Books on Korea: Travel in Korea & Korean Culture Book Reviews
by Martin Robinson, Andrew Bender, Rob Whyte, John Banagan
At first glance, one would think it would be impossible to feel lonely in Korea, being the intensely dense country that it is. However, after spending a day trying to navigate around the sometimes bewildering concrete megalopolis that is Seoul, endless streams of people pushing past you and cars honking constantly in your face, a first-time visitor to Korea will be thankful for the Lonely Planet's new guide to this, oft overlooked, country.
Many tourists often jump between more well-known China and Japan but they are missing out and this comprehensive guidebook helps to tell them why. Of course, everyone who visits Korea spends time in Seoul and the capital and its offerings are extensively covered. As a long-term resident of Seoul, the book is perhaps not aimed at people like me but I found much of the information useful and I was inspired to try one of the walks suggested and am very happy that I did. I was even happier with the amazing restaurant that I found on the way, though I may keep that to myself.
The rest of the country is covered in impressive detail, as you would expect from Lonely Planet. There is quite a comprehensive and interesting section on visiting North Korea which certainly whetted my appetite as did the section of Korean food which offered a useful introduction to the nation's colourful and fiery cuisine.
One minor quibble is that the locations for Seoul attractions and facilities are shown on maps only, while the information about the attraction is listed on another page. So, if you are looking for good pubs and clubs you have to constantly flick between pages. The nearest subway station in the information section would be helpful as a quick guide to where the place was.
The strength of the book is in the little nuggets of background information and the enthusiasm of the writers that is immediately apparent and which provided me with a new-found determination to explore the fascinating, maddening and unique country that is South Korea.
by Martin Robinson
Seoul, the capital city of South Korea, is one of Asia's great metropolises. This city situated on the mighty Han River houses some 12 million people and dominates the rest of the country in a way that has prompted the Korean President to propose to move the capital to a new city in the centre of Korea.
Despite its dominance at home, Seoul has never been on the list of Asian cities to see. Apart from the many Japanese seeking bargains and Chinese and Taiwanese soap fans visiting the sites of their favourite Korean dramas, not many tourists pass through immigration at the state-of-the-art Incheon airport, just outside Seoul.
This is one of the reasons why it is worth visiting this energetic city and the Lonely Planet guide gives a comprehensive introduction to help you discover the ancient capital.
No such introduction is needed for Lonely Planet guidebooks. All of the usual information is here especially with regards to shopping and eating; two activities in which Seoulites excel and this book will have you bargaining away at the huge 24-hour Dongdaemun Market in no time before sitting on the floor to enjoy some unique Korean cuisine.
This new edition is an improvement on previous guides with more up-to-date cultural tips and observations and better information on trips to places outside Seoul. Fine and extensive as this guide is, if anybody is visiting Korea, even if it is only Seoul, the LP's guide to Korea may be a better bet.
by Minkyoung Kim, J. D. Hilts
Phrasebooks are often looked down upon by the travel elite, the image of standing on street corners while flicking through innumerable pages is often not the one that the cool traveller wishes to project.
The new Lonely Planet Korean phrasebook is one that nobody will be ashamed to be seen with. Min Young Kim and JD Wilts have come up with a genuinely useful and practical phrasebook.
Korean is, of course, a difficult language to speak for tourists as it uses the Hangul alphabet. However, it is definitely worth learning some useful phrases as the Koreans themselves are incredibly receptive to anyone attempting to speak a few sentences.
This book gives the best possible romanization version of Hangul. Reading the "English" version of Korean words was, in the past, a surefire way to provoke giggles and/or looks of bewilderment. With this book, a visitor to Korea will be able to make themselves understood without taking the time to learn the Korean alphabet.
The phrases are useful and current and there are a multitude of cultural tips and background information. There is even a basic grammar section at the front of the book which would also be useful for elementary students of the language, but my one gripe is that, in this section, only romanized Korean is used, not Hangul itself.
