15 Books about Korea: A Reading List for the Armchair Traveler
I lived in South Korea from 1997 to 1998 and at that time Korea was NOT cool. Fast forward 18 years later and for some reason Korean culture is NOW cool. What the heck happened?
I sort of get it, you know. I loved the movie, Parasite, and found Old Boy disturbing but unforgettable. At first, I had scoffed at people’s obsession with Korean boy bands until I saw BTS perform on Saturday Night Live. I was mesmerized by their baby boyish good looks and their other-worldly synchronous dance moves. I found myself guiltily listening to them on Spotify and watching their videos on YouTube.
I was curious to find out how Korea transformed itself from the UNCOOL kid on the block to one of the COOLEST kids in the world.
Since we’re almost all experiencing a global pandemic and most countries have closed themselves off to the outside world, I can’t very well visit Korea to find out. So. I set out to do it from my armchair (literally) and go on a Korean reading binge over 10 days. I read 13 books about Korea—everything from Korean novels to nonfiction books on the horrors of North Korea.
Here’s my one big takeaway from my Korean immersion: Korean literature is brilliant. It’s ten times better than any other of the other literature that I’ve read from other countries and most of the literature from my own country. Sorry Japan and China, but Korea is kicking your butts in not just movies, music, and television but also in literature.
The writing is the best I’ve seen. The topics explore current and relevant issues such as gender discrimination, economic and social inequality, and its country’s mistakes (Gwangju Massacre) honestly and unabashedly.
I’ve divided the list into two sections: books about South Korea and books about North Korea. Within each section, I’ve included both fiction and nonfiction. I’ve also given each book a star-rating out of five stars according to how well I liked them. However, there’s one book on the list that I couldn’t resist giving six stars to. It was THAT good. At the end, I’ll tell you my top five favorite books about Korea. Enjoy!
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Table of Contents
(Click on the book title to jump to its review)
5 out of 5 stars
- The Birth of Korean Cool
- If I Had Your Face
- Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982
- Native Speaker
- Please Look After Mom
- Nothing to Envy
- Without You There is No Us
4 out of 5 stars
3 out of 5 stars
Not rated yet
Books on South Korea
The first eleven books about Korea are set in South Korea, Japan, or the United States. Most of them have been written by women covering similar topics of either gender discrimination or the crimes of the Korean government.
By Euny Hong (2014)
My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
“Ultimately what it boils down to is that even if Koreans disagree with the government, or are resentful of corporate greed, they think of themselves as citizens of a republic in the sense that Plato intended, wherein citizens believe that the well-being of those around you contribute to your own well-being. This idea is very much alive in Korea. That’s why every school in the nation follows the same curriculum: that’s why school is so difficult. Even the most elitist of Koreans believe that everyone has the right to a quality education. Call it enlightened self-interest, if you like. Koreans know from experience that everyone must rise together, or not at all.”
My favorite non-fiction book about Korea is The Birth of Korean Cool by Euny Hong. The book looks at why Korean pop culture has become so popular in so many countries around the world. It covers such topics as music, television, movies, food, and the education system.
It’s sometimes hard for me to get engrossed in non-fiction like I can with a good novel. But I found it hard to put this book down. I’m not even all that interested in Korean pop culture. I’m more interested in why some countries are more succesful than others.
Plus, when I lived in Seoul in 1997-1998, Korean culture was NOT cool, and I would never have guessed in a million years that so many people would be crazy over K-pop stars or that a Korean film would win an Oscar for best picture. I don’t want to give too much away, so I’ll just say how Korea has done it is very clever and impressive.
I also have to give credit to the author, Euny Hong, for making this such an informative and enjoyable book. Having grown up in both Korea and the United States, she understands Korean culture, but she also knows how to communicate with her American readers in a way that resonates with them.
Throughout the book, she would make sarcastic comments that made me chuckle. Here’s how she describes Korea’s reaction to Japanese history textbooks:
In 2008, new editions of Japanese textbooks declared Takeshima to be a Japanese territory. For Koreans everywhere, this was the last straw (or the first of many last straws, as it would turn out).
