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Some non-fiction titles we can’t wait to read in 2020 [updated]

Non fiction books 2020

Outside of the wide range of upcoming literature and fiction titles, there’s plenty of non-fiction to look forward to as well. I’ve already highlighted three titles on Korean film which look worth exploring, and here’s the remainder of my 2020 reading longlist (which includes some titles from very late in 2019), split between (1) Books on North Korea; (2) Pre-modern Korea; (3) 20th century Korea.

And of the below, which titles make up my shortlist? Probably:

  • Keith Howard on North Korean music;
  • George Kallander’s edition of the 1636 Namhansanseong diary;
  • Christopher Lovins on King Jeongjo;
  • Heonik Kwon on the “intimate history” of the Korean War; and
  • Christina Klein on 1950s Korean cinema.

Fingers crossed that they live up to expectation.

North Korea

Books on North Korea

Two recently-published accessible books provide relief against the more serious-minded volumes that tend to come out on the subject of the North Korean leadership and foreign policy. Nick Bonner’s collection of linocut and woodblock prints forms a companion piece to his 2017 publication Made in North Korea, while I hope that Michael Palin includes the anecodote of showing his North Korean minders a video of the Monty Python fish-slapping dance. And coming in March (though these dates are never 100% reliable) is “first book-length account of North Korean music and dance in any language other than Korean” – definitely one that will end up on my reading pile. And if I have time and space, an interesting account of the origins of the DPRK nuclear programme might just get a look-in.

Author Title Month Order
Michael Palin North Korea Journal
Hutchinson hardback, 176 pages
“Palin expands on his Channel 5 documentary with this absorbing and beautifully illustrated day-by-day account.” (Daily Mirror)
“A fascinating proposition … [a] winning mix of genuine interest, good-humoured charm and that deceptively steely nose for humbug.” (Wanderlust)
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Nick Bonner Printed in North Korea: The Art of Everyday Life in the DPRK
Phaidon hardback, 204 pages
“The book is a revelation. Beautifully produced and and edited, it offers a portrait of life in North Korea that few of us will ever have seen before. Page after page of colourful images strip away the darkness and secrecy with which the DPRK is so often associated. The range and accomplishment of the local artists and printmakers is often dazzling. If you want to learn about life in this most reticent and yet fascinating of countries this book is both essential and irresistible.” (Michael Palin)
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Robert K Wilcox Japan’s Secret War: How Japan’s Race to Build its Own Atomic Bomb Provided the Groundwork for North Korea’s Nuclear Program
Permuted Press; Revised, Updated edition paperback, 304 pages
After decades of research into national intelligence archives both in the US and abroad, Robert Wilcox builds on his earlier accounts and provides the most detailed account available of the creation of Japan’s version of our own Manhattan Project–from the project’s inception before America’s entry into WWII, to the possible detonation of a nuclear device in 1945 in present-day North Korea. Wilcox weaves a fascinating portrait of the secret giant industrial complex in northern Korea where Japan’s atomic research and testing culminated. And it is there that North Korea, following the Japanese defeat, salvaged what remained of the complex and fashioned its own nuclear program.
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Keith Howard Songs for “Great Leaders”: Ideology and Creativity in North Korean Music and Dance
OUP USA hardback, 360 pages
Through an exceptionally wide range of sources and a perspective of deep cultural competence, Howard explores old revolutionary songs and new pop songs, developments of Korean instruments, the creation of revolutionary operas, and mass spectacles, as well as dance and dance notation, and composers and compositions.
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Joseon dynasty and earlier

Joseon history books

First, three books that I’m really looking forward to reading – and I’m sorry that I’m going to have to wait until the late summer or autumn for two of them. Of particular interest is the eye-witness account from inside Namhansanseong during its seige by the Manchu invaders in the winter of 1636-7. But the rise of Korean vernacular storytelling looks like it could be fascinating too. And while I’m waiting for those, Christopher Lovins’s examination of King Jeongjo’s reign, informed in part by the recently discovered collection of private letters written by the king himself, should provide a welcome foil for my literature reading.

