Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Top Books to Read Before Coming to South Korea

Need something to keep you occupied on the long plane ride to Incheon? Want to boost your knowledge of Korean history and culture? If K-dramas and K-pop aren’t your style, here’s a reading list for a more intellectually stimulating look at South Korea. Whether you’re a newcomer or seasoned Seoulite, all of these books are worth a read!

1) Korea Unmasked by Won-bok Rhie- Part of a series on several different countries by a Korean cartoonist, this book summarizes Korean culture, food, history, traditions, society, and economics in graphic novel form. While it might be difficult to ignore some of the obvious biases and generalizations, it gives the reader an inside perspective on how Koreans view themselves and the world.
via Amazon
2) Korea: The Impossible Country by Daniel Tudor- The Korea correspondent for The Economist, Tudor draws on his own research and interviews with some of South Korea’s most powerful figures to examine its rapid economic and political growth. He addresses a variety of interesting topics, including the social impact of Korea’s obsession with English. His ultimate questions about Korea’s future, its ability to sustain its current growth, and willingness to embrace outsiders, are highly applicable to experiences of many expats living in South Korea.
via Amazon
3) Please Look After Mom by Kyung-sook Shin- If you want to read Korean literature, this is a great place to start. Don’t worry if you’re not fluent in Korean, as one of the bestselling novels of all time in South Korea, it’s easy to find English translations. It tells the story of a family who goes searching for their mother after she disappears in a crowded Seoul subway station, giving a heartbreaking look at motherhood and generational divides in South Korean society. Word of advice: keep the tissues nearby.
via Amazon
4) Brother One Cell by Cullen Thomas- a cautionary tale of what not to do in South Korea, this is the memoir of a former English teacher who spent three and half years in a South Korean prison after he was caught smuggling drugs into the country. He recounts his experiences in prison and provides a glimpse of Korea most English teachers (hopefully) never get to see.
via Amazon
5) Escape from Camp 14 by Blaine Harden- Of course, no reading list would be complete without a look at North Korea. Based on his extensive interviews and research, Harden gives the non- fictional account of Shin Dong-Hyuk, the only known person to have escaped from one of North Korea’s notorious political prison camps. Harden also provides a compelling look at North Korea’s totalitarian regime and the hardships North Korean refugees face in their transition to South Korea. 
via Amazon
While Shin's story is fascinating, it's only part of the picture. For more background on the current situation, you can pick up The Two Koreas: A Contemporary History by Don Oberdorfer and Robert Carlin. For accounts on daily life in North Korea you can pick up Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives inNorth Korea by Barbara Demick.

*Bonus: Korea and Her Neighbors by Isabella Bird Bishop. This one is for the true history buffs. Originally published in 1898, this account of Korea was written by one of the first female European explorers and travel writers. While her account is no doubt a bit biased and Eurocentric, it’s a fascinating piece of history, bringing you back to a time when Siberian tigers still roamed around the Han River. You can access an online PDF version of it here.  



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