For tourists and people wishing to supplement their Korean study; this phrasebook is almost perfect. You can put it in your pocket, read it on the plane and be ready to start chatting when you hit the ground.
by Robert Nilsen
If you are considering a stay of a few weeks or more in Korea, then Robert Nilsen's excellent Moon Handbooks South Korea should be one of the first things you pack. Full of detailed travel, historical and cultural information on Korea's main cities and often hidden places of interest, this book takes you well off the normal traveler's well-beaten track. The clean black and white design and decent maps are a bonus, as are the well-penned and informative history and language sections. A great background resource for the long-term traveler or resident, but in need of a sharper edit on more precise travel information for the hungry or lost casual Seoul-searching tourist.
More and more books are being written these days by North Koreans who have escaped the hell of North Korea, the so-called "Hermit Kingdom." (For one example, the review of perhaps the best of those books, Yeonmi Park's In Order to Live.)
One book that is clearly different is Jang Jin-Sung's Dear Leader. It is different in that Jang wasn't starving or deprived of everything, or even much of anything. Jang was the top poet in North Korea and was tasked with writing poetry praising Kim Jong-il. Jang lived in Pyongyang and was one of The Admitted, an small, elite group of people whose presence had personally been requested by Kim Jong-il. Jang had special food allotments, special privilege and a highly sensitive job.
Jang was not unaware of what was happening outside Pyongyang, much less inside Pyongyang. On a walk through the capital one day during North Korea's 1995-98 famine, known as The Arduous March, he witnessed a woman trying to sell her young daughter on the street for 100 won (then worth about 10 Japanese yen or 10 American cents.)
Although he was quite privileged, everything came crashing down when a sensitive document he controlled went missing. Without saying goodbye to his family, he headed for the Chinese border hoping to escape with his life but little else.
He safely arrived in China after a narrow escape, but had negligible money, no solid contacts and little in the way of plans. His only plan had been to save his life by escaping North Korea.
The book's 320 pages fly by. In addition to writing of his harrowing escape and life in China, Jang writes of the true history of the Kim dynasty, not the twaddle produced by North Korea. He writes of Megumi Yokota, and the hundreds of others, who were kidnapped to be spies.
He writes of the OGD (Organization and Guidance Department), which he maintains holds the real power in the country. He talks of the North Korea practice of labeling all donated food as "the spoils of war" rather than what it is, aid given to a country that cannot feed itself. Also, in North Korea's version of history, Kim Il-sung ended World War ll by almost single-handedly defeating the Japanese.
Jang laughs at Kim Jong-il's outmaneuvering of his opponents. Kim's formally-set principles for diplomatic engagement was: "The U.S. will buy any lie as long as it is presented logically - Japan is susceptible to emotional manipulation - and South Korea can be ignored or blackmailed."
Jang also scoffs at South Korea's completely failed Sunshine Policy, a policy which South Korea appears to be heading back to in its 2017 election by the way. Jang says that this policy consolidated Kim Jong-il's hold on power and actually saved the Kim regime from collapse during The Arduous March.
Dear Leader is not merely an interesting biography, but when combined with the insights it gives on North Korea will make the reader glad he picked up the book.
For 13-year-old Yeonmi Park, life was wretched. Park grew up in North Korea where, after her father was imprisoned for selling on the black market to feed his family, she faced severe poverty and all the usual horrors of living in the Hermit Kingdom.
As a small child, Park was used to dead bodies floating down the river, used to dead bodies on trash heaps and used to being called out of school along with her classmates to watch government executions in the streets.
Her home went months without electricity. The government, with its supply of fertilizer cut off by the Soviet Union and with its factories unable to stay open, forced its citizens to make fertilizer. Each family had its own quota to, uh, fill.
With hope and time running out, Yeonmi and her mother started talking about escaping to China. One night, Yeonmi's older sister, Eunmi, disappeared. She had presumedly traversed the frozen Yalu River into China at night. It was very dangerous as there were guards every 100 meters, with orders to shoot anybody trying to flee.
Shortly thereafter, Yeonmi crossed the same frozen river. Her mother, who had begged to stay behind to take care of Yeonmi's seriously ill father (just released from prison because of his health), decided to join her. The rapes started soon after they arrived on the China side.
Except for an increase in food, life was no better in China. Yeonmi and her mother became victims of human trafficking. Yeonmi was still 13, but had told the traffickers that she was 16, old enough to be married to desperate Chinese farmers. Eventually, through a series of horrific events, Yeonmi was forced to sell her own mother.
