The Two Koreas: A Contemporary History

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Don Oberdorfer has figured out how to attain job security as an author- write about North and South Korea, and to continue releasing an updated version of this book every few years. I read the second edition, pub’d in 2001, and it looks like Oberdorfer tapped out for the third edition, getting Robert Carlin to add three more chapters and released in 2013. I’ll probably try to track down that edition to get up to speed on Kim Jong Un so that I’m as comfortable with the current leader of the DPRK as I am with my old pals Kim Il Sung (The Great Leader, the original gangster) and Kim Jong Il (Dear Leader, the coddled military son of Il Sung).

I faced a crisis reading this book as I realized page after page that there were no women in the history, Oberdorfer wiping them out of the picture completely as the patriarchy is wont to do. We occasionally have a leader’s wife tossed into the mix, and one incredibly sexist interview Oberdorfer has with a convicted spy:

Although I had interviewed many defectors in the course of decades of reporting, this interview was uniquely unnerving. I found Miss Kim to be very beautiful, elegant, demure, and calm, tastefully dressed. I did not know then that she had been trained in North Korea to run ten miles in a single stretch, to bench-press 150 pounds, to shoot a silenced pistol with great accuracy, and to deliver karate chops that would swiftly ill. It was chilling to connect this attractive and intelligent young woman to the murder of 115 innocent people traveling home to their families.

The man knew she was a spy and yet during his interview he didn’t realize she had been trained to kill? It boggles the mind how inept and clueless and largely unaware of their blind spots [white male] authors can be.

Another bizarre quote I stumbled across in the 400+ page book was his obsession with the garlic smell of South Koreans: “In the 1970s the South had the look and feel of a rawboned, gutsy frontier country with garlic on its breath, where its cities gave rise to a hundred pungent odors and even the newsprint had a peculiar musky smell. By 1991… nearly all white-collar workers now brushed their teeth after each meal, causing the pervasive garlic smell to nearly disappear from the capital’s elevators and subway cars.” Garlic-eaters, my god. I wonder what Oberdorfer smelled like to the Koreans he was hanging around.

The book details tensions, strategies, politics, war games, etc. from the 1970s through 2000 (and up to 2013 with the 3rd edition… and I’m sure there will be more to come). Obviously Korea split into two post-Korean War, but the roots go further back, the peninsula being a much-invaded and warred over spot for the prior 900 years, and even up to WW2 when the U.S. divided Korea with the U.S.S.R., reportedly by a Secretary of State who had to ask someone where the heck Korea even was on a map. Russia and Japan had discussed dividing Korea into spheres of influence at the 38th parallel back in the early 1900s, and the U.S. was completely oblivious of this fact when they carved out the area south of the 38th parallel as U.S. occupied while the U.S.S.R. got north of that line.

I hadn’t realized the crucial support that the U.S.S.R. had provided to North Korea, sending weapons, fuel, and food out of goodwill to a Communist ally (and training them in their nuclear facilities). When the Soviet Union began to crumble in the 1990s, things spun out of control quickly for the North, being now required to pay hard cash for the items they simply put on credit (and never paid the bill for) earlier. The Soviet Union also reached out to South Korea, recognizing it diplomatically in exchange for much needed cash ($3 billion). This caused the North to lose face, which is culturally worse then death.
Out of this chaos, Pyongyang realized its greatest bargaining chip for recognition, security and economic assistance from the U.S.: its threat of nuclear weapons. Which is why I started reading this book in the first place, since it’s a continuing theme decades later. I got the recommendation for this book from Kathy Moon’s interview on Washington Journal, when a viewer asked for a suggestion of a book to read to get up to speed on the crisis.