Friday, March 7, 2014

K-Pop Now by Mark James Russell (2014)

::The Skinny::

Title:  K-Pop Now!: The Korean Music Revolution

Written by:  Mark James Russell

Language:  English

Publication year:  2014

Pages:  128 pages

Price:  $15.95 at

In less than 30 words:  Good introduction to the current state of Korea's idol pop music

Reading List category:  Pop culture

Keyword(s):  K-pop

Writing style:  Easygoing, familiar.

Rating:  4 stars

::The Review::

Note:  I received a review copy of this book from Tuttle Publishing and Mr. Russell.

K-pop is a phenomenon that is desperately in need of an able-handed chronicler. Despite its global success, there is a real dearth in the English-speaking world of people who can explain K-pop--what it is, where it came from, and how it is now. Although this void cannot be plugged by a single person, Mark James Russell shines a welcome light into it. Keen-eyed and resourceful, Russell has regularly provided valuable insight into today's Korean pop music that is both historical and comparative. Russell's celebration of K-pop is jubilant but sober. Because Russell understands that a cultural phenomenon does not just happen overnight, he pays proper homage to K-pop's history and the people who created it even though they may not be readily visible in the current K-pop trend.

One can catch a glimpse of Russell's perspective in his second book, K-Pop Now. The book begins with a brief introduction of Korea as a country, then provides several interviews with K-pop artists (Kevin Kim from Ze:A and Brian Joo from Fly to the Sky) as well as K-pop "distributors" (Simon and Martina Stawski from Eat Your Kimchi). Then the book devotes its remaining pages to brief introduction of more than 30 major K-pop acts such as Big Bang and Girls' Generation.

K-Pop Now is not a treatise of everything there is to know about Korean pop music. Like the stars it covers, the book is glossy, thin and image-heavy. Russell's insight is more readily available in the introductory passages, as the later parts of the book are not much more than a series of quick presentations about K-pop artists. None of this is meant as a criticism. The book is properly understood as a breezy introduction to a slice of Korean pop music scene, which is hardly a reason to complain: everyone needs an introduction to a given topic before they explore further.

As someone who writes frequently about K-pop, I do have a couple of quibbles with this book. First, although Russell tips his hat toward the rich tradition of Korean pop music that dates back to the 1920s, the actual coverage of the book is almost entirely limited to what is more properly characterized as "idol pop" than "K-pop." Plainly, the word "K-pop" means "Korean pop music," and Russell agrees with this definition. But even as Russell states that "the term stands for much more than that," reading K-Pop Now leaves the impression that "K-pop" means much less than "Korean pop music." Although Korean pop music encompasses much more than the manufactured idol pop music, the book only covers three artists who are not peddlers of idol pop. Given this, the book's inclusion of CN Blue--a corporate band that was engineered to look like a faux indie act--is borderline insulting. Why not cover one more real Korean indie band in its stead?

Second, where is Lee Hyo-ri? Even one stays within the narrow definition of K-pop, the omission of the reigning queen of Korean pop music and one of the most influential female artists in the history of Korean pop music is a major oversight.

But again, there is no need to put too fine a point on these quibbles. As long as one understands K-Pop Now is an introduction and not the entire universe, it will be worth the reader's time.

The Bottom Line:  Read this book if you would like to learn more about the current state of K-pop, without losing sight of the fact that there is more to Korean pop music than idol pop music.

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Sunday, October 20, 2013

북한 50년사 by 임영익 (1999)

::The Skinny::

Title:  북한 50년사 [The 50-Year History of North Korea]

Written by:  임영익 [Im Yeong-ik]

Language:  Korean

Publication year:  1999.

Pages:  Volume 1 - 428 pages; Volume 2 - 438 pages

Price:  $13.20 per volume at

In less than 30 words:  North Korean history that is rich in detail, albeit at times uncomfortably biased.

Reading List category:  History, North Korea

Keyword(s):  Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il

Writing style:  Academic, dry, dense

Rating:  3 stars

::The Review::

The lowest form of book review is to complain about how the author did not write the book that the critic wanted him to write, or did not set the tone of the book in the way in which the critic would have preferred. But can there be an exception made for a book dealing with unquestionably the worst authoritarian regime currently existing?

북한 50년사 [The 50-Year History of North Korea] is an overview of North Korean history, starting from the events that led to the division of the Korean Peninsula in the mid-1940s to the late 1990s, as North Korea was undergoing a massive famine that revealed to the world of its abysmal failure. For an overview of North Korean history, one can do much, much worse. The book is chock full of factlets, data and first-person accounts about North Korea--so much so that it makes for a slogging read at times. In two volumes, the book attempts to be as comprehensive as possible. In few other books about North Korea have I seen an attempt to cover not only its political and economic system, but also its art, literature, and the day-to-day life of ordinary North Koreans.

