Korea Yearbook 2008Korea Yearbook 2008
Eds Rüdiger Frank, James E Hoare, Patrick Köllner, Susan Pares
Brill, 2009
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The 2008 Korea Yearbook – Politics, Economy and Society does many of the things that a reader might expect: it contains a collection of papers which review the key developments in its chosen subject areas for the past year. At its core are four articles by acknowledged experts which pull together in one place a narrative of the two Koreas for the year. Jim Hoare reviews the international relations of the two Koreas and the ups and downs of the inter-Korea relationship, while Patrick Köllner looks at political and economic developments in the South. Both provide a valuable service in trimming down the wealth of available information into a digestible package. Both scholars will have been faced with the challenge of what bits to leave out. Rüdiger Frank, on the other hand, has the task of constructing a picture of the DPRK politics and economy from the veiled clues provided in the New Year Editorial, KCNA press releases and the proceedings of the annual plenary session of the Supreme People’s Assembly. Not a task to be undertaken lightly, but Frank provides an interpretation of the tea-leaves which will be of use to specialists and non-specialists alike.

Those who are immersed day-to-day in reading the news clippings on Korean politics and the six party talks might think that they aren’t going find anything new in a Yearbook. But even the handful of people who think they could have dashed off one of the opening four chapters from memory will find new material in the rest of the book.

Possibly the “scoop” in this particular collection is the paper by C Kenneth Quinones entitled The US-DPRK 1994 Agreed Framework and the US Army’s Return to North Korea. How many general Koreanists knew that US military personnel have worked alongside DPRK soldiers in recovering the remains of nearly 500 US soldiers killed in the Korean war? The author shows understandable irritation that the joint recovery exercises, which provided valuable insights into conditions in the North as well as less tangible relationship building aspects, were unilaterally cancelled by Donald Rumsfeld in May 2005.

Mark Morris examines two recent films dealing in very different ways with the Kwangju uprising: Im Sang-soo’s under-rated Old Garden – an adaptation of Hwang Sok-yong’s novel – a rather touching melodrama which along the way mourns the years lost in jail by the Kwangju activists and resists the temptation to look back on the period with “political nostalgia”; and the big-budget May 18, clearly aimed at a mass audience with stars such as Ahn Sung-ki and Lee Jun-ki all geared towards attracting particular segments of the movie-going public.

The remaining in-depth studies examine

  • the shifting landscape of the fragmenting political parties under Roh Moo-hyun’s presidency (Youngmi Kim);
  • the issues facing the South Korean higher education system (Peter Mayer);
  • the apparent tensions between South Korea’s (pre Lee Myung-bak) engagement policy with the North and the more hard-line military policy (Alon Levkowitz);
  • ways of analysing the DPRK’s market reforms (Patrick McEachern)
  • the history of the ROK’s recent economic engagement with the north (Kyung-tae Lee and Hyung-gon Jeong);
  • some of the landmarks in ROK-Japan relations in since the end of the Pacific War (John Swenson-Wright).

Finally, the detailed chronologies, prepared by Susan Pares, of events on the peninsular and elsewhere during 2007 remind us of other topics which could have provided fruitful material for articles. A stimulating collection, marred only by the rather steep price tag (~£55), caused in part by the decline in sterling.

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