Korea's Place in the Sun: A Modern History Hardcover – 26 Mar 1997
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"Passionate, cantankerous, and fascinating .... Rather like Korea itself." --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
About the Author
Bruce Cumings is chairman of the history department at the University of Chicago and the author of Korea's Place in the Sun. He divides his time between Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Chicago. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
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First, since the book's publication in 1997, the Koreas have undergone many changes, both domestically and in their relations. South Korea's media and academic industries have also matured, and expression is more lively and open. There are more generalist and expert histories available on the market, so the importance of Cumings' work is easier to evaluate.
Cumings is generally a proponent of unification. This taints his history in several ways. First, Choson is depicted as a golden age of unified Korean power. Cumings also supports the Conservative Korean line, that foreigners wrecked Choson and downplays evidence of aristocratic factionalism and the weakness of the Korean central government. His discussion of the Japanese Occupation downplays the role of Korean businessmen in the Occupation economy and government. His account of the Korean War is heavy on politics and military leadership discussions, but spare on soldier's recollections. Cumings' sections on North Korean industrialization are competent, but since 1997 the subject has been better researched. Cumings still cannot compensate for the dearth of economic data, which plagues accounts to the present.
Cumings also burdens his account of Korean history with questionable social psychological opinions about the nature of Korean culture. He reinforces the conservative Korean view of the unique mission and origin of the Korean people as offspring of divine forces, a tactic the Koreans share with the Japanese. His account is subtly anti-global and anti-foreign. For this reason, his account is by Korean standards mainstream unificationist, but his open-minded treatment of North Korea notwithstanding, he is aligned with the forces of anti-globalization.
Not that the book does not contain valuable information about Korean history presented with colorful prose. However, what Cumings omits is damning. Most of ancient Korean history is omitted, which accentuates Choson at the expense of earlier dynasties. Discussions of religion are downplayed for politics and sociology. Cumings does not hide his bias, but readers need to examine his opinions well and use his footnotes for independent evaluation. And, by all means, read other newer books about Korea.
The book is a skillful blend of theory (he quotes Focault in the epigram), hard history and ideology. I especially enjoyed the juicy bits of gossip that more "serious" Korean histories always leave out. He writes about Kim Gu's womenizing, Sygman Rhee's paranoia and the CIA's dirty secrets.
The book has flaws that are glaring and annoying. Cumings details every attrocity that the dictators in South Korea committed, but writes only of the dubious "achievements" of North Korea, never mentioning things like how many of his own citizens Kim Il-son, North Korea's late "Dear Leader" sent to concentration camps. The harrowing accounts of North Korean defectors of life in the worker's paradise are a glaring and nearly unforgiveable.
I would be tempted to say that Cumings had two goals in mind in writing this book: getting in good with Pyoungyang (thus being assured his travel visas always get approved) and annoying the hell out of Seoul (thereby regaining the cult hero status he got in the 80s with his book on the origins of the Korean War with a new generation of South Korean college kids).
But, ultimately, I can't stay mad at Cumings. His story of Korea's painful 20th century is told with the verve and deftness of great literature.