.
T

he juxtaposition between North and South Korea is striking on nearly every level, and both capture global attention for diametrically opposed reasons. In mid-August, President Joe Biden hosted Prime Minister Fumio Kishida of Japan and President Yoon Suk Yeol of South Korea at Camp David, a summit indicative of the improvement of the relationship both between Seoul and Tokyo and with the United States, but demonstrating an  increasingly shared perception of China. 

Earlier this month, American intelligence disclosed that Kim Jong Un, the reclusive dictator of North Korea, would travel to Russia—via armored train no less—to meet with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin to discuss supplying arms to support Moscow’s war against Ukraine. Pyongyang is believed to have already provided munitions to Russia, but the Kremlin is scrambling to find enough ammunition and arms to supply its war of attrition, potentially putting Kim Jong Un in an advantageous position. 

Korea: A New History of South and North” by Victor Cha and Ramon Pacheco Pardo, and “The Sister” by Sung-Yoon Lee are two new books that together offer an accessible look at the complex history of these two countries. 

Korea: A New History of South and North | Victor Cha Ramon Pacheco Pardo | Yale University Press

“Korea” is a rather straight-forward history of the two countries, though it is perhaps less new than the title implies. This is not a book that puts forward a novel take on both country’s shared history, but instead attempts to provide a readable yet academically sound history of North and South Korea. It has relevant footnotes and is interspersed with the personal reflections and experiences of the authors—Cha is the former director for Asian Affairs at the White House National Security Council and Pardo is a King’s College London professor with deep links to South Korea. Those personal anecdotes are some of the most interesting bits of “Korea.” Cha’s efforts to assuage tensions between diplomats from South Korea and Japan during a White House meeting illustrate, for the authors of “Korea”, the unresolved history between the two countries. 

There is always a risk in trying to provide a comprehensive but accessible history of one country, let alone two. Writing one complete volume about North and South Korea, and to do so in under 300 pages, is certainly a challenge. This tension is noticeable. At times the authors choose brevity over depth, but the decisions make sense given their intended audiences. What does emerge, rather clearly, is the inextricable linkages in the history of the South and the North. While both have decidedly charted their own paths since the Korean War’s armistice, and their relationship has ebbed and flowed between periods of extreme tension and mere baseline tension, their pasts, presents, and futures are connected. 

“Korea” closes by exploring the prospects for “unification” or reunification—even the concept itself is subject to debate within South Korea. While politicians and families alike, certainly in the South, hope to unify the peninsula and finally end the conflict between the two Koreas, there is little expectation that such a process would be peaceful. Prospects of thawing tensions have almost always come to naught as Kim Jong Il and his son and successor Kim Jong Un masterfully played Seoul and Washington, raising tensions then seeking to gain concessions by backing down from the precipice. There is no expectation that Pyongyang will surrender its nuclear weapons—which are enshrined in the country’s constitution—nor find itself in a situation where the Kim family is not in power. 

Equally, Seoul will not capitulate to Pyongyang or be willing to absorb the panoply of political, economic, and security challenges (and costs) that come with the North. The authors review the challenges that would accompany such a reunification, but if anything, understate the size and scale of the challenge. The reunification of East and West Germany, while illustrative, is likely a poor example on which to base expectations. The immediate challenges of reunification are only the beginning of a long, multi-generational struggle for full integration. As Katja Hoyer examined in “Beyond the Wall,” the legacy of East Germany affects Germany three decades later in nearly every measure. 

“Korea” is a breezy and enjoyable read that may well appeal to those who have fallen under the sway of South Korea’s not-inconsiderable soft power and have a curiosity about its estranged sibling to the north. If anything, Cha and Pardo may have helped spur interest in their other books: “The Impossible State” about North Korea for the former and “Shrimp to Whale” on South Korea for the latter, both of which offer the level and depth of nuance that readers will likely seek after finishing “Korea.” 

The Sister | Sung-Yoon Lee | Macmillan (UK), Public Affairs (U.S.)

Lee, by contrast, offers a deeper dive into the inner workings of the Kim family in his book “The Sister,” about the rise of Kim Yo Jong, one of Kim Jong Un’s sisters and the woman who is now, in effect, presented as a “Deputy Dear Leader.” Unfortunately, the titular sister is often and disappointingly lost amidst the book’s telling of the broader story of recent relations between North Korea and its southern neighbor, and the United States. Her rise is woven throughout the overarching narrative, but she often comes across as a minor character in what is a truly engrossing story told with verve by Lee. 

