The best books about Korea

10 authors have picked their favorite books about Korea and why they recommend each book.

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The Origins of the Korean War, Volume I

By Bruce Cumings,

Book cover of The Origins of the Korean War, Volume I: Liberation and the Emergence of Separate Regimes, 1945-1947

Professor Cumings provides the most detailed, honest analysis of this country’s involvement in Korea from the end of World War II through the catastrophic war that virtually destroyed the entire Korean peninsula, left several million dead, and led this country directly into Vietnam. 


Who am I?

I entered the United States Army in August 1970, two months after graduation from high school, completed flight school on November 1971, and served a one-year tour of duty in Vietnam as a helicopter pilot in Troop F (Air), 8th US Cavalry, 1st Aviation Brigade. After my discharge, I served an additional 28 years as a helicopter pilot in the Illinois National Guard, retiring in 2003. I graduated from Triton Junior College, the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Northwestern University Law School in 1981. My passion for this subject arises, as one would expect, from my status as a veteran. My expertise is based on my own experience and 16 years of research and writing that went into the preparation of my book.


I wrote...

Reckoning: Vietnam and America's Cold War Experience, 1945-1991

By Neal Thompson,

Book cover of Reckoning: Vietnam and America's Cold War Experience, 1945-1991

What is my book about?

America’s triumph over Soviet Communism, orthodoxy tells us, was a splendid bi-partisan accomplishment in which all Americans can take pride, marred only by America’s singularly unjust, ill-advised campaign in Vietnam, which was undertaken in good faith by well-meaning and intelligent men acting in the country’s interest. Nonsense.

In Reckoning, I identify facts that have been hiding in plain sight—“elephants in the room” as they are commonly known—and prove that: 1) the war in Vietnam, while winnable, was lost by a corrupt political class that was focused on domestic politics and opponents in Washington rather than Communists in Asia; 2) the war crimes allegations advanced by the antiwar left are false. The facts and figures regarding day-to-day operations in Vietnam, when compared to those of Korea and World War II, prove clearly that the men who fought in Vietnam were as honorable as any generation of American veterans. Finally, I demonstrate conclusively that you will never understand the Vietnam War by reading about the Vietnam War. You must begin with the “legacy of the 1930s” and the policies to which it gave rise. For the Vietnam War was but one campaign among many within the Truman Doctrine, and if it was the “Bad War fought for all the wrong reasons and in all of the wrong ways” that orthodoxy tells us it was, the Truman Doctrine itself becomes nothing but a long campaign of, in Daniel Ellsberg’s words, “American aggression.”

Korea's Place in the Sun

By Bruce Cumings,

Book cover of Korea's Place in the Sun: A Modern History

Cumings’ books on Korea—there are a number of them—could fill every spot on a list of the five best books to understand the DPRK. Cumings is the leading Western expert on Korean modern history, and Korea’s Place in the Sun is the best place to start. I love every one of Cumings’ books, and this one especially. He is a superb writer and doesn’t pander to established opinions.


Who am I?

I became interested in North Korea in 2002 when the George W. Bush administration declared the country to be part of an Axis of Evil, along with Iraq and Iran. Bush had lied about Iraq, to justify a war against that country, and I wondered what evidence, if any, his administration had that North Korea was either evil or part of an axis. The answer was none. Bush was able to propagate one North Korean myth after another because the public knew very little about the country. I wished to give people some background so they could make sense of what they were reading and hearing about North Korea in the news and social media.


I wrote...

Patriots, Traitors and Empires: The Story of Korea's Struggle for Freedom

By Stephen Gowans,

Book cover of Patriots, Traitors and Empires: The Story of Korea's Struggle for Freedom

What is my book about?

Patriots, Traitors, and Empires is an account of modern Korean history, written from the point of view of those who fought to free their country from the domination of foreign empires. It traces the history of Korea’s struggle for freedom from opposition to Japanese colonialism starting in 1905 to North Korea’s current efforts to deter the threat of invasion by the United States.

The Great East Asian War and the Birth of the Korean Nation

By JaHyun Kim Haboush,

Book cover of The Great East Asian War and the Birth of the Korean Nation

This book argues that the Japanese invasion of the 1590s was the single most significant event in creating the idea of a Korean “nation,” as opposed to a kingdom ruled by one family with the help of powerful noble families. The author highlights the government’s use of vernacular proclamations and notices (rather than the literary Chinese normally used by the court), to show how people were mobilized to resist the Japanese invaders. In the process, she discusses the emergence of guerrilla bands known as uibyong and how the memory of these groups and their exploits, often exaggerated, help create a sense of national identity that grew and intensified in subsequent centuries.  For example, Koreans who resisted Japanese imperialists in the early twentieth century took the moniker of uibyong.


