea and Japan before the seventh century, and that these two countries began as political constructs rather than as primordial civilizations". He describes the controversies over the 2007 decision to put 16th century Lady Sin Saimdang on the 50,000 won note. And he emphasizes the problems reaching a balanced evaluation of either the brief-lived Great Korean Empire or the Japanese colonial period, given the weight of subsequent events.

The result makes A History of Korea much more involving than a straight narrative would be, though its approach does presuppose some familiarity with the broad history and politics of Korea and the region.

Note: one strangeness is that Hwang gives without comment the traditional figure of a million plus for the size of the invading Chinese army in 618, even though the likely population of all China at the time was fifty million. Just as the supposedly million strong army with which Xerxes invaded Greece was most likely well under a hundred thousand, so surely was this one.

October 2014

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%T A History of Korea
%A Hwang, Kyung Moon
%I Palgrave
%D 2010
%O index
%G ISBN-13 9780230205468
%P 309pp