Korea's Place in the Sun

Korea's Place in the Sun

A Modern History

Book - 2005
Average Rating:
Rate this:
"Passionate, cantankerous, and fascinating. Rather like Korea itself."--Nicholas D. Kristof, New York Times Book Review

Korea has endured a "fractured, shattered twentieth century," and this updated edition brings Bruce Cumings's leading history of the modern era into the present. The small country, overshadowed in the imperial era, crammed against great powers during the Cold War, and divided and decimated by the Korean War, has recently seen the first real hints of reunification. But positive movements forward are tempered by frustrating steps backward. In the late 1990s South Korea survived its most severe economic crisis since the Korean War, forcing a successful restructuring of its political economy. Suffering through floods, droughts, and a famine that cost the lives of millions of people, North Korea has been labeled part of an "axis of evil" by the George W. Bush administration and has renewed its nuclear threats. On both sides Korea seems poised to continue its fractured existence on into the new century, with potential ramifications for the rest of the world.
Publisher: New York : W.W. Norton, c2005.
Edition: Updated ed.
ISBN: 9780393327021
Branch Call Number: 951. 9 CUM 2005
Characteristics: 542 p., [8] p. of plates : ill. (some col.), maps ; 24 cm.


From the critics

Community Activity


Add a Comment
Nov 24, 2018

This is a highly inconsistent history book: at times the author sounds highly intelligent and is capable of brilliant scholarship, towards the end he lapses into egocentric diatribes and silly absolutist statements; I'm fine with historians attacking American exceptionalism, but not simultaneously ascribing exceptional standards to America and Americans, while citing the entire population based upon idiotic articles by media minions - - which is controlled by an extremely small number of people and not amenable to public opinion!
Wasn't convinced that South Korea began the Korean War, too much counter-evidence in this matter, with the subsequent actions by the North Korean dynasty consistent with the agressors in that war.
I applaud the historian author for his mention of President Kennedy's attempting to influence the military dictatorship towards democracy - - this contradicts the disinformation routinely spewed by Chomsky and Seymour Hersh, and I especially applaud his scholarship on King Sejong - - leaders like King Sejong and President Kennedy occur too infrequently in history!

Feb 03, 2018

Not the book I would recommend if you are looking for a comprehensive history of Korea before the Japanese occupation. For that treatment, please see Korea Old and New: A History. However, Cumings does provide a sharp analysis of the pre-occupation period, particularly around the role of women, the development of the class system, the philosophical obsession with i vs. ki (you've got to be there) and Korea's early foreign relations, particularly with China. The insight that China's hold over Korea was stronger on paper than it was in fact- and both parties liked it that way- helps explain much of Korea's trajectory during the Choson period.

Cumings starts making the reader squirm during his discussion of the "Comfort Women" that the Japanese took from Korea (and other Asian countries) during World War 2. Cumings makes it clear that collusion during that period extended to the "recruitment" of the young women (and girls) who were forced into prostitution. Logical, but not the usual narrative.

Cumings also makes a credible case that it was in fact the South Koreans who started the war in 1950 and with the tacit blessing of the Truman administration. The wholesale brutality of the American soldiers is enough to make the reader wince, but equally disturbing are the actions of the Rhee government, both during and after the war.

It's a given that MacArthur's "roll back strategy" was ill-advised and out of control, but what shocked me was the ease with which Truman was willing to, literally, go nuclear. It's hard for the modern reader not to share British Prime Minister Attlee's horror when he heard of the plans, which he felt were completely unwarranted in a nation like the Korea of the 1950s.

I doubt anyone will object to the criticisms Cumings levels at the dictators who ruled South Korea until 1987 (or is it 1992?). What's might surprise readers is how much praise Cumings has for the economic programs of Park Chung Hee, possibly the most infamous of all the South Korean dictators. He is guilty of numerous human rights violations, but he also helped create the modern Korean economy that so heavily favors large conglomerates (chaebol) and personally directed the creation of numerous Korean industries, most importantly steel and machine tools.

While scholars have many South Korean economic figures available, there is much less to access for North Korea. As such, the chapter on North Korea after the war is a good bit of conjecture, but again Cumings makes a convincing case. While North Korea may have used some of the trappings of modern Marxism/Stalinism and might technically be classified as a corporatist state, what they most resemble is an updated (though not by much) dynasty of Choson.

I was surprised by the revelation that the *South* Koreans sold weapons to both the Iranians and the Iraqis during their war, and further by the contention that the North has made several moves toward reconciliation with the South over the last several decades. Reliving the story of the Clinton-Kim Dae Jung progress in normalized relations between the Koreas, all to see it unraveled by the Bush administration, made me groan. (Was North Korea an imperfect actor? Undoubtedly- but Bush's reference to Kim Jong Il as a "pygmy" he "loathed" at the very beginning of his administration did nothing to help relations.) Cumings makes a case that much of North Korea's nuclear program was for show, and the fact that the bomb they did eventually detonate in 2006 was so weak it was either very small or very ineffective would seem to strengthen his case.

Overall I was swayed by the strength of his arguments and the sources and figures he did cite. Highly recommended for anyone interested in Korean history.

Age Suitability

Add Age Suitability

There are no age suitabilities for this title yet.


Add a Summary

There are no summaries for this title yet.


Add Notices

There are no notices for this title yet.


Add a Quote

There are no quotes for this title yet.

Explore Further

Browse by Call Number


Subject Headings


Find it at CPL

To Top