Surrounded by much larger powers throughout its history, Korea is often overlooked by regional experts and observers. But despite being located between and having had to fend off at various periods China and Japan, and even the Mongols, Korea has managed to endure, albeit split into two nations in the modern era. Eugene Y Park’s Korea is a sweeping and comprehensive take on the Koreans’ resilient and fascinating history, culture, and politics.
While modern Korea might be considered to have been forged from the past 120 years of tumult including colonization, war, and a split that created two countries, Park first reminds readers that there have been identifiable Korean entities since the Bronze Age. He runs through the first, Kojoson, then the Three Kingdoms era of Koguryo, Paekche, and Silla, and the emergence of Koryo in the early 9th century as the first “united monarchy” to rule the Korean peninsula as a single state. Koryo was replaced by Choson in 1392, which endured until the 20th century. Although Choson oversaw significant economic, scientific, and societal development while the arts flourished, Park shows that the colonization of Korea by Japan in 1910, and thus the end of Choson, actually capped a long period of decline during the 19th century as Korea became increasingly controlled by Japan: unequal treaties, interference in Korean governance, and even the murder of the Korean empress in 1895.
But even before the 20th century, Korea’s position meant it had to contend with larger neighbors and invaders throughout its history, including the Mongols, the Manchus, the Chinese, and the Japanese. Park describes how Korea both won victories against numerically-superior Chinese, Japanese and Mongol armies, as well as settled for such accommodation as becoming a vassal state in the 13th century to the Mongols, or acknowledging a tributary relationship to Chinese emperors.
In particular, enmity between Japan and Korea long pre-dated colonization, when Japanese forces invaded and were repelled, with aid from the Chinese Ming Dynasty, in the Imjin War that lasted from 1592-1598, something which is not widely known. It is no surprise that colonization was resisted fiercely by the Koreans, through mass protests, insurgencies, and “independence armies” operating from neighboring Manchuria in China, as well as Russia.
However, Korea’s relations with its neighbors also involved significant exchanges in religion, culture, philosophy, and trade. Park describes how Buddhism was introduced from China into Korea, who in turn introduced it to Japan. Confucian court rituals were adapted from China by Korean emperors, and Koreans taught shipbuilding and temple building techniques to Japan. From this, it is not hard to understand why the colonization of Korea by Japan in the 20th century was perceived as not just painful but extremely humiliating by many Koreans.
Korea’s fate as a place to be fought over by larger neighbors continued even as colonization ended after World War II, as it was occupied by Soviet and American armies, which led to partition into North and South Korea, respectively. The Korean War erupts in 1950, when the South was invaded by the North, leading to US and UN intervention to aid the former, before Chinese forces intervened to help the latter. After the loss of millions of Korean lives, the end result was a formalization of the border and a precarious state of detente between the two Koreas that lasts to this day, making it one of the biggest fault lines in Asia, if not the world.
The stories of South and North Korea, both of which are remarkable in themselves, make up the book’s final three chapters. For South Korea, the decades after the war were immensely fruitful, with economic liberalization followed by political democratization leading it to become a global industrial and tech powerhouse. North Korea took the opposite road and became more insular while pursuing its policy of “juche” or self-sufficiency, which in reality has left it significantly underdeveloped and one of the world’s most closed states.
Park devotes considerable attention to how people lived and how society was organized, so that even for the early kingdoms, readers gain a good understanding of the economy, educational system, and court bureaucracy and rituals. Different court factions develop into distinct schools of philosophy and political theory. One particularly interesting aspect of Korean society was that it was divided into four distinct groups—yangban or nobles, chungin or bureaucrats and technical specialists, commoners, and lowborn, which included kisaeng or female entertainers, and slaves. The latter existed until the early 19th century, by which time slaves could buy their freedom, when the state started freeing all public slaves.
Park takes the book right up to the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, covering contemporary issues like LGBT, feminism, and recent political scandals like the impeachment of former president Park Geun-hye in 2017 for corruption.
The book’s focus on sociology has the unfortunate side effect of relegating some major historical events such as the fall and emergence of major kingdoms to brief mentions. This is apparent later in the book regarding how Korea succumbed to Japan and was colonized. Korea’s weakening took place over decades during the late 19th and early 20th centuries but while the way in which Japan exploited and gradually controlled Korea is described in detail, it is unclear how Korea had become so weakened.
Korea is more academic than general history at times, but it is full of details and the writing flows and provides a sweeping overview of Korea from prehistoric times to the modern era, enabling readers to understand and appreciate Korea as a civilization in its own right with admirable cultural, economic and political achievements, rather than as an obscure entity nestled between and fought over by bigger neighbors.