If you’re someone who is into learning about why some countries are more successful than others, I think you will enjoy this book. At the same time, if you’re interested in learning more about Korean culture, you’ll find it as well in this terrific book, The Birth of Korean Cool.
By Daniel Tudor (2014)
My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
“Often when Westerners think of East Asian, the stereotypes of stoicism and self-control—the so-called “inscrutable Oriental”—come to mind. But Koreans in fact tend to be very expressive and open with their feelings. Somehow, sadness and happiness both seem to be magnified in Korea.”
A Geek in Korea is the perfect book for those who need a simple and quick overview of South Korea before traveling to the country. It’s part of a series of nonfiction books about Asian culture. You can find A Geek in Japan, A Geek in Thailand, and so on.
Written by Daniel Tudor, the book introduces the reader to a wide range of topics about South Korean culture. Here’s a brief run-down of some of the topics:
- Korean identity (concepts of jeong, han, and heung)
- Traditional Korean culture (religion, art, sports, education)
- Modern Korean culture (competitiveness, dating,
- The Internet in Korea
- Korean society and daily life (suicide, aging population, xenophobia, etc.)
- Koreans at work and play
- Korean music, movies, and television
- Visiting Korea
Having lived in Korea for a number of years as an English teacher, bar owner, and correspondent for the Economist, Tudo has the credentials to write a book about Korea. I liked his writing style. It’s breezy and informal, making it easy to read.
A Geek in Korea is probably the best book about Korea for those traveling to South Korea. I even wished I had read this book before I moved to Korea.
By Kazuki Kaneshiro (2018)
My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
“Riffling through the pages of the book, I said, “You’re always reading novels.” I didn’t believe in the power of the novel. A novel could entertain but couldn’t change anything. You open the book, you close it, and it’s over. Nothing more than a tool to relieve stress. Every time I said as much, Jeong-il would say something cryptic like, “A lone person devoted to reading novels has the power equal to a hundred people gathered at a meeting.” Then he’d continue saying, “The world would be a better place with more people like that,” and smile good-naturedly.
And then it felt like maybe he was right.”
Go: A Coming of Age Novel is one of two books about Korea involving Zainichi (the word used for Koreans born and raised in Japan). It’s not as famous as Pachinko, but I think it’s more honest.
The book is a coming-of-age story about a Zainichi teenager named Sugihara, who attends a North Korean high school in Japan. (I guess Zainichi are divided between those with North Korean citizenship and those with South Korean citizenship). He falls in love with a Japanese girl, but he chooses not to tell her that he is Korean. Of course, you can guess that she eventually finds out. The question is whether she accepts him or rejects him.
Alongside the love story is an examination of what it means to be Korean in Japan, the attitudes and prejudices of the Japanese toward Koreans and of Koreans toward Japanese. This story is about how Sugihara tries to escape these prejudices.
Sugihara is a flawed and multi-dimensional character. Unlike Pachinko, whose main characters are a bit too perfect. Go is more critical of the Koreans as much as he is of the Japanese. By the end of the book, I see that Koreans are as prejudiced against the Japanese as the Japanese are against the Koreans, and this prejudice goes so deep and is so stubborn that it feels unsurmountable.
The book won a prestigious literary prize in Japan and was made into a movie.
You can find this book on my list of books about Japan.
By Hang Kang (2017)
The third book about Korea is by Han Kang called Human Acts. Even though I haven’t read it yet, I’m adding it to this list of books about Korea for several reasons. First It’s written by Han Kang, who wrote one of my favorite books here called The Vegetarian, Second, it’s about an incident I’m curious about–1980 Gwangju Uprising, an incident in which the Korean government massacred hundreds of Korean protestors. Third, it’s on pretty much every critic’s top 10 list of best books of 2017 (Amazon, Library Journal, NPR, The Atlantic).
The story is about the fifteen-year-old, Dong Ho, who was killed in the Gwangju Uprising, and the people around him whose lives were affected by the massacre and his death.
If you’ve read Human Acts, let me know what you think.
