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A History of Korea: From Antiquity to the Present (review)

From: Journal of Korean Studies
Volume 17, Number 1, Spring 2012
pp. 210-214 | 10.1353/jks.2012.0010

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Reviewed by
A History of Korea: From Antiquity to the Present by Michael J. Seth. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2011. 573 pp. Maps. Glossary. Annotated bibliography. Index. $95.00 (cloth). $49.95 (paper). $48.99 (e-book).

The vast majority of the books reviewed in this journal are presentations of original scholarly research. A History of Korea: From Antiquity to the Present is an entirely different sort of book. It is a textbook, synthesizing the research of others rather than presenting original research. It therefore has to be reviewed differently. Instead of summarizing the author’s argument and evaluating that argument for logic, consistency, and fidelity to the data used and data available, a reviewer should judge how useful this book will be in an undergraduate classroom, and whether or not it is a reliable and comprehensive guide to Korean history.

First, the good news. This is the most comprehensive Korean history textbook available in English at the time of this writing (early 2012). For example, no other survey of Korean history from ancient times to the present includes as much information on North Korea after 1945 than Seth includes in his two chapters, one on the North from 1945 to 1993 and another covering from 1993 until just a couple of years before Kim Jong Il’s death. Even the three-volume A Review of Korean History by Han Young Woo (an English translation of his Uri Yŏksa) has much less on North Korean history than Seth has. The popular Korea Old and New: A History, by Carter J. Eckert et. al., has nothing on North Korea after the Korean War. Kyung Moon Hwang, in his A History of Korea, dedicates a couple of chapters to the DPRK, but they are much shorter and provide much less detail than Seth’s chapters.

Seth stands out in his treatment of prehistory as well. Most of the other textbooks appear to rush through the Neolithic and Bronze ages to get to the Three Kingdoms as quickly as possible. Seth, devoting a full chapter to prehistory, takes his time, discussing the beginnings of pottery, agriculture, and bronze making, and then pausing briefly for a discussion of what and where Old Chosŏn was before moving on to the Han commanderies and their neighbors to the north and south. The only English-language surveys of Korean history that pay as much attention as Seth does to prehistory are Han Young Woo’s Review of Korean History and the controversial Academy of Korean Studies publication New History [End Page 210] of Korea. The treatment of prehistory in those latter works, however, is marred by both a nationalistic refusal to even discuss the Han commanderies and their influence on the emergence of organized government in Korea and by a naive reliance on texts written centuries after the events they claim to describe occurred rather than on archaeological evidence that contradicts those texts.

On reliability, as well, Seth scores high, though, as one would expect in a book of this scope, there are a few minor mistakes. Overall, however, Seth can be trusted, not only to get the facts right, but also to let his readers know when historians disagree over how to tell the story of Korea’s past. Those who write broad survey histories usually narrate their story in an omniscient tone, assuming their readers will gain enough exposure to contrasting interpretations later, if they continue their exploration of history. Such an approach appeals to many undergraduate students, who approach history the way they approach science: they want it to give them specific facts they can memorize rather than having to evaluate competing claims. To his credit, Seth avoids pandering to such an audience. He frequently points out differences of opinion among historians or adds qualifiers to statements to let readers know that not everyone agrees on how a particular feature of Korea’s past should be described. For example, in discussing the growing interest in Korea’s history among scholars in the eighteenth century, Seth notes, “While most contemporary historians regard nationalism as a modern concept not introduced to Korea until the late-nineteenth century, some scholars see the antecedents...