Later, things did get better. Helped by Christian missionaries, Yeonmi and her mother made it out of China via the Gobi desert to Mongolia. Yeonmi has since become very well-known as an author, speaker, actress and human rights activist.
The book is filled with stories that only somebody who has lived through the hell of a Kim dynasty can tell. Most are horrific, a few are humorous.
Park tells of learning arithmetic in North Korea by counting not in apples, oranges or pencils, but in American bastards. If there are four American bastards, and you kill two American bastards, how many American bastards are left?
One part lightly touched upon was the slowly blossoming, though still illegal, black markets (Jangmandang) which have started far from the capital of Pyongyang. That is perhaps North Korea's only hope.
Both in her book and in interviews you can find on Youtube, Park credits the movie Titanic (watching non-North Korean movies was punishable by serious consequences) with helping her to see that there was more to life than trying to find enough food to stay alive. There was living to do.
She writes that "the spark of human dignity is never completely extinguished, and given the oxygen of freedom and the power of love, it can grow again."
The author has faced criticisms of inconsistencies in her story. The North Korean government has in fact called her some nasty things and is reportedly trying to have her killed. Their criticisms have little validity, however. Park has answered that many of the inconsistencies resulted from her then-poor English and mistranslations of her early interviews.
Even if only 90% of what she wrote is true, this is an incredible story that needs to be read. Some of the disputed parts include pretty petty details and take nothing away from the book.
In Order to Live is a story of deprivation, of hopelessness turning to hope, of the human spirit and finally of redemption. It is a story of familial love. It will move you.
Whether you can reel off the names of all of the past and present members of T-ara or you are such a neophyte that you don't know the difference between Busker Busker and After School, K-Pop Now! is the book that will inform and entertain you on the subject of Korean pop music, known as K-pop.
Filled with large, mostly publicist-produced photos, the book opens by giving a quick background on Korea in general, the origins of K-Pop, and a couple of interviews with insiders in the industry such as Kevin Kim and Brian Joo.
From there it is on to the section containing 15 boys' groups such as Big Bang, Super Junior, 2AM and Shinee. The author says of Shinee, "....the guys project a soft, androgynous look with plenty of long, well-moussed hair." That is about the closest thing there is to criticism that you will find in the book.
Next up is the section with 13 girls groups such as Girls Generation, 2NE1 and Wonder Girls. In case you are wondering, there is plenty of leg to go around in the photos on these pages.
Finally, there are six solo artists featured including Psy (think Gangnam Style, which has garnered over two billion YouTube views), BoA and Rain.
Most artists are afforded two pages, with some bigger names getting four pages. Each artist's section has a yellow infographic containing the members' names in English and Korean, the members' birth dates, some combination of their Korean albums, their mini albums and their singles (all with release dates) and, if applicable, their foreign singles and/or albums and their release dates. Also listed is the name of their fan club and their "official color/s."
The book then has a quick four pages on the future of K-Pop and follows that up with tips on where to go in Seoul to get in on or at least near the action. Finally, there is useful information about more mundane things like the weather/climate, subways, taxis, restaurants, banking etc. in Seoul.
The author is obviously both very knowledgeable about and a big fan of K-Pop. He seems on occasion to be a big gushy, but in a book like this that is the appropriate take on the subject.
The book was published in 2014, so the information is still quite relevant. It will be interesting to look at this book again in 20 years and see who is still remembered and who has been forgotten.
Reviewed by Richard Donovan
Few art forms at once mirror and influence the societies in which they are made as much as the cinema. This means there is a considerable amount that North Korean filmmaking can tell us about the reclusive country; but at the same time, this book will have limited appeal for the vast majority of readers, since few will be able to view the films, or, in fact, have a great deal of interest in doing so.
Whether historical epic, like the world's longest film series in 62 parts, Nation and Destiny, legendary fantasies like The Tale of Hung Pu, or modern-day dramas like A Schoolgirl's Diary, few movies were made with entertainment or aesthetics in mind, or only insofar as they furthered the political cause. It is unsurprising that little is known of North Korean cinema outside of the country apart from in the former Soviet Union, perhaps with the exception of the Pulgasari monster movies, which were successful in Japan. Thus, while in this book the plot summaries are often interwoven with societal context - a palatable-enough way to follow the troubled history of the Korean peninsula - it is still hard going to have to envisage a film with nothing but two pages of text and the occasional still or movie poster to rely on. And Schonherr covers many, many films.
