- Korea’s Twentieth-Century Odyssey: A Short History
Reliable yet readable introductory books on modern Korean history are not all that numerous. For nearly two decades, Korea Old and New: A History (Ilchogak, 1990) by Carter J. Eckert and others has been a popular survey covering both the premodern and modern eras. Its balanced narrative on the modern period offers just the right amount of factual details and analyses, but readers wishing to know about new scholarship on modern Korean history and the events of the last twenty years need to look elsewhere. Bruce Cumings’s Korea’s Place in the Sun: A Modern History (Norton, 1997) has been an another authoritative survey of the modern Korean experience, while Cumings’s perspective on the Korean War and its colonial origins was still arguable.
Michael E. Robinson’s Korea’s Twentieth-Century Odyssey: A Short History is a welcome addition to the growing yet still short list of good Korea surveys. As a leading Korea historian in North America and an authority on colonial Korea (1910–1945), Robinson seems like a logical choice to author a modern Korea survey. Robinson’s research expertise and insights are evident in this book, which comprises eight chapters. The first five cover in chronological order the major historical events from the ”opening” of Korea (1876) up to the Korean War (1950–1953). [End Page 177] Devoted to postwar history, the remaining three chapters trace economic development, North Korea’s ”autarky” system, and the democratization of South Korea. Compared to other English-language books on modern Korean history, this book well reflects the latest scholarship on the country, as is noticeable in the citations. Indeed, the bibliography offers a highly useful listing of works for further reading.
The first chapter prepares the reader by offering a critical discussion of Chosŏn-dynasty (1392–1910) history relevant for understanding modern Korea. While providing a good analysis of a wide range of Korean responses and reform movements, Robinson understands the demise of the dynasty in the larger context of a ”global phenomenon” that embraced ”capitalism and imperialism” (p. 32). On this, Robinson’s account is balanced: though not resorting to a victim-versus-victimizer tone, it is a critical analysis of the forces that led to the Japanese takeover of Korea.
Together covering the colonial period, chapters two, three, and four are even stronger. Regardless of whether one accepts the notion of colonial modernity, the period of Japanese colonial rule in Korea provides a strategic window through which Korea observers can better understand the story of modern Korea. They explain the colonial government policies toward Korean intellectuals and masses, as well as the developing rift among Korean intellectuals, that is, between cultural nationalism and communism. A new mass culture in the colonial era is a phenomenon ”shaped by the transnational forces of global capitalism, technology transfer, and blended forms of cultural expressions” (p. 88). This area remains an important contribution by the author to Korean studies for understanding ”the antecedents of contemporary Korean modernity” (p. 87).
Finding the origins of the Korean War therein, Robinson stresses the colonial legacy, particularly the last ten years, and sees the conflict as something that was imminent from the fall of 1948. He accepts Bruce Cumings’s famous pronouncement: ”. . . civil wars do not start: they come. They originate in multiple causes, with blame enough to go around for everyone” (Korea’s Place in the Sun, p. 238). In the field’s ensuing debate on who was responsible for the war, however, the relationship between human agency and social structure is not clear in his book. Rather than furthering this debate, he utilizes recent scholarship to describe the consequences and the aftermath of the war in terms of South Korean economic development, the North Korean system, and the democratization of South Korea. For example, although many scholars have painted a bleak picture of the South Korean economy in the 1950s, he accepts Jung-en Woo’s view in her...