Victor Cha and Ramon Pacheco Pardo offer readers a solid foundation on the histories of North and South Korea that will add much-needed context to any conversation on Korean politics and culture.
Korea: A New History of South and North by Victor D. Cha and Ramon Pacheco Pardo, Yale University Press
In the introduction of Korea, co-author Victor D. Cha recalls his first visit to Pyongyang in North Korea and the helicopter ride back to Seoul in South Korea where, seeing empty roads and barren fields on one side of the Korean Demilitarized Zone and glittering metropolises and industrial complexes on the other, it became apparent how vast the division between the two nations truly was. “What circumstances,” Cha writes, “led the same people to live in such starkly different conditions?”
There is no simple answer to that question, and facts alone don’t always reveal the complex throughlines of how something came to be. Understanding history requires the ability to find patterns in past events and contextualization through firsthand experiences or expert guidance. This is what Cha and his co-author, Ramon Pacheco Pardo, set out to do with their new book. They write:
[We] believe that there is a need for a book grounded in academic research that is accessible to the general public. The modern history of Korea, pre- and post-division, has gone through many twists and turns. This can make it difficult to follow. With this book, we hope to provide the readers with a detailed and analytical introduction to Korean history, so that they can gain deeper knowledge about where North and South Korea currently are and why they are there today. Both Koreas have become well known globally, albeit for very different reasons. Our hope is that with this book the reader will be able to understand why this is the case.
My limited understanding of North Korea and South Korea has always been one made up of dichotomies: authoritarian/democratic, closed/open, unfamiliar/familiar. Beyond brief mentions of the Korean War and the infamous 38th parallel in history classes, I had never really learned about the previous events that ultimately led to a split Korean peninsula. I accepted the division as the status quo—the way things had long been and the way they surely would remain.
While watching the TV adaptation of Min Jin Lee’s novel Pachinko, I realized how lacking my knowledge of Korean history truly was. The show's first season reaches back into the early twentieth century when the Korean peninsula was still united, albeit under Japanese control. Though a work of fiction, its historical roots contextualized how recent these eras in Korean history are. There are still living witnesses to recall a time before the peninsula’s split. To further emphasize this, the show’s creators featured interviews with real Korean women who, like the story’s protagonist, had lived under Japanese occupation. “We are reminded,” writes reviewer Nina Li Coomes, “that this story isn’t just entertainment but a political act of remembering. The struggles and joys we’ve seen on screen are not hypotheticals but realities.” That a unified Korea existed within living memory makes it even more staggering to see how North Korea and South Korea have become such opposites.
Korea begins its recounting of Korean history in the late 1800s. “Korea’s history,” write Cha and Pacheco Pardo, “is its geography.” For centuries, China, Russia, and Japan had all angled for control of the Korean peninsula, whether as a buffer from enemy invasion or a strategic location for commerce. After a period of isolation, the Korean “hermit kingdom” grappled with whether to remain closed off to outsiders or follow in neighboring Japan’s footsteps towards modernization and adoption of Western technologies. Sensing an opportunity, Japan encouraged Korea to open its borders with the Kanghwa Treaty of 1876, sparking tensions with China and Russia and creating an international power struggle. After driving out China and Russia from the Korean peninsula, Japan’s control was cemented in 1905 by the Taft-Katsura agreement, in which the United States agreed to leave Korea in Japan’s hands in exchange for Japan allowing the United States unchallenged control over the Philippines. By 1910, Korea had been fully annexed by Japan, leading to a period of increased industrialization and improved infrastructure, but also of cultural and political repression of the Korean people.
Cha and Pacheco Pardo argue that this series of events “highlights one of the most enduring themes with regard to Korea,” in which three external factors repeatedly determine Korea’s fate. The first is its geostrategic location at the intersection of multiple, much larger powers. The second is what Cha and Pacheco Pardo call Korea’s relative power—internal clashes between varying political factions left Korea vulnerable to external forces. Finally, there are the intentions of larger powers to make Korea their own, whether to bolster their defenses or to claim Korea away from a rival nation. “Even today,” the authors write, “these geopolitical impulses, however muted by modernity and development, will always be a part of Korea’s story.”