Early arts books

Later this year, the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco will be holding an exhibition entitled Likeness and Legacy in Korean Portraiture. A publication to coincide with that exhibition looks like it will be an appealing volume to have on the shelves, with a few related essays as well as images of many of the works to be displayed. Turning back the clock to the Silla dynasty, archaeologist and anthropologist Sarah Milledge Nelson presents what looks to be a handsome book on its capital, while Sujung Kim looks at the cult of the “god of Silla” in Japan.

Author Title Month Order
Sujung Kim Shinra Myojin and Buddhist Networks of the East Asian “Mediterranean”
University of Hawai’i hardback, 200 pages
This ambitious work offers a transnational account of the deity Shinra Myōjin, the “god of Silla” worshipped in medieval Japanese Buddhism from the eleventh to sixteenth centuries.
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Sarah Milledge Nelson Gyeongju: The Capital of Golden Silla
Routledge paperback, 164 pages
Gyeongju explores culture, class and rank, industry, international relations, rulers, and socio-cultural issues such as gender, and examines in detail the complex systems of class and rank, Gyeongju’s position as the royal seat of Silla, and the influence and legacy of the ancient city.
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Various Likeness and Legacy in Korean Portraiture
Asian Art Museum of San Francisco paperback, 80 pages
This important book examines the history, process and significance of official portrait making during Korea’s Joseon dynasty (1392-1910). Published in association with the exhibition at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco: April 10 – August 16, 2020
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Christopher Lovins King Chongjo, an Enlightened Despot in Early Modern Korea
State University of New York Press paperback, 246 pages
Using a comparative perspective that places Chŏngjo, king of Korea from 1776 to 1800, in context with other Korean kings and with contemporary Chinese and European rulers, Christopher Lovins examines the shifting balance of power in Korea in favor of the crown at the expense of the aristocracy during the early modern period.
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Na Man’gap / George Kallander The Diary of 1636: The Second Manchu Invasion of Korea
Columbia University Press paperback, 352 pages
The Korean scholar-official Na Man’gap (1592-1642) recorded the second Manchu invasion in his Diary of 1636, the only first-person account chronicling the dramatic Korean resistance to the attack. Partly composed as a narrative of quotidian events during the siege of Namhansanseong, where Na sought refuge with the king and other officials, the diary recounts Korean opposition to Manchu and Mongol forces and the eventual surrender.
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Si Nae Park The Korean Vernacular Story: Telling Tales of Contemporary Choson in Sinographic Writing
Columbia University Press hardback, 320 pages
As the political, economic, and cultural center of Choson Korea, eighteenth-century Seoul epitomized a society in flux: It was a bustling, worldly metropolis into which things and people from all over the country flowed. In this book, Si Nae Park examines how the culture of Choson Seoul gave rise to a new vernacular literary form, with a vision of catering to a larger audience.
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20th century

20th Century books

One side-effect of the growth in popularity of K-pop in the West is a slew of unofficial profiles of the various groups, clearly aimed at the fan market. As I trawled through the internet in researching this list I came across two Blackpink and one EXO profile before moving on, realising that if there weren’t at least five similar books on BTS out already there soon will be. Signs of scholarly interest in the phenomenon show no signs of abating, though Korea University Press’s collection of essays (Transcultural Fandom and the Globalization of Hallyu) edited by an international trio of scholars (Keith Howard, Nissim Otmazgin and Gil-sung Park) doesn’t have a publication date yet.

Korean Art from 195370 years after the start of the Korean War, that conflict still provides a rich source of research topics. Ian McLaine’s book examines the war’s impact on US-UK relations, while Heonik Kwon looks at its impact in the private realm. Books on gender, the colonial period, 1950s film and the Korean diaspora in Japan all look like they are worth exploring.

And an addendum, with thanks to Timothy Holm for pointing it out: a handsome looking collection of articles on post-war Korean art from Phaidon. Having checked the details on Amazon, it appears that there are plenty of full colour illustrations, and it looks like this could be a useful supplement to existing works by Charlotte Horlyck, Joan Kee and Kim Youngna.