Who am I?

I have been fascinated by this war since I first learned about it in graduate school. It inspired my dissertation, which focused on the Three Great Campaigns of the Wanli Emperor, which in turn resulted in my book, A Dragon’s Head & A Serpent’s Tail.  That book has inspired two sequels of sorts thus far, with another one to come.


I wrote...

Dragon's Head and A Serpent's Tail: Ming China and the First Great East Asian War, 1592-1598

By Kenneth M. Swope,

Book cover of Dragon's Head and A Serpent's Tail: Ming China and the First Great East Asian War, 1592-1598

What is my book about?

The Great East Asian War of 1592-1598 was the largest war in the world in the sixteenth century in terms of the number of troops deployed, yet it is scarcely known outside of East Asia. This book presents the first full-length treatment of this seminal conflict from the perspective of Ming China, which was the target of the Japanese warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s designs, even though the war itself was fought entirely in Korea.

While focusing on the significance of the war for the Ming Empire in China, this book also brings in Korean and Japanese perspectives and evaluates the war’s significance for early modern military history as a whole, with particular emphasis upon the implications of the conflict for the so-called “Military Revolution” thesis.

Samurai Invasion

By Stephen Turnbull, Peter Dennis (illustrator),

Book cover of Samurai Invasion: Japan's Korean War 1592 -1598

This is a lavishly illustrated popular account by a prolific author of books about the samurai. It is written from the Japanese perspective in a very accessible style. The author tends to be somewhat uncritical about Japanese accounts and the book is not nearly as academic as some others on this list, but he presents a clear narrative that is easy to follow and could serve as a useful introduction for readers before moving on to more academic studies.


Who am I?

I have been fascinated by this war since I first learned about it in graduate school. It inspired my dissertation, which focused on the Three Great Campaigns of the Wanli Emperor, which in turn resulted in my book, A Dragon’s Head & A Serpent’s Tail.  That book has inspired two sequels of sorts thus far, with another one to come.


I wrote...

Dragon's Head and A Serpent's Tail: Ming China and the First Great East Asian War, 1592-1598

By Kenneth M. Swope,

Book cover of Dragon's Head and A Serpent's Tail: Ming China and the First Great East Asian War, 1592-1598

What is my book about?

The Great East Asian War of 1592-1598 was the largest war in the world in the sixteenth century in terms of the number of troops deployed, yet it is scarcely known outside of East Asia. This book presents the first full-length treatment of this seminal conflict from the perspective of Ming China, which was the target of the Japanese warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s designs, even though the war itself was fought entirely in Korea.

While focusing on the significance of the war for the Ming Empire in China, this book also brings in Korean and Japanese perspectives and evaluates the war’s significance for early modern military history as a whole, with particular emphasis upon the implications of the conflict for the so-called “Military Revolution” thesis.

China, Korea & Japan at War, 1592-1598

By J. Marshall Craig,

Book cover of China, Korea & Japan at War, 1592-1598: Eyewitness Accounts

This book is valuable because it combines the first-person perspective of Yu Songnyong’s account with deft historical analysis. Craig chooses a number of interesting subjects for his work, including a Japanese Buddhist monk who accompanied the armies, a Korean scholar who became a war refugee, a Chinese doctor-spy, a samurai warrior, and a Korean diplomat. He translates excerpts from their works and adds historical context. This gives readers the opportunity to see the varying views of the belligerents side by side and it also offers a broader perspective on the effects of the war on different levels of the populace.


Who am I?

I have been fascinated by this war since I first learned about it in graduate school. It inspired my dissertation, which focused on the Three Great Campaigns of the Wanli Emperor, which in turn resulted in my book, A Dragon’s Head & A Serpent’s Tail.  That book has inspired two sequels of sorts thus far, with another one to come.


I wrote...

Dragon's Head and A Serpent's Tail: Ming China and the First Great East Asian War, 1592-1598

By Kenneth M. Swope,

Book cover of Dragon's Head and A Serpent's Tail: Ming China and the First Great East Asian War, 1592-1598

What is my book about?

