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Book Review: Korea, a New History of South & North

Victor D. Cha and Ramon Pacheco Pardo’s Korea, a New History of South & North is a highly engaging essay written by two prominent academics in Korean Studies for the general public. The authors share their decades of research, observations, and engagement with Koreans, North and South, from an American and European perspective.

The hot pink cover, friendly tones, and personal anecdotes of interactions with Koreans make the book highly approachable for readers who are new to Korea, but also enjoyable for seasoned Koreanists. I would congratulate the authors and the editors of Yale University Press for this highly accessible and engaging format. Readers, and especially the youth, who would like to know more about Korea beyond K-pop, can easily be drawn to the pink book. This form of publication for a non-specialist audience is increasingly trendy for 21st century academics. The two established academics in Korean Studies joining the trend is an encouraging sign for the next generation of scholars in the field.

When it is described as “Victor did this” and “Ramon did that,” these honest observations and impressions of a North Korean official or South Korean high school students illuminate their often-implicit personal grounds on scholarly work of contemporary Korea. Often without citations and detailed evidence to interrogate, academic readers can be left with questions by bold assertions such as South Korean feelings about anti-Americanism, “not successful” inter-Korean processes vs “successful” #MeToo movements, or former president Moon Jae-in’s policy towards the North as minjung (people’s) race ideology.

One example of scholarly concern in chapter 7 presents the results of one of the authors’ own 2018 surveys as “novel and interesting” in relation to North Korean views on unification. Without the validity of the sample and methodologies, it is difficult to conclude “[t]he average North Korean citizen defines the unification discourse in ethnic terms.” With further investigation, it was revealed that 36 North Koreans were interviewed by a local group along the Sino-North Korean border by Victor Cha’s CSIS Beyond Parallel Commission. Out of those 36, 34 answered unification was necessary (presented as 94 percent in the book) with 15 choosing shared ethnicity as a reason; 10 picked economic growth, and 5 outlined the importance of separated families. “Only a small number define it in terms of national security.” Readers are left with no information about what that “small number” was. Although an in-depth qualitative research method would have been much more valuable, the 2018 CSIS survey is hardly statistically meaningful. North Korea is believed to have 20-25 million people. When such claims are placed by highly established academics in Korean Studies for a general public, it becomes a fact, but it is not generalisable knowledge.

American hawk, European K-enthusiast perspectives

The researchers’ own identities and lived experiences are important determinants for their stance on the subject, in this case, the two Koreas. In this regard, Cha and Pardo’s collaboration is fascinating and yet predictable. Cha is a well-known poli-professor who served in George W. Bush’s National Security Council and almost joined the Donald Trump administration. His views on North Korea have been very clear throughout his career in that he has never believed that peace strategies (e.g. Sunshine/Moonshine policy) would work. On the other hand, Pardo is known for his enthusiasm on the rise of South Korea from “Shrimp to Whale.” Their professorships have long been supported by the Korea Foundation under the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade: Cha as Song-KF Chair at Georgetown University and Pardo as KF-VUB Korea Chair at Vrije Universiteit Brussel. This volume, in particular, is also funded by the South Korean Ministry of Education as kindly acknowledged in the introduction. It is not surprising that the pair come up with a “new” history of South and North Koreas, declaring “Seoul has won” the battle in the epilogue.

Danger of stereotypes

Throughout the book, there are headlines and sub-headlines to highlight the dichotomy of the two Koreas, depicting dark and violent images of the North and overly positive assessments of the South, especially in relation to women and minority issues. For example, the South is perceived as having become queer friendly with the North’s nuclear agenda, or modern, cool, global South Korea vs murderous “wholly isolated” North Korea in Chapter 6 titled “an Open South and a Closed North.” This poses a danger of solidifying stereotypes and producing overly simplistic binary thinking of good vs evil in relation to complex problems in the post-war Korean peninsula division system.

South Korea still does not have a comprehensive anti-discrimination law yet to protect minority rights. It has the lowest birth rate and the third highest suicide rate in the world, according to the World Bank. Before North Korea went nuclear, the South hosted US tactical nuclear weapons until 1991. As of June 2023, 33,981 North Korean-born residents live in South Korea and they’re sending remittances and communications to their families in the North via China. There is so much more than meets the eye. The division system both directly and indirectly impacts people’s lives on the Korean peninsula.

A new history of the two Koreas rightfully favours the South, but history is often wrongly predicted by experts and written by men, missing herstory and stories of minorities who live on the land.

This is a review of Victor D. Cha & Ramon Pacheco Pardo’s Korea: a New History of South & North (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2023), ISBN 978030025980 (Hardcover).

Jay Song is Associate Professor in Korean Studies, University of Melbourne.

This review article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.