Author Title Month Order
Jooyeon Rhee The Novel in Transition: Gender and Literature in Early Colonial Korea
Cornell East Asia Series paperback, 240 pages
The masculine norms and principles articulated in novels, Rhee argues, are indicative of writers’ and translators’ negotiation with political and cultural forces of the time; their observations of the ambiguity of modernity manifest in the figure of mobile, motivated, and forward-looking woman and immobile, emotional, and suppressed men.
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Myung Ja Kim The Korean Diaspora in Post War Japan: Geopolitics, Identity and Nation-Building
I.B. Tauris paperback, 288 pages
Myung Ja Kim examines Japan’s changing national policies towards the Zainichi in order to understand why this group has not been fully integrated into Japan. Through the prism of this ethnically Korean community, the book reveals the dynamics of alliances and alignments in East Asia, including the rise of China as an economic superpower, the security threat posed by North Korea and the diminishing alliance between Japan and the US.
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Todd A. Henry (ed) Queer Korea
Duke University Press paperback, 408 pages
Since the end of the nineteenth century, the Korean people have faced successive waves of foreign domination, authoritarian regimes, forced dispersal, and divided development. Throughout these turbulent times, “queer” Koreans were ignored, minimized, and erased in narratives of their modern nation, East Asia, and the wider world. This interdisciplinary volume challenges such marginalization through critical analyses of non-normative sexuality and gender variance.
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Christina Klein Cold War Cosmopolitanism: Period Style in 1950s Korean Cinema
University of California paperback, 304 pages (free ebook download)
A transnational cultural history of South Korean film style in the 1950s, focusing on the works of Han Hyung-mo, director of the era’s most glamorous and popular women’s pictures, including the blockbuster Madame Freedom (1956). Klein combines nuanced readings of Han’s sophisticated style with careful attention to key issues of modernity-such as feminism, cosmopolitanism, and consumerism-in the first monograph devoted to this major Korean director.
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Yeon Shim Chung at al (Eds) Korean Art from 1953: Collision, Innovation, Interaction
Phaidon hardback, 360 pages
Starting with the armistice that divided the Korean Peninsula in 1953, this one-of-a-kind book spotlights the artistic movements and collectives that have flourished and evolved throughout Korean culture over the past seven decades – from the 1950s avant-garde through to the feminist scene in the 1970s, the birth of the Gwangju Biennale in the 1990s, the lesser known North Korean art scene, and all the artists who have emerged to secure a place in the international art world.
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Ian McLaine A Korean Conflict: The Tensions between Britain and America
Bloomsbury Academic paperback, 352 pages
In 1950, just five years after the end of World War II, Britain and America again went to war–this time to try and combat the spread of communism in East Asia following the invasion of South Korea by communist forces from the North. This book charts the course of the UK-US ‘special relationship’ from the journey to war beginning in 1947 to the fall of the Labour government in 1951.
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Hoenik Kwon After the Korean War: An Intimate History
Cambridge University Press hardback, 246 pages
Following his prizewinning studies of the Vietnam War, renowned anthropologist Heonik Kwon presents this ground-breaking study of the Korean War’s enduring legacies seen through the realm of intimate human experience. Kwon boldly reclaims kinship as a vital category in historical and political enquiry and probes the grey zone between the modern and the traditional (and between the civil and the social) in the lived reality of Korea’s civil war and the Cold War more broadly.
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David Fedman Seeds of Control: Japan’s Empire of Forestry in Colonial Korea
University of Washington Press hardback, 288 pages
Japanese colonial rule in Korea (1905-1945) ushered in natural resource management programs that profoundly altered access to and ownership of the peninsula’s extensive mountains and forests. Under the banner of “forest love,” the colonial government set out to restructure the rhythms and routines of agrarian life, targeting everything from home heating to food preparation. Timber industrialists, meanwhile, channeled Korea’s forest resources into supply chains that grew in tandem with Japan’s imperial sphere.
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Happy reading, and let me know of major upcoming titles that are missing from the above list.

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