Korea's Place in the Sun: A Modern History

Korea's Place in the Sun: A Modern History

Book - 1997
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Baker & Taylor
A narrative chronicle of modern Korea focuses on the country's turbulent twentieth-century history, discussing its 1910 loss of independence, its years under Japanese rule, its division and the Korean War, and its postwar recovery and economic growth

Blackwell North Amer
Bruce Cumings's rich narrative focuses on Korea's fractured, shattered, twentieth-century history. In 1910 Korea lost its centuries-old independence, and it remained an exploited colony of Japan until 1945. Then came national division, political turmoil, a devastating war, and the death and dislocation of millions, all of which left Korea still divided and in desperate poverty. Its recovery and spectacular growth over the next generation is one of this century's most remarkable achievements. Cumings provides a compelling account of Korea's travails and triumphs in the modern period.

& Taylor

An authoritative, narrative chronicle of modern Korea focuses on the country's turbulent twentieth-century history, discussing its 1910 loss of independence, its years under Japanese rule, its division and the Korean War, and its postwar recovery and economic growth.

Publisher: New York : Norton, 1997
ISBN: 9780393040111
Branch Call Number: 951.9 CUM
Characteristics: [527] p. : ill. ; 24 cm


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Feb 03, 2018

Not the book I would recommend if you are looking for a comprehensive history of Korea before the Japanese occupation. For that treatment, please see Korea Old and New: A History. However, Cumings does provide a sharp analysis of the pre-occupation period, particularly around the role of women, the development of the class system, the philosophical obsession with i vs. ki (you've got to be there) and Korea's early foreign relations, particularly with China. The insight that China's hold over Korea was stronger on paper than it was in fact- and both parties liked it that way- helps explain much of Korea's trajectory during the Choson period.

Cumings starts making the reader squirm during his discussion of the "Comfort Women" that the Japanese took from Korea (and other Asian countries) during World War 2. Cumings makes it clear that collusion during that period extended to the "recruitment" of the young women (and girls) who were forced into prostitution. Logical, but not the usual narrative.

Cumings also makes a credible case that it was in fact the South Koreans who started the war in 1950 and with the tacit blessing of the Truman administration. The wholesale brutality of the American soldiers is enough to make the reader wince, but equally disturbing are the actions of the Rhee government, both during and after the war.

It's a given that MacArthur's "roll back strategy" was ill-advised and out of control, but what shocked me was the ease with which Truman was willing to, literally, go nuclear. It's hard for the modern reader not to share British Prime Minister Attlee's horror when he heard of the plans, which he felt were completely unwarranted in a nation like the Korea of the 1950s.

I doubt anyone will object to the criticisms Cumings levels at the dictators who ruled South Korea until 1987 (or is it 1992?). What's might surprise readers is how much praise Cumings has for the economic programs of Park Chung Hee, possibly the most infamous of all the South Korean dictators. He is guilty of numerous human rights violations, but he also helped create the modern Korean economy that so heavily favors large conglomerates (chaebol) and personally directed the creation of numerous Korean industries, most importantly steel and machine tools.

While scholars have many South Korean economic figures available, there is much less to access for North Korea. As such, the chapter on North Korea after the war is a good bit of conjecture, but again Cumings makes a convincing case. While North Korea may have used some of the trappings of modern Marxism/Stalinism and might technically be classified as a corporatist state, what they most resemble is an updated (though not by much) dynasty of Choson.

I was surprised by the revelation that the *South* Koreans sold weapons to both the Iranians and the Iraqis during their war, and further by the contention that the North has made several moves toward reconciliation with the South over the last several decades. Reliving the story of the Clinton-Kim Dae Jung progress in normalized relations between the Koreas, all to see it unraveled by the Bush administration, made me groan. (Was North Korea an imperfect actor? Undoubtedly- but Bush's reference to Kim Jong Il as a "pygmy" he "loathed" at the very beginning of his administration did nothing to help relations.) Cumings makes a case that much of North Korea's nuclear program was for show, and the fact that the bomb they did eventually detonate in 2006 was so weak it was either very small or very ineffective would seem to strengthen his case.

Overall I was swayed by the strength of his arguments and the sources and figures he did cite. Highly recommended for anyone interested in Korean history.


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