By Frances Cha (2020)
My rating: 5 out of 5 stars
I wanted to reach over and shake her by the shoulders. Stop running around like a fool, I wanted to say. You have so much and you can do anything you want.
I would live your life so much better than you, if I had your face.
I didn’t expect to like If I Had Your Face so much. But I did. Of all the books about Korea, this one by Frances Cha was the most unputdownable. It was such a fun read that if you do what I did and ignore everything else in your life to get to the ending, it shouldn’t take you too long to finish.
The book follows the lives of four young Korean women. There’s Ara, a mute hairstylist who while in high school wasn’t your stereotypical goody-goody study-hard kind of Korean teenager. Then there’s Kyuri, a beautiful but depressed room salon girl.
Miho is an artist who seems to have it all—a handsome rich boyfriend and the means to spend her days creating art. Finally, there’s Wonna, a strange married woman who’s pregnant with her first child. These women all live in the same apartment building in the heart of Seoul. They’re all just trying to make enough money to get by, have some fun, and find someone who will love them.
I read this book right after reading Birth of Korean Cool. The latter book made me think South Korea was this perfect society run by a perfect government. If I Had Your Face erased all that. Instead of popstars and power brokers, the book covers the seedy side of Korea with its elitism, misogyny, and inequality. The focus is not on the successful and wealthy but on the young and powerless women of Korea’s non-elite class—the hairstylists, room salon girls (hookers), and office workers. These are the women that Korean society chews up and spits out when they’re old and no longer beautiful anymore. It’s fascinating and heartbreaking.
By Lisa See (2019)
My rating: 3 out of 5 stars
We had yet another struggle between Shamanism, which was primarily for women, and Confucianism, which favored men. Confucius didn’t care much for women: When a girl, obey your father; when a wife, obey your husband; when a widow, obey your son. But when I was a girl, I obeyed my mother; when I was a wife, I had equal say to my husband; and now that I was a widow, my only son had to obey me.
I was really excited to read Lisa See’s new historical novel, The Island of Sea Women. I’ve read every single one of Lisa See’s books and I’ve loved nearly every one of them. And my favorite genre is historical fiction.
The story takes place on Korea’s Jeju Island between 1938 and 2008. It’s about the close friendship between Young-sook and Ma-ji, who are haenyeo, or sea women. The location is significant because Jeju Island has a matrifocal society, a society that focuses on women. In Jeju families, the men stay home and take care of the children, while the women provide for the family by diving into the freezing cold waters around the island hunting for abalone, sea urchin, and octopus.
Learning about the haenyeo was fascinating. But what was even more fascinating for me was learning about South Korean history after the war. It’s common knowledge that Korea suffered greatly under the Japanese, but not many people know of the suffering the Jeju people endured after the war finished at the hands of their fellow countrymen and with the backing of the United States government.
Although I enjoyed learning about the history and culture of the island, The Island of Sea Women had some flaws. See chose a boring and annoying main character in the self-righteous Yeong-sook. Mi-Ja, the daughter of the Japanese collaborator, had a more interesting and tragic life story. It would have been a better story if she had been the main character.
By Nam-Joo, Cho (2020)
My rating: 5 out of 5 stars
The world had changed a great deal, but the little rules, contracts, and customs had not, which meant the world hadn’t actually changed at all.
There’s nothing like a good book to help you escape from a global pandemic! Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 was the perfect antidote for my anxieties. I zipped through this engrossing novel by Nam-Joo Cho in one day.
Kim-jiyoung, Born 1982 was wildly popular in South Korea when it was published in 2016 even spawning Korea’s #MeToo movement and a backlash of misogynistic incidences across South Korea.
The book tells the life story of Kim Jiyoung, a thirty-year-old Korean mother, who inexplicably begins impersonating other people. Her husband takes her to a psychiatrist. That’s when the story takes an abrupt but still satisfying turn to the life story of Jiyoung’s told through the dry and detached voice of her psychiatrist.