Pyongyang is deeply controlled about the information it releases—there is obviously no free press in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Analysts in turn pour over the images and parse the text, attempting to divine greater meaning from what little North Korea issues. Their challenge is that in the absence of definitive information, they can only offer best guesses while the broader media breathlessly speculates. The West knows so little about North Korea and Kim Jong Un that it must fixate on the minutiae, attempting to read between the lines of appearances, behaviors, statements, and photographs. As Lee writes, the fact that Kim Yo Jong’s horse had the North Korean star on its bridle in a photo released from Pyongyang spoke volumes about her position in the North Korean hierarchy. It is Kremlinology on steroids. 

With Kim Yo Jong, the fixation on the ephemera is magnified. Given her novelty—North Korea’s women rarely feature in its politics, governance, or security affairs, if at all—the media tends to focus on the softer bits of the story. During the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea the media was fawning over what she wore, how she looked, the way she walked and interacted with those around her. Part of that is certainly novelty (with a healthy dollop of latent misogyny). She was and remains unique in North Korean politics and her emergence on the international stage was rather unexpected. Her future appearances were greeted with a similar K-Pop-style breathless hysteria.

While he largely avoids descending into cliché, there are occasions where Lee comes perilously close. There are repeated references to Kim Yo Jong’s Mona Lisa-style smirk, and her behavior and conduct (and the evolution thereof), as much as there are explorations of her actions as the propaganda chief for the DPRK. She could easily appear as a caricature; more enigmatic Bond villain with a flair for hyperbolic prose and racist propaganda (which she regularly espouses) than a real figure of geopolitical concern. While titillating, if unaccompanied by grounded analysis it can lead to poor assessments. As one former defense official remarked to the reviewer, Kim Yo Jong was “the real dangerous one” in North Korea, offering more cartoonish than critical assessment. 

By way of example, Dr. Jung Pak, now the United States’ Deputy Assistant Secretary for Multilateral Affairs and Deputy Special Representative for the DPRK, offers a measured and balanced analysis in her book “Becoming Kim Jong Un.” She presents both the horror of the Kim regime and why it fascinates observers, but also the inner politics and nuance of the Dear Leader—it is more an analytical portrait than cartoonish illustration. 

Lee writes with a measure of justified insouciance about the repeated expectations by Seoul’s leaders that this time will be different, that this newest engagement with Pyongyang will lead to a breakthrough, only for it to (shockingly) fail. This is a pattern repeated throughout “The Sister”—South Korea and, to a lesser degree, the United States see an opening in the wake of escalated tensions, attempt to achieve a breakthrough, become optimistic about the possibility of change, only for Pyongyang to revert to type. North Korea receives food aid, sanctions are lifted, and secures a few photo opportunities with key leaders, but then rejects any agreements, closing the perceived opening. 

Seoul under recent governments sought to exploit any opening, however small. Most strikingly, Seoul adopted what amounts to a gag law for South Korean citizens. Pyongyang objected to South Korean organizations floating balloons carrying anti-regime propaganda, goods and money, and Bibles across the DMZ and into the North. Kim Yo Jong, as propagandist in chief, threatened Seoul in response, which in turn rapidly approved an expansive law penalizing South Koreans for future actions. The totalitarian North forced the democratic South to censure its own citizens for what was, in effect, free speech. 

“Korea” and “The Sister” offer deeper insights into both North and South Korea, their shared history and politics, but also their divergent courses. Best read in parallel, both books tell a truly fascinating story and one that is far from over. Yet it is unclear still how the paths could change, how unification could occur, and how a lasting peace could be achieved. Indeed, recent events show how Seoul and Pyongyang appear to be doubling down on their geopolitical pathways, with the former keen to deepen engagement in the world and the latter intent on remaining a dangerous pariah state.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress, and a George Mason University National Security Institute Senior Fellow. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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www.diplomaticourier.com

North and South Korea’s Shared Past and Divergent Future

Korean Demilitarized Zone. Image by Peter Anta from Pixabay.