The Japanese occupation of Korea lasted thirty-five years, ending virtually overnight with Japan’s surrender at the end of World War II. The same power struggle over who would control the peninsula arose, but this time, with the United States taking Japan’s place. Although several Korean grassroots groups had resisted Japanese control and sought independence for their country, and although Koreans had successfully organized local governing units in the aftermath of Japan’s surrender, the Korean people were left out of the decision-making process. The authors write:
Even though Korea had been an independent sovereign country for thousands of years before the Japanese occupation, US policymakers completely unfamiliar with Korea’s history assumed that the country could not govern itself after Japan’s departure.
With the onset of the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union both looked to take control of the peninsula—not, the authors note, because they saw any intrinsic value in Korea as a nation, but to keep the country out of each other’s hands. “Concerned that Moscow would take the entire peninsula,” the authors write, “the US proposed a division of Korea into two occupation zones, to which the Soviets agreed.” This decision was left to a junior colonel to figure out in just 30 minutes. With little understanding of Korean geography, the official looked at a National Geographic magazine map of Korea, saw the 38th parallel marked, and suggested that be the new border between Soviet-occupied and US-occupied Korea. This border bisecting the 38th parallel has remained ever since.
How the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in the north and the Republic of Korea diverged so dramatically in their economics and politics stems, paradoxically, from their shared history. For centuries, Korea “has navigated balance-of-power politics […] and demonstrated an uncanny resilience,” the authors write. What follows for the remainder of the book is an analysis of how these two countries have drawn from that resilience to move their new countries forward given the circumstances they find themselves in. North Korea, left with a scarcity of farmland but a wealth of mineral resources, moved towards heavy industrialization and adopted Songun, a national policy that placed the military at the heart of all political and economic decisions, and Juche, an ideology of self-reliance and political independence. South Korea, in contrast, adopted a more capitalist route and invested in its chaebol, the major family-owned corporations that include now-familiar brands like Hyundai, LG, and Samsung, to drive its economy forward and establish relationships with the broader world.
What has played out over the past seven decades between North and South harks back to the late 1800s once again, when the declining Korean dynasty considered whether to open to the world or remain closed off. In a way, we’re seeing the outcomes of both options, albeit under several geopolitical conditions set by external forces. Neither solution has been perfect—both sides of the peninsula have struggled, like many other nations worldwide, with authoritarianism, repression of political dissidents, economic precarity, and so on, in their attempts to find their footing. And over time, the gulf between the two nations has only increased. In opting for isolation, North Korea has become a brutally repressive regime that has placed greater emphasis on symbolic displays of prosperity than on the actual well-being of its population—and ironically, despite an ideology of self-reliance, North Korea remains heavily dependent on foreign aid to survive. In seeking a place in the global community, South Korea has fostered greater international goodwill and a thriving economic engine. And yet, there is still a thread of unity to be found in this story. Both sides have made these decisions—however successful or misguided, good or bad—driven by a common desire to see Korea thrive.
The end of the book leads to what the authors say is the most common question they receive: “When will unification happen?” There is, of course, no single concrete answer. Cha and Pacheco Pardo analyze the current state of inter-Korean affairs and are pragmatic about the economic, social, and political challenges that North and South Korea—and the rest of the world—would face should unification occur. But it might not be as impossible as it seems. The authors note:
For thirteen centuries Korea was a unified country. From when the country was organized into three warring kingdoms (Baekje, Silla, Goguryeo) until its colonial occupation by Imperial Japan from 1910 to 1945, Korea and Koreans remained a single, unified entity. Only in the last century has Korea been robbed of its unity.
Though every path toward Korean unification would be undeniably difficult, the authors remain hopeful:
If, and when, the time for (re)unification comes, we suspect that most Koreans will rally behind the cause. And they will succeed, as they have done throughout history.
Cha and Pacheco Pardo sought to create an accessible primer on modern Korean history, and after reading this book, I feel they’ve succeeded. In just 232 pages, Korea offers readers a solid foundation on the histories of North and South Korea that will add much-needed context to any conversation on Korean politics and culture.