- A Concise History of Korea: From the Neolithic Period through the Nineteenth Century
Writing a survey history can be a thankless task. Once in a while, the vagaries of academe admit a scholar into the pantheon as the author of a classic account, but this proves elusive for most—Korean studies being no exception. Also, can a Korea survey strike a common chord among diverse groups of readers, each [End Page 84] with its own expectations: the Americans wondering what is North Korea's "problem"; the younger Korean Americans picking up on the bits and pieces of Korean culture they got from their immigrant parents; the Korean adoptees in the West searching for their roots; native-born Koreans with a knowledge on their nation's "5,000–year" history; and the Koreanists outside Korea who can always use a good Korea survey for teaching or reference?
Rather self-indulgent accounts by authors unabashedly injecting their personalities abound; Michael J. Seth's A Concise History of Korea is an antidote. Arguably the largest readership for an English-language Korea survey—the college students in Korean studies courses—don't seem to appreciate generation-or culture-specific idiomatic expressions so common in many Korea surveys. Seth's approach is refreshing: he writes in a simple, clear prose, the appeal of which will extend beyond such undergraduates to include graduate students wanting a more straightforward book.
Just as attractive are Seth's balanced interpretations of major themes of Korean history. Informed by relevant English-language studies, he evenhandedly states his positions on many of the more controversial topics such as the scope of late Chosŏn socioeconomic change (pp. 189–95, 201–6). I was, however, rather disappointed by the section on early history (pp. 11–16). In the past decade or two, exciting advances in the research on Y-chromosome DNA (transmitted only through direct male descent) and mitochondrial DNA (transmitted matrilineally) haplotypes (each reflecting varied patterns of past mutations) have shed new light on the migration of population groups. Since most historians, as well as the general public in East Asia, so far have shown little interest in these findings, I limit the scope of my complaint to his discussion of Old Chosŏn (pp. 16–18), which could have used a more detailed critique of various explanations on the timing and location of this polity. In his treatment of Parhae, too (pp. 66–68), Seth limits himself to one of the two common positions among historians: (1) accepting both Koguryŏ and Parhae as an integral part of Korean history; and (2) admitting Koguryŏ while either marginalizing or excluding Parhae. Seth favors the latter position, which I have always found not fully logical. What (little) we know about the identity rhetorics of Koguryŏ and Parhae and their artifacts do not suggest that one has a stronger claim to inclusion in Korean history. To me, Korean history should either include both or marginalize/ exclude both—if the modern Korean and Chinese historical narratives cannot "share" the two kingdoms in the way, for example, that the Frankish empire is not the sole property of French, German, or Italian historical narrative.
The main weakness of Seth's book consists of a great number of factual errors. Reading the book is to alternate between a happy stretch of pages free of wrong information followed by consecutive pages—sometimes paragraphs—containing one error after another. Many appear to be typos that somehow escaped [End Page 85] editing, as in the case of "kyŏngsang" for Koguryŏ's "kyŏngdang" (p. 36). More recurrent, though, are the errors suggesting that perhaps Seth's knowledge of a particular subject is limited. Thus for example, he provides wrong dates for King Pŏp of Paekche (p. 37), mixes up Silla queens Sŏndŏk and Chindŏk (p. 55), locates the Hŭksan Islands to northwestern (rather than southwestern) Korea (p. 85), confuses King Kongmin's assassination in 1374 with the...