Unfortunately, the prose does little to encourage the reader in this process. Schonherr, while comfortable enough in English, could have done with considerable editing to finesse the tone and style. The text veers between the jocular and the chilling with apparent obliviousness, and there are numerous flat-out typos.
It was certainly interesting to learn of the influence of the South Korean director Shin Sang-ok on North Korean cinema in the 1980's (and to speculate about whether he was kidnapped by or willingly embraced the North), and of the fact that North Korean film crews have on several occasions filmed in Japan and Europe (though usually aiming to portray their exotic locations as dens of iniquity, or at the least, inferior to their beloved homeland). But it comes as little surprise that the main goal of filmmakers has been to produce propaganda that not only idolises the North Korean regime and vilifies the West, but also encourages North Korean citizens to accept their lot in life: all films have been vetted to ensure their espousal of juche (self-reliance). This point is made endlessly through the book, only confirming the preconceptions of the reader; there is little uplifting or surprising to take away about either the regime or the people of North Korea.
The author naturally takes a chronological approach to North Korean cinema, with chapters devoted to each period: before and during the Korean War; on to Kim Jong Il's oversight of all national cinema, which begin in the 1960s; South Korean director Shin Sang-ok's influential period in the mid-80s; the deprivations of the mid-to-late 90s; the Sunshine period through much of the first decade of the new millennium when the South tried largely unsuccessfully to engage the North; and finally the post-Sunshine period. The book is rounded out with interviews with North Korean defectors, exploring their attitudes to and impressions of North Korean cinema. Again, there is little to challenge our assumptions: we hear the voices of decent people who tried to live their everyday lives under trying conditions, and made do with whatever entertainment the state allowed them.
by Daniel Tudor
Former journalist for The Economist and now craft beer entrepreneur Daniel Tudor has produced an extensive guide to contemporary Korea.
Divided into five parts, the first section deals with cultural basics that influence society in Korea: religion including both Buddhism and Christianity as well as shamanism, capitalism and Confucianism. The second section deals with particularly Korea social codes such as jeong (shared connection and obligation), han (deep sorrow arising from tragedy) and heung (pure joy). The third part is concerned with work, education, politics and business. Part four focuses on popular culture including movies, music and food. The final part looks at how South Korea is opening up to the rest of the world.
This is an excellent book for visitors and expatriates to gain a deeper understanding of what makes South Korea and South Koreans tick. Some readers have criticized the book for concentrating on the Gangnam-style upper middle classes obsessed with English education, expensive weddings and plastic surgery with little emphasis on the majority lower middle and working classes of Korean society.
Bookstore shelves have been filling up in recent years with more and more tomes about North Korea and its newest evil dictator, Kim Jong Un. Many of them read the same: the North Koreans are goose-stepping sycophants, just hoping to live out their pitiful lives avoiding prison sentences, or worse, for offenses such as failing to wear the Kim family loyalty badges properly or talking with a Christian missionary. North Korea Confidential has a different and thought provoking take on the direction the Hermit Kingdom is heading. Yes, most of the stories of human atrocities are true, but there is a slowly expanding, underground market economy taking hold, much of it due to the results of the crippling drought and resulting famine of the mid-1990s. The authors say that the average North Korean is actually living off of the proceeds of capitalism (with side jobs not affiliated with their official, governmentally sanctioned jobs), has seen South Korean dramas or movies, and has listened to South Korean pop music.
Much of the contraband in terms of videos and news is being smuggled in via use of USBs, which are too small for the government censors to catch.
The government's free food programs have all but disappeared, leaving the people to fend for themselves, which they are doing with a capitalist's fervor. For example, ajumma, or middle-aged women, rent out their apartments for an hour or two at a time to amorous young couples.
Even government ministries, departments and organizations are discreetly relying on forms of capitalism to fund them since the national government can't even pretend it has enough money to pay for governmental budgets. Other things are changing, too. In North Korea, tattling on your family members is down, but wearing of forbidden clothing such as "skinny jeans" is up. Plastic surgery to get the coveted double eye lid look is illegal, but up. Things get looser and looser the farther one lives from Pyongyang, the capital. In many cases, if one is caught breaking the rules, bribes can smooth things over.