On the surface, her story might seem boring as Jiyoung is nothing special. She’s just a typical Korean female. Yet her normalcy is what actually made the story so compelling for me. I was fascinated by all the endless incidences of gender discrimination that a typical Korean woman faces even before they leave their mother’s womb. As an American, I found some of these injustices to be shocking, while others were actually relatable.
By Chang-Rae Lee (1996)
My rating: 5 out of 5 stars
“He said you could tell about a person not from what he believed, but by what worried him.”
I first read Native Speaker when it came out in the 1990s, and I absolutely loved the book. It was one of the first books I’d read on the immigrant experience (now there are tons of books on the subject), and the one that sparked my interest in questions of identity and assimilation for immigrants and first-generation Americans.
Native Speaker is about Henry Park, a first-generation Korean American and professional spy. The spy part is what really makes this book stand out. Without it, it would be just another immigrant story.
Having learned from his father to hide his true feelings and to keep a distance from others, Henry is the perfect spy. all skills. But these are the same qualities that get in the way of his marriage and in the way of coping with his son’s and father’s deaths.
Henry is also struggling with his job. In his last assignment, he became too emotionally attached to his subject. And now with his current assignment, spying on the up-and-coming Korean-American politician, John Kwang, he’s facing his biggest challenge, a test of his own identity.
There are so many great subplots in this book: espionage, identity, loss of a child, difficult parents, a broken marriage. They all seem to gel together as well. I really got into the struggle Henry was faced with: doing his job as a spy and betraying his race or being loyal to his race and to someone he respects and believes in.
By Min Jin Lee (2017)
My rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
“We cannot help but be interested in the stories of people that history pushes aside so thoughtlessly.”
Written by Min Jin Lee, Pachinko is probably the most well-known book on this list of books about Korea. It was up for numerous literary awards in 2017 and if you look on Amazon it’s got a 4.5-star reader rating with over 4,000 reviews.
The story begins on the southern coast of Korea at the turn of the century when Korea was under Japanese rule. It’s about a Korean woman named Sunja who falls in love with the wrong man and gets pregnant. Luckily, a Christian minister agrees to marry her and take her to Japan. In Japan, her family grows and Sunja endures the hardships of war, poverty, and discrimination over the decades
Pachinko was a very moving and unputdownable book about a topic that I had heard about but didn’t know very deeply: the Japanese colonization of Korea and the discrimination Koreans have faced in Japan.
I loved the first one-third of Pachinko, liked the second part, but wasn’t so enamored with the last part. I felt the last section of the book, which takes place after the 1960s, was rushed and lacked the attention to detail and the emotion of the first two-thirds.
You can also find this book on my favorite books about Japan list.
By Kyung-Sook Shin (2011)
My rating: 5 out of 5 stars
“To you, Mom was always Mom. It never occurred to you that she had once taken her first step, or had once been three or twelve or twenty years old. Mom was Mom. She was born as Mom.”
Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin is a heartbreaking and emotional Korean novel about family, sacrifice, guilt, love, regret, and loss.
So-nyo and her husband are visiting their children in Seoul when her husband loses his wife at the Seoul Subway Station. For her children and husband, her disappearance triggers memories of events between them and their mother/wife. Through these memories, we get to see the life of a typical Korean family and how a mother and wife sacrifices herself for her family.
Please Look After Mom is divided into four parts. The first two parts are narrated by her daughter and son, the third part by the husband, and the last by the mother. The daughter had the strongest voice. But the husband’s part was the most emotional for me.
I highly recommend reading it, especially now during this pandemic as our elderly parents are being hit by this pandemic harder than anyone else. I read it twice: 2012 and 2020 and I can say now the story is much more emotional than it was when I read it back then. The book made me think about my own relationship with my mother. Regardless of what country you’re from, I think most people can relate to the story.
Don’t worry. The title makes it seem sappy and overly-sentimental, but it’s not at all.
By Han Kang (2016)
My rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
“Before my wife turned vegetarian, I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way. To be frank, the first time I met her I wasn’t even attracted to her.”
