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Korea: A history of uniqueness and different paths

[Michael J. Seth, A Concise History of Modern Korea. From the Late Nineteenth Century to the Present (Plymouth, UK: Rowman & Littlefield, 2019), Volume 2, 356 pages]

REVIEW /  Jimena Villacorta 

Normally, when thinking about the Korean Peninsula, we emphasize on the divided region it is now, and how the Korean War (1950-1053) had a great impact on the two independent territories we have today, North and South Korea. We forget that it once was a culturally and ethnically homogenous nation, that because of its law, couldn’t even trade with outsiders until the Treaty of Kanghwa in 1876 which marked a turning point in Korean history as it ended isolation and allowed the Japanese insertion in the territory which had great effects on its economic and political order.

Michael J. Seth narrates the fascinating history of Korea from the end of the 19th century to the present. In this edition he updates his previous work, published originally ten years before, and he presents it as a “volume 2”, because his latest years of research have produced a “volume 1”, titled A Concise History of Premodern Korea, which follows Korea's history from Antiquity through the nineteenth century.

From falling under Japanese imperialism and expansionism to its division after the Second World War, this book explores the economic, political and social issues that modern Korea has faced in the last decades. The author provides its readers a great resource for those seeking a general, yet detailed, history of this currently divided nation in eight chapters. The first two chapters focus on what happened before the Korean War and on how neighbors and other actors. Russia had great influence in the region until its defeat in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905). Consequently, Korea became a colony of Japan until the Allied Forces victory during the Second World War. Japanese rule is described as harsh and detrimental for Koreans as they intended to force their own culture and system in the territory. Although, in despite of its aggressiveness, the Japanese contributed to Korea’s industrialization. Countries like China and the United States were also major players. From 1885 to 1894, China had a strong presence in the peninsula as the Chinese didn’t want other powers to take over the territory.

The rest of the book emphasizes on the war and the consequences it had, tracing the different course both countries took becoming contrasting societies with different political and economic systems. The reason for the great differences between the two Koreas is the difference in governments and influences they had after the war, a war that stopped because of a ceasefire, as to date they haven’t signed a peace treaty. Even if South Korea was under Syngman Rhee’s authoritarian and corrupt regime tight after the Korean War, it soon became democratized and the country began to quickly advance in matter of technology and human development leaving North Korea out in the open under a totalitarian dictatorship lead by Kim Jong-un. However, after the separation of the two zones, Kim II-sung was the founder of the North in 1948 and his family dynasty has ruled the country since then. During this period, South Korea has had six republics, one revolution, two coups d'état, the transition to democratic elections and nineteen presidencies. In terms of economics, they went from having a very similar GDP at the beginning of the 1970s to very different outcomes. While South Korea has progressed rapidly, becoming one of the world’s leading industrial producers, North Korea became stagnant due to its rigid state system. South Korea also has a high level of technological infrastructure. Moreover, North Korea became a nuclear power, which has been in its agenda since the division. But as he explores the technical differences of both states, the author fails to elaborate in historical debates and controversies regarding both regions, but he emphasizes on the fact that after sixty years of division, there are still no signs or reunification. 

Without a doubt, it is interesting to learn about Korea’s past colonial occupation and its division, but what I believe is the most captivating is to understand how North Korea and South Korea have evolved as two independent very different states because of the uniqueness and complexity of its history, while still sharing a strong sense of nationalism. As the author says, “No modern nation ever developed a more isolated and totalitarian society than North Korea, nor such an all-embracing family cult. No society moved more swiftly from extreme poverty to prosperity and from authoritarianism to democracy than South Korea.”

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