The book opines that the Kim clan may in fact not be the most powerful entity in the country, but that the Organization and Guidance Department (OGD) may hold that distinction. The section explaining this could be considered to be a bit long and dry, but some readers will eat it up.
Another feature of this book are the periodic, startling details on some of the more well-known bits of recent North Korean history.
For example, while it is fairly widely known that National Defense Minister Jang Song Thaek (spellings vary) was executed by machine gun, or perhaps anti-aircraft guns (or perhaps stripped naked and fed to dogs according to some reports), North Korea Confidential reveals that during this purge Kim was hiding out in a border town near China as a precaution against an uprising against him. (Jang, was believed to be second in command in North Korea and was married to the daughter of former leader Kim Il-sung.)
On the rare occasions when Kim Jong Un travels abroad, he brings along people whose job it is to collect his feces and urine where ever he goes so that foreign agents can't collect Kim's DNA profile; a good job if you can get it, I guess.
The book's final conclusions are interesting as well, although they often disagree with mainstream thought on North Korea. The authors believe that the country will neither collapse nor reunify with South Korea, at least in the short term, but will continue to see slow change because "the new, rising capitalist class" is more interested in making money than in regime change.
That sounds believable.
by Luther H. Martin, Eugene Bach (Author), Brother Zhu (Editor)
Which Asia city used to be so populated with Christians, so populated with Christian missionaries and so populated with Christian hospitals, schools, seminaries and orphanages that it was known as "The Jerusalem of the East?" Incredibly, the answer is Pyongyang, North Korea.
Crimson Crucible (formerly titled Back to the Jerusalem of the East) tells of the implausible history of the Christian faith in what is now North Korea, and how it went from a place in the 1930's where tens of thousands of Koreans openly worshiped Jesus Christ (reportedly one in five people in Pyongyang) to a place today where even owning a Bible can lead to a death sentence.
While many people have heard of the killing of the North Korean defense minister, Hyon Yong-Chol, in early 2015 by use of a four-barreled anti-aircraft gun, less well known is the killing of Christians by running over them with steam rollers.
Most people are aware of the cutthroat Kim dynasty of Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il and, now, Kim Jong Un, who have attempted to stamp out all but the government-sanctioned churches.
What people don't know is that Kim Il Sung grew up in a Christian family - his grandfather being a protestant minister and his father being an elder in the Presbyterian church. Kim Il Sung was even known as an accomplished church organist.
While the first part of the book deals mostly with the history of the Christian church in specifically what is now North Korea, the second part of the book concerns the current church, a church which the book says in actually growing despite the dangers and despite some people claiming there is not a single Christian left in the country.
The growth of the Christian church is said to come mainly from along the border with China, with Chinese missionaries doing a lot of the heavy lifting. Of course, illegal trade, smuggling and bribery are also part and parcel of life along the border.
One of the weaknesses of the book is the almost total lack of citations, although much of the information with proper citations can be found on the internet with just a little effort.
There is no doubt that Crimson Crucible is written from a Christian perspective, and some readers may not like what can, at times, seem to be a heavy-handed approach of explaining the authors' view of the world.
Still, the book is definitely worth your time, especially for the historical knowledge that can be gained about the Kim family and North Korean history in the first part of the book.
by Guy Delisle
Guy Delisle's Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea is a hilarious graphic novel about his two months spent working for a French animation company in North Korea's capital city.
To put it succinctly, he is a realist, not a fan of the Hermit Kingdom. His drawings and pithy comments are laced with a good amount of snark. He does not go over the top in his observations/criticisms, but neither does he hold anything back.
Like all Westerners, he is closely watched at almost all times during his stay, but even the cleansed version of what he is shown in North Korea is fodder for sharp social commentary. If he is being shown only the best, the reader must wonder just how bad the worst must be.
The fun starts upon his arrival at the airport when he brings in a copy of George Orwell's 1984 and is discovered by the immigration officers. Delisle passes it off as a 1950s classic science fiction novel. He then meets his (mandatory) guide, but has a hard time seeing his face since there are no lights being used in the airport. This lack of lights being used becomes a common theme in the book.