Written by Han Kang, The Vegetarian won’t be for everyone. Once I finished it, I wasn’t even sure it was for me. But at the same time, it’s been a week since I finished it, and I still can’t get it out of my mind. One the one hand, it’s bizarre, dark, and depressing. On the other hand, the writing is raw and poetic and the story is emotional.
The book is broken down into three parts: The Vegetarian, Mongolian Mark, and Flaming Trees. All three parts focus on the life and mental breakdown of Yeong-hye but they’re told from different points of view: the cold-hearted husband, the passionate brother-in-law, and the always responsible sister. We never get to find out what Yeong-hye is thinking. Even when someone bothers to ask her why she’s stopped eating meat, we get a vague answer having something to do with a dream.
I was completely engrossed in the first chapter, rushing through it to find out what provoked her to become a vegetarian. And then the second chapter abruptly stops being about Yeong-hye’s decision and becomes a story of obsession and art. In fact, the title is misleading. The book is nothing about vegetarianism.
To be honest, I’m not even sure what it’s about. but trying to discover its message is what partly made it so interesting for me. The writer says that it’s an allegory of South Korea, but since I don’t know the country well enough, I’m not sure what that is. For me, it seemed to be more about the choices we make in life. Do we hold on and take the responsible route or do we break down and succumb to our desires and dreams? On the other hand, it could also be about how people deal with abuse and tragedy. Do we hold on to our sanity or do we let go and succumb to our insanity?
I’m cautiously recommending The Vegetarian because I know that it’s not going to be for everyone. The narrative is not straightforward and the characters are bizarre and their motivations are incomprehensible at times. But if you’re a fan of good writing with profound themes, then you’ll enjoy–maybe enjoy is not a good word here—you’ll at least appreciate The Vegetarian.
Books about North Korea
Here are four fabulous books on North Korea. There’s one fiction book and three nonfiction books. Before reading the nonfiction books on North Korea, I’d read tons of books on China and I thought a book about North Korea wasn’t going to be much different, so I wasn’t that interested in reading them. I was so wrong! What makes these books below different is that they tell you about what it’s like to experience a famine, which the ones on China don’t.
By Barabara Demick (2009)
My rating: 6 out of 5 stars
“It is axiomatic that one death is a tragedy, a thousand is a statistic. So it was for Mi-ran. What she didn’t realize is that her indifference was an acquired survival skill. In order to get through the 1990s alive, one had to suppress any impulse to share food. To avoid going insane, one had to learn to stop caring.”
I bought Nothing to Envy over a year ago when Amazon was selling it for something like 99 cents. It had been gathering dust on my Kindle bookshelf until I went on this Korean reading binge last week. I read six books about Korea in seven days. I gave five of the seven a perfect five-star rating. Nothing to Envy, however, I’m cheating and I’m giving it six out of five stars. It is really, and I mean really THAT good. Let me just say: I reserve six stars only to those books that can make me cry, and I bawled like a baby at the end.
Nothing to Envy is written by Los Angeles Times journalist, Barbara Demick. It follows the heartbreaking but also uplifting life stories of six North Korean defectors. All six are fascinating, but my two favorites were Mrs. Song, a middle-aged woman who was unwaveringly loyal to the North Korean government until she saw her first electric rice cooker, and the orphan Hyuk, who when faced with the option to starve or steal, chose the latter.
A great deal of the book focuses on the famine that took place in the 1990s. It was both horrifying and fascinating reading about what goes on physically and mentally in people when they’re starving to death. I kept on thinking about how I and people in my country would react. Would I survive or die? How would most Americans react?
The other thing that I loved was reading about how these North Koreans adapted to life in South Korea. It told me a lot about the human condition and why some people are happy and others not.
By Adam Johnson (2012)
My rating: 3 out of 5 stars
“But people do things to survive, and then after they survive, they can’t live with what they’ve done.”
Winner of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize, The Orphan Master’s Son, is one of those rare novels set in North Korea (I don’t know of any other novel set in North Korea). The book is the life story of Pak Jun Do, a boy who begins life as an orphan or perhaps as the title suggests the son of an orphan master. Jun Do’s thinking is that since he received the worst treatment at the orphanage, he must have been the orphan master’s son. I know. It doesn’t seem logical, but not much in this book does.
