Summer has been hot and hectic, but also really exciting! I signed a contract to stay in Korea for another year, but with a different English academy that caters to adult students. I’m very prematurely excited, as my contract doesn’t start until November, and I have so much going on before then (like a trip to Geoje Island in September and Thailand in October!)
I don’t have much to report, as I have been working nonstop both for my school and writing class this month, but I haven’t stopped reading. I realized that I have read quite a few books about Korea since deciding to move last year. So here is my Korea 101 primer, the books I think capture important facets of Korea, and are also helpful for those planning on living here.
Books About North Korea:
It’s hard to study South Korea without mentioning the notorious neighbor to the north. North Korea is an absurd place, which makes it compelling but simultaneously repellent. Like a car crash, I can’t look away.
- Nothing To Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick- This book was an eye-opener for me. I previously knew next to nothing about the devastating famine in the 1990s. Demick interviews a fairly diverse set of North Korean defectors about their experiences during the famine, and the resulting book is heartbreaking, infuriating, but also quietly uplifting. I absolutely loved this book, and I couldn’t put it down- it’s surprisingly suspenseful. Get it here
- Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty by Bradley K. Martin- this book is considered the most in-depth look at North Korean history and politics, and at 880 pages, it should be. Martin gives a thorough and engaging history of the rise of Kim Il-sung, the original Kim dictator, but he tends to get a little long-winded as he moves towards the future. If you’re interested in the whys of the Kim Dynasty, this book provides a lot of interesting answers. Get it here
- Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West by Blaine Harden- though sometimes difficult to read (because of descriptions of abuse and depravity in the prison camps), this book is ultimately about the triumph of humanity in the face of terror. It’s also the true story of Shin Dong-hyuk, who did exactly what the title says he did. Here ya go!
Books about South Korea:
- Korea: The Impossible Country by Daniel Tudor. Tudor writes for The Economist, and it shows in his style. This book is a must-read for those about to live and work in South Korea, and I really wish that I had read it before moving. He discusses everything from origin myths to shamans, to the obsession with plastic surgery. He answered some of my biggest questions about Korean culture, and his writing is always clear and engaging. Link for you.
- The Birth of Korean Cool: How One Nation is Conquering the World Through Pop Culture by Euny Hong. Hong is of Korean descent, but she spent elementary school in the US- and then her parents decided to move back to Korea. She has a very conversational, accessible writing style which makes Korean Cool a lot of fun to read. She explains how and why Korean pop culture (or hallyu) is ubiquitous in Asia, as well as its main gold- America. A very interesting read- get it here.
- The Surrendered by Chang-rae Lee. A deeply depressing work of fiction about the Korean War and the lives that it took- both immediately and gradually. It’s gorgeously written; Lee is one of my all-time favorite authors (check our On Such a Full Sea by him too!) It’s here.
- Samguk Yusa- Legends and History of the Three Kingdoms of Ancient Korea translated by Ha Tae-Hung and Grafton K. Mintz. The Samguk Yusa is basically a collection of Korean folk tales and myths. I’ve only read a few so far, but they are interesting and very different from their Western counterparts. If you’re interested, here.
Let me know if you have any thoughts on my selections, I would love more recommendations. Happy (Korea-themed) reading!