Delisle is given flowers upon his arrival, but feels pressured to place them at the feet of a giant Kim Il-Sung statue which he is taken to before even being allowed to get to his hotel.
There are actually limited insights in the book that haven't been touched upon in other books, but the author's sense of humor and skillful artwork are well worth absorbing.
A few interesting revelations are mentioned, including Pyongyang's bi-annual International Film Festival, which includes movies from such stalwart movie-producing nations as Iran, Iraq, Syria and Libya. The festival screens "the latest national propaganda films to deserving workers."
North Korea has its own Arc de Triomphe, which Delisle is told is three meters taller than the inferior one in France. The North Korean version is dedicated to its seemingly single-handed defeat of the Japanese by the North Koreans in World War ll.
Other notable tidbits Delisle touches on include: the North Korean policy of allowing only married men with children to leave the country for work (maybe you can guess the reason); the existence of Westerners chasing the American government's award of $100,000 for the discovery of "every corpse found intact and identified" of a U.S. soldier from the Korea War; and poems from a North Korean anthology entitled, "We Are the Happiest Children in the World."
Because the book was written in 2005, the current dictator, Kim Jong-un, is not mentioned, although his brother's unsuccessful attempt to sneak into Japan to visit Tokyo Disneyland is appropriately noted and commented on.
A few hours at most is all that it will take to read the book, depending of course on how long you muse over the entertaining but sometimes understated black and white drawings. Delisle's snark towards his handlers is always highly amusing, but sometimes it is so bold that you may wonder if he actually said what he depicts himself as saying.
by Hyeonseo Lee
The Girl with Seven Names is the captivating life story of Hyeonsee Lee, who grew up in North Korea but who managed to escape to China and eventual freedom in South Korea, using her instincts, intelligence and wiles to overcome tremendous odds along the way.
Lee is best known as being the first North Korean to testify to the United Nations Security Council on human rights abuses in North Korea and for her TED talk on her life story, a talk which is one of the most-viewed TED talks ever. As of this review, that talk has generated almost 9.3 million views.
Lee's story has numerous similarities to that of Yeonmi Park, who tells of her experiences in In Order to Live.
Lee tells stories such as elementary-school-aged children in North Korea being forced to watch public executions and being made to practice Kim worship for hours on end without bathroom breaks, resulting in, uh, laundry problems.
The debauchery and depravity of the Kim family and its regime come through loud and clear. Other themes the reader will pick up include people's willingness to do whatever it takes to continue life and man's inhumanity to man.
One surprising facet is Lee's description of the emotional pull to leave freedom and go back to North Korea for some of those who have escaped one of earth biggest hellholes. The author experienced this in her own family, and explains plainly what the draw is to go back.
An aspect that might ring a bit untrue to the reader is the occasional overreach on the vocabulary. It is hard to believe that a non-native speaker, who didn't start learning English until her 20's, could come up with sentences such as, "The place seemed sunk in torpor."
There are also occasional statements such as, "South Koreans are…. the unhappiest people in the developed world" which could use some sort of attribution. A last minor criticism is that towards the end of the book each chapter ends with a cliffhanger, giving the reader a feeling that he is being manipulated and reading a fiction novel. The story is unquestionably compelling enough without the added machinations of the editor.
Still, these are pretty much minor annoyances which do not detract from the story.
The book ends shortly after her family is finally reunited in safety, so the reader is left wondering what has happened to Lee since that time. Hopefully, in future reprints of the book Lee will add some of her accomplishments and experiences (for example speaking to the U.N. and giving the TED talk) since the book was published in 2015.
by Cecilia Hae Jin Lee
This book is an excellent introduction of the delights of Korean cooking. Written by a first generation Korean-American and award-winning chef, the book covers the standard favorites of Korean cuisine such as bulgogi, bibimbap and kimchi as well as offering recipes that may not be so well-known to a Western audience.
Among the one hundred plus recipes presented are plenty of hot soups, vegetable dishes, noodles and those saucy, hot Korean dips.
The author interweaves the recipes with personal stories about her large extended Korean family as well as interesting cultural insights into Korean food and culture. Highly recommended for those wanting to try Korean food at home with a useful list of US suppliers of Korean ingredients listed by state.
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