Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Ask a Korean! Wiki: Books about Korea

Dear Korean,

I was wondering if you could list a few Korean books for me about its culture and history. I am 100% Korean but I was born in the U.S. and so I don't know much about Korea's history. I wanted to educate myself since my college doesn't offer any classes.


Dear Lina,

The Korean would offer Carter Eckert's Korea Old and New. Since it was published in 1991 it may be a little dated, but it is solid overview of Korea history. For a little more trivial interest about how life in Korea was in early modern days, the Korean would recommend Dawn of Modern Korea by Andrei Lankov, which is a fascinating book. But beyond that, the Korean never had any need for a comprehensive Korean history book in English.

So readers, help out Lina here. The Korean knows some of you guys are actual scholars with fancy titles in universities and such. With everyone's input, this would be a great resource for self-motivated people who would like to learn more about Korea.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@hotmail.com.


  1. I would also recommend "The Two Koreas" by Don Oberdorfer. Although it's not the aim of the book, it is the world's best argument for capitalism and democracy.

  2. There are two books which I've read (I am a german Kyopo) when I was in Korea last year:

    First book ist Rhie Won-bok's "Korea Unmasked" which is written in comic book style. It tells you on roughly 230 pp about Korea's ancient and modern history as well about the culture in modern Korea.
    Little word of advise: Maybe a little bit biased ...

    Second is "How Koreans Talk" by Choe Sang-Hun and Christopher Torchia. This book is a collection of typical (and not so typical) korean expressions and proverbs. Funny to read, each proverb's origin is explained here.

  3. any books by _Korean_ scholars that are translated into E and worth reading?

    On ROK Drop
    A New History of Korea by Lee Ki Baik
    was recommended (+ some readres'reviews).
    I read somewhere that writings of 'a new generation of korean historians' have been published recently (have no idea whether they have been translated or what that 'new' means).

    but i have no idea

  4. Agree with "The Two Koreas" by Don Oberdorfer. I also recommend "Korea's Place in the Sun: A Modern History" by Bruce Cumings. It's a long read but very insightful.

    I can suggest other books on Korea that take a political perspective but I don't think this is the place.

  5. I would recommend NOT reading Culture Shock: Korea. It's filled with lies. ^^

  6. "The Two Koreas" is a bit dry. I don't recommend it unless you are an Political Science or International Relations major.

    I like Michael Breen's "The Koreans" and "History of Korea" by William E Henthorn. Henthorn's book is better than Lee Ki Baik's history book. But it's out of prints... it is possible to get it used or in a library.

  7. The Korea Unmasked book is a good recommendation, but for a more ilberal take on Korean history, Cuming's "Korea's Place in the Sun" is a must-- it's fantastically well written and very up-to-date. Most Koreans in Korea would prefer Cuming's ideas to those espoused by some American historians. It's worth noting that "Korea Old and New" is a team written book, and the team are conservative nationalistic historians, albeit some I've studied with and personally love. The Two Koreas book is not very well respected in academia.

  8. A New History of Korea by Lee Ki Baek is good, I recommend it.

    Also, anything by Suh Dae Sook is great. He wrote THE biography on Kim Il Sung, even the CIA have it as required reading for case officers working in Korea.

    I also highly recommend Hagen Koo's Korea Workers: The Policy and Politics of Class Formation. Probably the most well-researched book (in English or Korean) on the history of the Korean labor movement.

    Offspring of Empire: The Kochang Kims and the Colonial Origins of Korean Capitalism is a great read if you are into the history of economic development.

    Politics and Policy in Traditional Korea by James Palais is a fantastic look at Korean politics in the 19th century.

    Korea's Place in the Sun is an interesting read and is required reading in any Korean history class. However, people are right when they say that many academics in the Korea studies field question a lot of Cuming's theories and evidence. I do not recommend his book North Korea: Another Country.

    Finally, some people mentioned Oberdorfer's The Two Koreas. In my opinion that is a great book for the lay person who has little background in Korean history or politics. It is a very easy read, not too academic, and he gives first hand experiences on many events because he was actually around to witness them. And for the person who said many academics do not respect this book, sorry but that book was also required reading in several of my classes and I have an advanced degree in Korean Studies from the Univ. of Washington, perhaps the best Korea program in the country (well, maybe 2nd after Harvard).


  9. This isn't a history book, but I've really enjoyed "How to Think Korean" by L. Robert Kohls. It's meant to be a cultural introduction to Koreans and the Korean mindset, and it's been invaluable to me, an American who moved to Korea four months ago. Kohls explains why "face" is so important, how Confucianism has influenced the society, and lots of other things. He directs the book at people living and working in Korea, but I would think it would be interesting and insightful for anyone interested in Koreans.

    I do have a caveat to my recommendation, however. The book was written in 2001, and most of Kohls' experience with Korea was several decades ago. To his credit, he does often point out that Korea is changing at breakneck speed...but even with that grain of salt, I've still found that the Korea he describes can be quite different (and more severe) than the Korea I encounter on a daily basis. Of course, the only Koreans I can communicate with are the ones who speak English--an ability that surely marks them as among the most modern- and internationally-minded Koreans. Still, Kohls' insights sometimes feel a bit outdated to me.

    That said, I'd still highly recommend his book. It's quite enlightening, and it's caused me to be more open-minded about the little cultural differences I encounter in Korea that might otherwise drive me crazy. :c)

  10. I strongly suggest Simon Winchester's book, Korea: A Walk Through the Land of Miracles. It's a very well written travel book, but it includes almost every political, cultural and economic issue that is written about by Cummings, Oberdorfor, et al. Very entertaining book and a great first book for anyone who is trying to learn about Korea and Koreans.


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