The Great East Asian War of 1592-1598 was the largest war in the world in the sixteenth century in terms of the number of troops deployed, yet it is scarcely known outside of East Asia. This book presents the first full-length treatment of this seminal conflict from the perspective of Ming China, which was the target of the Japanese warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s designs, even though the war itself was fought entirely in Korea.

While focusing on the significance of the war for the Ming Empire in China, this book also brings in Korean and Japanese perspectives and evaluates the war’s significance for early modern military history as a whole, with particular emphasis upon the implications of the conflict for the so-called “Military Revolution” thesis.

When My Name Was Keoko

By Linda Sue Park,

Book cover of When My Name Was Keoko

I grew up in Europe and have heard and read much about World War II in Europe. But I did not realize how similar this was to life in (South) Korea under Japanese occupation. This book was an eye-opener for me, told in two voices – Keoko and her brother who are both given Japanese names and can no longer speak their own language. A gripping novel that makes a good read, even for adults.


Who am I?

I’ve been devouring books for most of my life. When I was young, I read Pippi Longstocking. I wanted to be just like her – strong, free, and independent. Through books I learned about other people in other countries, times, and circumstances. I have been writing books for a long time (I wrote 40) and work in (international schools) with teachers and students on their writing. From specific stories, readers learn universal wisdom. Many books written for children should be everybody-books! Books, more than any other medium, can help you to ‘walk a mile in someone else’s moccasins'. The books I picked to share with you all do this.


I wrote...

Stepping Stones: A Refugee Family's Journey

By Margriet Ruurs, Nizar Ali Badr (illustrator), Falah Raheem (translator)

Book cover of Stepping Stones: A Refugee Family's Journey

What is my book about?

This powerful picture book is the universal story of people searching to live in peace in a place without war. It was illustrated by a Syrian artist with natural stones on the beach of Syria. Published in both English and Arabic, the book has been translated into many languages and is raising both funds and awareness of the plight of refugee children.

A Single Shard

By Linda Sue Park,

Book cover of A Single Shard

I adore this Newbery Medal book and read it with my students often. I especially love this edition because it includes the author’s Newbery Medal acceptance speech. A Single Shard features a plucky homeless orphan and the incorrigible master potter he yearns to emulate despite limitations placed on orphans by the remnants of Confucian philosophy and hierarchy. In addition to absorbing social customs of the Joseon era, readers will learn about the creation of celadon pottery that renowned Korean artisans have produced for centuries. A Single Shard is a beautiful novel I recommend for all ages.  


Who am I?

My kids tease me that I’m the family member (Nordic-European ancestry all the way) who first became fascinated with Korean culture despite their dad having been born in Busan. (Like me, my husband was raised on bologna and French’s mustard sandwiches, not bibimbap and kimchi). My research journey led me to travel to Korea multiple times. There, I discovered the remote island of Jindo, famous for delectable seaweed, the Jindo dog, a decisive battle in which Admiral Yi Sun-shin outwitted the Japanese, as well as a mysterious land bridge that parts the sea every year. I photographed the magnificent sunset overlooking Jindo and pictured my characters there. 


I wrote...

Moonlight Dancer

By Deb Atwood,

Book cover of Moonlight Dancer

What is my book about?

Kendra JinJu MacGregor can resist neither the antique Korean doll in the dusty warehouse nor the handsome Hiro Peretti who sells it to her. Once she brings the doll home, Kendra pays little attention to misplaced objects or her beloved dog’s fear. That is, until one terrifying night forces her to question her very sanity. 

Soon, the mysterious NanJu manifests herself, and Kendra travels through time to 16th century Korea into a history of conflict and intrigue. Kendra is about to discover the dark past of her ghostly visitor. It’s up to Kendra, with Hiro by her side, to understand the past and prevent murder. Everything depends upon Kendra’s success, even—she discovers to her horror—her own life. 

Solo Leveling, Vol. 1

By Chugong,

Book cover of Solo Leveling, Vol. 1

Solo Leveling (or Only I Level Up), in its webtoon form, is one of the peaks of LitRPG storytelling. The scenes are beautifully drawn, elevating the story beyond its original text-only format. You will be hard-pressed to find a more engaging read than this. The webtoon maintains tension incredibly well, and knows how to constantly supply its readers with little dopamine bombs along the way.

Solo Leveling plays with the formula of LitRPG, taking it off the rails by containing the game system inside the main character for much of the story, allowing him to grow stronger. Reading Solo Leveling is an absolute treat—perhaps doubly so for me as several of the niche ideas used in the story are also used in my books.


