Behind the Curtain: A North Korean History Reading List

With the ongoing tension between the United States and North Korea, we mined our backlist for titles to help us better understand our shared history. Below, a list of recommendations:

For the General Reader

The Reluctant Communist: 
My Desertion, Court-Martial, and Forty-Year Imprisonment in North Korea
Charles Robert Jenkins (Author), Jim Frederick (Author)

In January of 1965, twenty-four-year-old U.S. Army sergeant Charles Robert Jenkins abandoned his post in South Korea, walked across the DMZ, and surrendered to communist North Korean soldiers standing sentry along the world’s most heavily militarized border. He believed his action would get him back to the States and a short jail sentence. Instead he found himself in another sort of prison, where for forty years he suffered under one of the most brutal and repressive regimes the world has known. This fast-paced, harrowing tale, told plainly and simply by Jenkins (with journalist Jim Frederick), takes the reader behind the North Korean curtain and reveals the inner workings of its isolated society while offering a powerful testament to the human spirit.

“Jenkins’s book is oddly compelling. The blank ordinariness of his character brings out the moral and physical ugliness of life in North Korea.”—New Yorker

“However we judge Mr. Jenkins’s actions so many years ago, “The Reluctant Communist” is itself an act of redemption. This extraordinary book opens a window on a world of fathomless evil, and it tells a heartbreaking story — of a life lived in adversity and conducted with a mixture of fortitude, resignation, tenderness and regret. Clearly Charles Robert Jenkins emerged from his years of ordeal with his Americanness intact. True patriotism can come in many forms.”—Wall Street Journal

For the Scholar

Rationalizing Korea:
The Rise of the Modern State, 1894–1945
Kyung Moon Hwang (Author)

The first book to explore the institutional, ideological, and conceptual development of the modern state on the peninsula, Rationalizing Korea analyzes the state’s relationship to five social sectors, each through a distinctive interpretive theme: economy (developmentalism), religion (secularization), education (public schooling), population (registration), and public health (disease control). Kyung Moon Hwang argues that while this formative process resulted in a more commanding and systematic state, it was also highly fragmented, socially embedded, and driven by competing, often conflicting rationalizations, including those of Confucian statecraft and legitimation. Such outcomes reflected the acute experience of imperialism, nationalism, colonialism, and other sweeping forces of the era.

“[Breaks] new ground… [Hwang has] offered readers an ambitious challenge: one directed to Korean studies, but also one also carrying its implications far beyond.” —Cross-Currents

“Kyung Moon Hwang has given us a model of the disciplined historian’s view, a work that goes beyond the idea that Korean modernization was a sudden result of pressures from Japan and the West. Rather, by connecting the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, he demonstrates that its seeds are to be found in habits of mind and social life under Korea’s traditional bureaucratic state.” —Donald N. Clark, Trinity University

The Origins and Cultural Meaning of K-Pop

With Psy’s Gangnam Style video at over 2 billion views on YouTube (yes—that’s a b), it’s safe to say that K-pop has taken over the globe. John Lie’s forthcoming book, K-Pop: Popular Music, Cultural Amnesia, and Economic Innovation in South Korea, seeks at once to describe and explain the emergence of this phenomenon and to make sense of larger South Korean economic and cultural transformations.

Lie, who was interviewed on the subject for The Korea Herald, says that K-pop exemplifies the major social and cultural changes that have happened in South Korea over the last 20 years. He explains:

There are very particular features about South Korea that make it an economically innovative country. It is very unique in that it imports everything and adapts very quickly. … The same strategies and tactics that (the companies’) innovators used, you can see in K-pop is well. They get whatever is good―design from Denmark, production technology from Germany, marketing strategy from Japan―and bring them together. And K-pop is the same. They don’t really rely much on Korean things but rather outsource almost everything.

K-Pop provides not only a history of South Korean popular music—the premodern background, Japanese colonial influence, post-Liberation American impact, and recent globalization—but also a description of K-pop as a system of economic innovation and cultural production.

See if you can spot some of the influences Lie describes in the video below, 2NE1’s “I Am the Best.” Its 94 million view count suggests that K-pop’s reach and appeal is limitless.

Korea on the 38th Parallel

On June 25, the 60th anniversary of the beginning of the Korean War, David and Janet Carle visited Korea’s Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), on the 38th parallel. The Carles are following the 38th parallel around the world, exploring intersections of water, environment, and culture, and Korea was their first stop in Asia. After touring an estuary in the DMZ, they traveled to Seoul and to the banks of the Han River, where a widespread river redesign project is underway.

David and Janet Carle both worked as California state park rangers for over 27 years. David is the author of several UC Press books about California’s environment, most recently Introduction to Earth, Soil, and Land in California. They are chronicling their 38th parallel journey on their blog, and their trip will be the foundation for a future UC Press book.

From David and Janet Carle’s blog, Parallel Universe 38° North:

Korean DMZ: A Wildlife Haven Behind Barbed Wire

The Korean War started on June 25, 1950. Sixty years later, on June 25, we stood inside the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) with a delegation from Pasadena, which has a “Friendship City” relationship with the South Korean city of Paju (37°46′), on the edge of the DMZ….Read More

Dams and Dredging: Korea’s River “Restoration” Project

Seoul is a city of 10 million people now, but hundreds of years ago, it was a newly founded village along the banks of a pretty creek called Chonggyecheon. As the city grew, the creek became a sewer and finally was covered over by concrete and a freeway. Until recently, that is, because Mayor Lee Myung-bak brought the creek back to the daylight and pushed construction of a semi-natural running water experience for the urban dwellers in Seoul….Read More