That’s just one of many bizarre moments in the book that I was never sure whether it was real or not. The Orphan Master’s Son contains page after page of unimaginable pain and suffering. It can get really heavy and depressing at times. It’s not a book that I could read for long periods of time.
The book is divided into two parts. The first part is a straightforward account of the life of Pak Jun Do. He experiences tons of hardships but eventually grows up to become a professional kidnapper. In the second part, the story gets stranger when Pak Jun Do turns into the powerful Commander Ga.
I read books set in other countries to find out about the other country. But since this was written by an American writing about what he thinks North Korea is like, I’m not sure how credible it is. His story is filled with the most extremes of our North Korean fantasies. It’s my least favorite book on this list of books about Korea.
By Masaji Ishikawa (2018)
My rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
“Serfdom is freedom. Repression is liberation. A police state is a democratic republic. And we were the masters of our own destiny. And if we begged to differ, we were dead.”
A River in Darkness is a memoir by Korean-Japanese Masaji Ishikawa, who “immigrated” with his family from Japan to North Korea when he was 13 years old.
Born to a Japanese mother and a Korean father in 1947, Masaji’s family was tricked into immigrating along with thousands of other Koreans. In his memoir, Masaji writes about his experience growing up in both countries and then his eventual escape from North Korea in 1996.
His story like all books about North Korea is heartbreaking. What makes A River in Darkness from other books on North Korea, though, is that because Masaji had seen what life was like outside of North Korea, he knew throughout his life that what he was being told by North Korea was a lie. And because he was part Japanese, his family’s treatment was even worse than an average Korean. There is a lot of bitterness and anger in this story that you don’t find in most other ones of totalitarian countries (Russia, China, and North Korea).
If you’re going to read one book on North Korea, I would choose Nothing to Envy over A River in Darkness. Masaji isn’t a professional writer, so the writing in this book is just not as good. It’s also a rather short book that lacks a comprehensive analysis of and some needed background on North Korea. There are also some things in the book that are a bit muddled (it says his family moved to Nakano but then it talks about Masaji wandering the streets of Tokyo). There are also some things in A River in Darkness that don’t jive with Nothing to Envy (a more thoroughly researched book) such as when or why the famine started.
However, if you’re looking for a short book to read in a day or on a plane ride, A River of Darkness is a good choice.
By Suki Kim (2014)
My rating: 5 out of 5 stars
“Sometimes the longer you are inside a prison, the harder it is to fathom what is possible beyond its walls.”
I absolutely adored Without You There is No Us by Suki Kim. My only regret is that I borrowed instead of bought the book. I’m writing this review from memory and from notes I had taken when I first read the book.
Suki Kim is a journalist who goes to North Korea to teach English. Before reading this book, I had no idea you could teach English in North Korea. A Christian missionary group was given permission by the North Korean government to send English teachers (also missionaries) to teach at an elite university in Pyongyang.
Kim doesn’t go into detail about the gulags or torture chambers of North Korea that we hear about from the U.S. government. She keeps it focused on her observations of and experiences with her students and colleagues. I found her account more authentic than anyone else’s that I’ve read because she doesn’t focus on the sensational and the men in power. Yes, these are the elite, but they’re also quite naïve and innocent children.
If you’ve taught English overseas like I have, I think you’ll enjoy Without You There is No Us.
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So that’s my list of best books about Korea. I read most of these books about Korea in a little over seven days during a pandemic. They were the BEST antidote to my anxiety and worries that I’d been suffering through since mid-March.
There are so many great books on this list, but I think I’ve come up with my five favorite books in order from my absolute favorite to my fifth favorite. However, books 2 through 4 could easily be switched around.
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Looking for more books to help you escape to another country? Check these out:
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- Best 25 Nonfiction Books About China: Read Before You Go!
- 15 Best Books on Korea: Read Before You Go!
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- Understanding Pandemics: A Reading List for Travelers