Who am I?

LitRPG is special. It really is. LitRPG provides authors with some of the most powerful tools in storytelling. Computer-simulated worlds make magic fully believable. They enable giant mysteries, actual monsters, forbidden treasures, and incredibly diverse adversaries. LitRPG can be a love story or a tale of revenge. It can bring hope, despair, or just desserts. It’s a perfect vehicle for modern fantasy—a setting where the apocalypse can be at hand, where humans can fight gods, and where the world itself might be sentient. My love for LitRPG drove me to write an epic containing a series of huge, underlying mysteries that would reveal themselves over the course of the story.


I wrote...

First Login

By Kevin Murphy,

Book cover of First Login

What is my book about?

First Login is a love letter to the LitRPG genre that embraces and subverts tropes in equal measure.

Eager for adventure, Corbin jumps into Chronicle, a simulated world where magic, monsters, and mysteries abound. For the first time in his life, he’s free to go anywhere and do anything, but not everyone who plays Chronicle has Corbin’s best intentions in mind. Even the system-generated NPCs seem to have it out for him. After stumbling upon a secret so incredible that it threatens to change everything, Corbin has to figure out how to keep it for his sake and for the sake of his friends.

I'll Be Right There

By Kyung-Sook Shin, Sora Kim-Russell (translator),

Book cover of I'll Be Right There

I fall hard for novels about intense friendships and loyalty. I’ve never been to Korea, but it was easy for me to relate to the protagonist, Jung Yoon, whose personal growth is influenced by her study of European culture, much as my own immersion in Latin American culture continues to inform my life. 

Here again, a gap in most Americans’ knowledge gets filled in. Shin’s haunting and poetic novel offers a bracing account of the student protests in South Korea in the ’80s, with repression, deaths, and disappearances at the hands of the US-supported dictatorship. The politics are eye-opening, but just a backdrop to the characters’ pursuit of love, friendship, intellectual development, and the tender way they must mourn many other losses as they grow up and apart.


Who am I?

Soon after 9/11, I had dinner with several American scientists worried about how new security measures would affect international collaborations and foreign-born colleagues. Since science rarely if ever comes up in discourse about the War on Terror, that set me off. I’m always drawn to whatever gets overlooked. I was born in one international city – New York – and have lived in another – Los Angeles – for over 20 years. I’ve spent time on four continents and assisted survivors of violent persecution as they seek asylum – which may explain why I feel compelled to include viewpoints from outside the US and fill in the gaps when different cultural perspectives go missing.


I wrote...

Out of Place

By Diane Lefer,

Book cover of Out of Place

What is my book about?

When a scientific research institute in the Mojave Desert falls under suspicion in the aftermath of 9/11, the FBI connects the dots. But is the Bureau identifying terrorists or unwittingly targeting the innocent? In a novel spanning cultures and continents, Out of Place explores the cost of the security state as an international cast of richly imagined characters (both human and animal) have in common an unease that may well be true of most of us: feeling – or being seen as – out of place.

A Capitalist in North Korea

By Felix Abt,

Book cover of A Capitalist in North Korea: My Seven Years in the Hermit Kingdom

Abt, an entrepreneur who lived in North Korea for seven years, challenges the myths and misconceptions about the DPRK that flourish in the West, not only among people who are inclined to believe the East Asian state is a hell on earth, but also among those who are apt to overlook its failings. I really liked this book. It is clearly written and the pace is brisk and engaging.


Who am I?

I became interested in North Korea in 2002 when the George W. Bush administration declared the country to be part of an Axis of Evil, along with Iraq and Iran. Bush had lied about Iraq, to justify a war against that country, and I wondered what evidence, if any, his administration had that North Korea was either evil or part of an axis. The answer was none. Bush was able to propagate one North Korean myth after another because the public knew very little about the country. I wished to give people some background so they could make sense of what they were reading and hearing about North Korea in the news and social media.


I wrote...

Patriots, Traitors and Empires: The Story of Korea's Struggle for Freedom

By Stephen Gowans,

Book cover of Patriots, Traitors and Empires: The Story of Korea's Struggle for Freedom

What is my book about?

Patriots, Traitors, and Empires is an account of modern Korean history, written from the point of view of those who fought to free their country from the domination of foreign empires. It traces the history of Korea’s struggle for freedom from opposition to Japanese colonialism starting in 1905 to North Korea’s current efforts to deter the threat of invasion by the United States.

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