Kirkus Reviews QR Code


A Modern History

by Bruce Cumings

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 1997
ISBN: 0-393-04011-9
Publisher: Norton

 An elegantly informative account of Korea's convulsive transformation from a cohesive, if authoritarian, agrarian society into a nation uneasily divided between the North's seemingly backward Marxist police state and the South's modern industrial showcase whose governance still owes much to dynastic, neo- Confucian principles. While Cumings (War and Television, 1992, etc.) focuses on the East Asian country's recent past (i.e., from the mid-19th century to the present), he provides a wonderfully discursive appreciation of the small peninsular nation's development in earlier eras, when it was frequently caught up in the geopolitical struggles of aggressive neighbors like China and Japan. Stressing the traditionally shrewd approach to foreign policy of those who have ruled Korea, the author (director of Northwestern University's Center for International and Comparative Studies) assesses the country's forcible annexation by Japan in 1910, its subsequent liberation, and its postWW II partition. Also reviewed in detail is the war between North and South during the early 1950s, and the Republic of Korea's unlikely emergence as an economic power (thanks in large measure to a well-educated indigenous workforce). Cumings goes on to record the mountainous South's progress toward establishing democratic institutions, a process accelerated by the pragmatic impatience of influential chaebols (conglomerates) with the capriciously acquisitive tyrannies of military strongmen. Covered as well are prospects for German-style reunification (an outcome that could discomfit Japan), the North's ``cloistered regime'' and the putative perils posed by its nuclear capabilities, the aspirations of expatriate Koreans (deemed a model minority in the US), and the place a united nation might claim in the Global Village's pecking order. An immensely illuminating and accessible history of a strategic Pacific Basin outpost whose yesteryears are remarkable for sudden reversals of fortune and arresting discontinuities. (maps, color and b&w photos, not seen)