Monday, May 29, 2006

Book Review - The Two Koreas

The Two Koreas: A Contemporary History
Don Oberdorfer
521 pages
Basic Books, 1997, Revised 2001

Continuing my trek through Korean history I chose to follow up to Hastings’ The Korean War with Don Oberdorfer’s The Two Koreas for two reasons. First the pool of books I had to choose from was rather small, but more importantly I felt a contemporary history would do more to educate me on the current state of Korea. I am fascinated by ancient and medieval history, and I am sure I will eventually track down a good book about these subjects, however the modern Korean outlook on the world has been more defined by their experiences since World War II than their previous history.

Oberdorfer begins his book at the beginning of the 1970’s when relations between the two Koreas went through a momentary thaw. Then slowly through the book, which feels exhaustive at times, he traces the ups and downs of diplomacy between the two Koreas paying special attention to the influence foreign powers had on the politics in the peninsula. He points out that Korea is the only place in the world where the interests of the Soviet Union/Russia, China, and the United States directly intersect, which made Korea one of the most dangerous flash-points during the Cold War.

An excellent example of how tense things were lies in the incident on August 18, 1976 where two U.S. Army officers were beaten to death by North Korean guards as they sought to trim a tree in the Joint Security Area in Panmunjom. The intial response to this provocation by Kissinger, then secretary of state, was,”…they beat two Americans to death and must pay the price,” and, “North Korean blood must be spilled.” Fortunately the final decision was made to launch Operation Paul Bunyan in which a group of U.S. Army engineers, reinforced by ROK soldiers, would return to the JSA and cut down the tree. All the while American and ROK forces were moving to war footing with a carrier group moving into the East Sea (Sea of Japan) and both long and short range bombers in the air on “exercises.” This very well may have been the closest we were to war since the Cuban Missile Crisis.

I know this is going end up being a rather short review, however I found this book very, very readable. Oberdorfer was able to make even the most boring minutiae of political maneuvering eminently readable and I feel like I am walking away from this book having absorbed a lot of information. My one complaint is that this book was that since this book was revised in October of 2001 the dynamic on the Korean peninsula has changed drastically. Where in the late ‘90s the North Korean regime seemed to be willing to work towards rapprochement with South Korea and the international community, the pst four years have seen a significant down-turn in relations with the regime. We went from talking back to posturing and Korea is once more one of the most dangerous flash-points in the world.

I would like to end with Oberdorfer’s inscription in the book which reads:
For the people of the two Koreas
May the be one again, and soon.

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