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A New History of Korea
reviewed by William P. Meyers

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coverA New History of Korea
by Ki-baik Lee
translated by Edward W. Wagner with Edward J. Shultz
Harvard University Press
reviewed May 21, 2007
hardcover 474 pages
Amazon.com link

I obtained this book as part of my U.S. War Against Asia writing project. It is always amazing to look at an individual nation's history in detail; this book is no exception. I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys detailed histories. Given Korea's economic and geopolitical importance in the modern world, I can recommend this book to student of politics or economics. Cultural and artistic life is covered as well. The book itself is well-designed, with exceptional end-papers, a beautiful dust-jacket, and a full-color illustration section. It is available used at a very reasonable price.

The struggle for independence from foreign domination and exploitation is the main theme of Korean history. A strong secondary theme is the cycle of unification and fragmentation of Korea itself.

Korea lies south of Manchuria and between Japan and China. Much of the grander scale of earlier history involves war with invaders from the north, including the Mongols, and from China. As history progresses Japan's interest in Korea accelerates until Korea is made part of Japan in 1910 with the concurrence of the Western (European and U.S.) powers.

The Japanese government's attempt to uproot Korean culture (by forbidding use of the Korean language, among other measures) marked a sad period not just for Koreans but for lovers of culture everywhere. Ki-baik Lee does a good job showing the cultural achievements of the Korean people. In addition to the architecture, ceramics, and poetry it is notable that Koreans (at least those who could afford it) were book lovers. Moveable type was used to produce books in Korea in the 13th century, long before Johannes Gutenberg "invented" it is Germany in the 15th century.

In addition to sharing a great deal of culture, Japan, China and Korea shared the problem of fending off colonization by Spain, Portugal, the Dutch, Germany, Russia, France, Great Britain and of course the United States. Unfortunately Japan's strategy for independence, after it was attacked by the United States in 1854, evolved to include becoming an imperialist power itself.

When World War II ended the various elements of the Korean independence movement thought that the Korean people would be allowed to become a unified, independent nation again. But the Cold War was already on. Vietnam suffered the same fate, being forced back into being a French colony. China was in the midst of a civil war. The Soviet Union (Russia) occupied the northern portion of Korea. The United States occupied the southern end of Korea. The result is the current situation: a weak Korea divided into two states.

Ki-baik Lee's history ends shortly after the end of the "Korean War" between North and South Korea and their assorted "allies." Korea is in the news a great deal these days because of North Korea's successful missile and atomic weapon development programs and South Korea's contributions to the world's economy. As someone who comments on world events I feel much better informed having read A New History of Korea.