Sunday, October 20, 2013

북한 50년사 by 임영익 (1999)

::The Skinny::

Title:  북한 50년사 [The 50-Year History of North Korea]

Written by:  임영익 [Im Yeong-ik]

Language:  Korean

Publication year:  1999.

Pages:  Volume 1 - 428 pages; Volume 2 - 438 pages

Price:  $13.20 per volume at

In less than 30 words:  North Korean history that is rich in detail, albeit at times uncomfortably biased.

Reading List category:  History, North Korea

Keyword(s):  Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il

Writing style:  Academic, dry, dense

Rating:  3 stars

::The Review::

The lowest form of book review is to complain about how the author did not write the book that the critic wanted him to write, or did not set the tone of the book in the way in which the critic would have preferred. But can there be an exception made for a book dealing with unquestionably the worst authoritarian regime currently existing?

북한 50년사 [The 50-Year History of North Korea] is an overview of North Korean history, starting from the events that led to the division of the Korean Peninsula in the mid-1940s to the late 1990s, as North Korea was undergoing a massive famine that revealed to the world of its abysmal failure. For an overview of North Korean history, one can do much, much worse. The book is chock full of factlets, data and first-person accounts about North Korea--so much so that it makes for a slogging read at times. In two volumes, the book attempts to be as comprehensive as possible. In few other books about North Korea have I seen an attempt to cover not only its political and economic system, but also its art, literature, and the day-to-day life of ordinary North Koreans.

Such nuanced treatment of North Korea cannot happen without some level of sympathy for the North Korean regime itself. Im Yeong-ik manages to restrain himself in the earlier volume, as his tone is measured and fair as he describes North Korea. But in the later volume, the restraint is loosened: even as Im describes North Korea's horrific famine that its regime inflicted upon its people, he admires (to paraphrase) "North Korea's strong and independent stance of refusing to join the global capitalistic order imposed by the United States." Even as the reader appreciates the amount of work and information that the writer devoted to his books, this is difficult to bear.

The Bottom Line:  Read this book if you want to learn a great deal of facts about North Korea as a matter of overview, but prepare to grit your teeth at a little bit at the author's tone.

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