September 9, 2023

The juxtaposition between North and South Korea is striking on every level. Two new books—"Korea: A New History of South" and North and "The Sister"—bring an accessible exploration of the two countries' complex, shared history, writes Joshua Huminski.

T

he juxtaposition between North and South Korea is striking on nearly every level, and both capture global attention for diametrically opposed reasons. In mid-August, President Joe Biden hosted Prime Minister Fumio Kishida of Japan and President Yoon Suk Yeol of South Korea at Camp David, a summit indicative of the improvement of the relationship both between Seoul and Tokyo and with the United States, but demonstrating an  increasingly shared perception of China. 

Earlier this month, American intelligence disclosed that Kim Jong Un, the reclusive dictator of North Korea, would travel to Russia—via armored train no less—to meet with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin to discuss supplying arms to support Moscow’s war against Ukraine. Pyongyang is believed to have already provided munitions to Russia, but the Kremlin is scrambling to find enough ammunition and arms to supply its war of attrition, potentially putting Kim Jong Un in an advantageous position. 

Korea: A New History of South and North” by Victor Cha and Ramon Pacheco Pardo, and “The Sister” by Sung-Yoon Lee are two new books that together offer an accessible look at the complex history of these two countries. 

Korea: A New History of South and North | Victor Cha Ramon Pacheco Pardo | Yale University Press

“Korea” is a rather straight-forward history of the two countries, though it is perhaps less new than the title implies. This is not a book that puts forward a novel take on both country’s shared history, but instead attempts to provide a readable yet academically sound history of North and South Korea. It has relevant footnotes and is interspersed with the personal reflections and experiences of the authors—Cha is the former director for Asian Affairs at the White House National Security Council and Pardo is a King’s College London professor with deep links to South Korea. Those personal anecdotes are some of the most interesting bits of “Korea.” Cha’s efforts to assuage tensions between diplomats from South Korea and Japan during a White House meeting illustrate, for the authors of “Korea”, the unresolved history between the two countries. 

There is always a risk in trying to provide a comprehensive but accessible history of one country, let alone two. Writing one complete volume about North and South Korea, and to do so in under 300 pages, is certainly a challenge. This tension is noticeable. At times the authors choose brevity over depth, but the decisions make sense given their intended audiences. What does emerge, rather clearly, is the inextricable linkages in the history of the South and the North. While both have decidedly charted their own paths since the Korean War’s armistice, and their relationship has ebbed and flowed between periods of extreme tension and mere baseline tension, their pasts, presents, and futures are connected. 

“Korea” closes by exploring the prospects for “unification” or reunification—even the concept itself is subject to debate within South Korea. While politicians and families alike, certainly in the South, hope to unify the peninsula and finally end the conflict between the two Koreas, there is little expectation that such a process would be peaceful. Prospects of thawing tensions have almost always come to naught as Kim Jong Il and his son and successor Kim Jong Un masterfully played Seoul and Washington, raising tensions then seeking to gain concessions by backing down from the precipice. There is no expectation that Pyongyang will surrender its nuclear weapons—which are enshrined in the country’s constitution—nor find itself in a situation where the Kim family is not in power. 

Equally, Seoul will not capitulate to Pyongyang or be willing to absorb the panoply of political, economic, and security challenges (and costs) that come with the North. The authors review the challenges that would accompany such a reunification, but if anything, understate the size and scale of the challenge. The reunification of East and West Germany, while illustrative, is likely a poor example on which to base expectations. The immediate challenges of reunification are only the beginning of a long, multi-generational struggle for full integration. As Katja Hoyer examined in “Beyond the Wall,” the legacy of East Germany affects Germany three decades later in nearly every measure. 

“Korea” is a breezy and enjoyable read that may well appeal to those who have fallen under the sway of South Korea’s not-inconsiderable soft power and have a curiosity about its estranged sibling to the north. If anything, Cha and Pardo may have helped spur interest in their other books: “The Impossible State” about North Korea for the former and “Shrimp to Whale” on South Korea for the latter, both of which offer the level and depth of nuance that readers will likely seek after finishing “Korea.” 

The Sister | Sung-Yoon Lee | Macmillan (UK), Public Affairs (U.S.)

Lee, by contrast, offers a deeper dive into the inner workings of the Kim family in his book “The Sister,” about the rise of Kim Yo Jong, one of Kim Jong Un’s sisters and the woman who is now, in effect, presented as a “Deputy Dear Leader.” Unfortunately, the titular sister is often and disappointingly lost amidst the book’s telling of the broader story of recent relations between North Korea and its southern neighbor, and the United States. Her rise is woven throughout the overarching narrative, but she often comes across as a minor character in what is a truly engrossing story told with verve by Lee. 

Pyongyang is deeply controlled about the information it releases—there is obviously no free press in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Analysts in turn pour over the images and parse the text, attempting to divine greater meaning from what little North Korea issues. Their challenge is that in the absence of definitive information, they can only offer best guesses while the broader media breathlessly speculates. The West knows so little about North Korea and Kim Jong Un that it must fixate on the minutiae, attempting to read between the lines of appearances, behaviors, statements, and photographs. As Lee writes, the fact that Kim Yo Jong’s horse had the North Korean star on its bridle in a photo released from Pyongyang spoke volumes about her position in the North Korean hierarchy. It is Kremlinology on steroids. 

With Kim Yo Jong, the fixation on the ephemera is magnified. Given her novelty—North Korea’s women rarely feature in its politics, governance, or security affairs, if at all—the media tends to focus on the softer bits of the story. During the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea the media was fawning over what she wore, how she looked, the way she walked and interacted with those around her. Part of that is certainly novelty (with a healthy dollop of latent misogyny). She was and remains unique in North Korean politics and her emergence on the international stage was rather unexpected. Her future appearances were greeted with a similar K-Pop-style breathless hysteria.

While he largely avoids descending into cliché, there are occasions where Lee comes perilously close. There are repeated references to Kim Yo Jong’s Mona Lisa-style smirk, and her behavior and conduct (and the evolution thereof), as much as there are explorations of her actions as the propaganda chief for the DPRK. She could easily appear as a caricature; more enigmatic Bond villain with a flair for hyperbolic prose and racist propaganda (which she regularly espouses) than a real figure of geopolitical concern. While titillating, if unaccompanied by grounded analysis it can lead to poor assessments. As one former defense official remarked to the reviewer, Kim Yo Jong was “the real dangerous one” in North Korea, offering more cartoonish than critical assessment. 

By way of example, Dr. Jung Pak, now the United States’ Deputy Assistant Secretary for Multilateral Affairs and Deputy Special Representative for the DPRK, offers a measured and balanced analysis in her book “Becoming Kim Jong Un.” She presents both the horror of the Kim regime and why it fascinates observers, but also the inner politics and nuance of the Dear Leader—it is more an analytical portrait than cartoonish illustration. 

Lee writes with a measure of justified insouciance about the repeated expectations by Seoul’s leaders that this time will be different, that this newest engagement with Pyongyang will lead to a breakthrough, only for it to (shockingly) fail. This is a pattern repeated throughout “The Sister”—South Korea and, to a lesser degree, the United States see an opening in the wake of escalated tensions, attempt to achieve a breakthrough, become optimistic about the possibility of change, only for Pyongyang to revert to type. North Korea receives food aid, sanctions are lifted, and secures a few photo opportunities with key leaders, but then rejects any agreements, closing the perceived opening. 

Seoul under recent governments sought to exploit any opening, however small. Most strikingly, Seoul adopted what amounts to a gag law for South Korean citizens. Pyongyang objected to South Korean organizations floating balloons carrying anti-regime propaganda, goods and money, and Bibles across the DMZ and into the North. Kim Yo Jong, as propagandist in chief, threatened Seoul in response, which in turn rapidly approved an expansive law penalizing South Koreans for future actions. The totalitarian North forced the democratic South to censure its own citizens for what was, in effect, free speech. 

“Korea” and “The Sister” offer deeper insights into both North and South Korea, their shared history and politics, but also their divergent courses. Best read in parallel, both books tell a truly fascinating story and one that is far from over. Yet it is unclear still how the paths could change, how unification could occur, and how a lasting peace could be achieved. Indeed, recent events show how Seoul and Pyongyang appear to be doubling down on their geopolitical pathways, with the former keen to deepen engagement in the world and the latter intent on remaining a dangerous pariah state.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress, and a George Mason University National Security Institute Senior Fellow. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.