Such nuanced treatment of North Korea cannot happen without some level of sympathy for the North Korean regime itself. Im Yeong-ik manages to restrain himself in the earlier volume, as his tone is measured and fair as he describes North Korea. But in the later volume, the restraint is loosened: even as Im describes North Korea's horrific famine that its regime inflicted upon its people, he admires (to paraphrase) "North Korea's strong and independent stance of refusing to join the global capitalistic order imposed by the United States." Even as the reader appreciates the amount of work and information that the writer devoted to his books, this is difficult to bear.

The Bottom Line:  Read this book if you want to learn a great deal of facts about North Korea as a matter of overview, but prepare to grit your teeth at a little bit at the author's tone.

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Monday, October 7, 2013

Pyongyang: a Journey in North Korea by Guy Delisle (2005)

::The Skinny::

Title: Pyongyang: a Journey in North Korea

Written by:  Guy Delisle

Language:  English

Publication year:  2005.

Pages:  176 pages.

Price:  $9.96 at

In less than 30 words:  Though limited, a lovely travelogue of Pyongyang.

Reading List category:  North Korea

Keyword(s): Pyongyang, Graphic novel

Writing style:  Graphic novel with attractive style, witty and keen

Rating:  4 stars

::The Review::

In 2001, French-Canadian cartoonist Guy Delisle traveled to North Korea for two months on a work visa to supervise the animation of a children's cartoon show, which was commissioned by a French animation studio. As he supervised a team of North Korean animators, Delisle experienced the terrible hotel, constant "companionship" of his handlers and a barrage of over-the-top propaganda typical of North Korea. Later, Delisle turned his experience into a graphic travelogue.

The content of the book is not particularly special. Although North Korea is very isolated, a small cohort of international tourists have visited Pyongyang and wrote about their experience. Delisle's account does not deviate much from their stories: they all experienced constant surveillance from their handlers, subpar accommodations and a steady stream of propaganda. More importantly, like most of the international visitors, Delisle did not get to travel freely into the more despair-inducing parts of North Korea.

Where Delisle's book shines, however, is the presentation. Because filming freely in North Korea is virtually impossible, Delisle's graphic travelogue provides an important means through which the reader can visualize Pyongyang. Delisle's drawings are attractive in their combination of minimalism and sharp eyes for details. In Delisle's skillful presentation, the reader can picture herself in Pyongyang in a way that she likely cannot do with written words.

In fact, even if filming was freely allowed in North Korea, Delisle's travel accounts would have added something new. His clever and witty manner of story telling, embedded in the keen but delicate representation of what he saw in Pyongyang, conveys real emotions at every turn: unease and creepiness, yet surprising humanity and empathy. No amount of film making, for example, would have properly conveyed the depressingly fake smiles of the little girls playing accordions en masse. Even when we hear the same joke, we laugh harder when the delivery is good.

The Bottom Line:  Read this book if you are not familiar with the standard North Korean travelogue, as Pyongyang may represent the best of them.

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Saturday, September 28, 2013

서울을 먹다 by 황교익 and 정은숙 (2013)

::The Skinny::

Title:  서울을 먹다 [Eating Seoul]

Written by:  황교익 [Hwang Gyo-ik], 정은숙 [Jeong Eun-suk]

Language:  Korean

Publication year:  2013.

Pages:  429 pages.

Price:  $16.42 at

In less than 30 words:  Excellent on-the-ground level survey of Korean food available in Seoul.

Reading List category:  Food

Keyword(s):  Seoul, Food history

Writing style:  Dry but friendly. Vivid and detail-oriented.

Rating:  5 stars

::The Review::

Although Korean food is increasingly becoming a part of the global cuisine, the books dealing with Korean food--even those in the Korean language--are often unsatisfactory. Some of the books, in a misguided attempt to "globalize" Korean food, conjure up an imaginary figure of "the international audience," and try to cater to that imaginary figure's interest in the Korean food. Such books focus more on what they consider to be haute cuisine of Korean food (e.g. the "royal cuisine," the "temple cuisine", etc.,) losing sight on the kinds of Korean food that Korean people actually eat on a daily basis.

Hwang Gyo-ik has been leading the charge on countering such trend. His books and columns about Korean food relentlessly focus on the Korean food that Korean people actually eat, and how they came to eat that food. In other words, Hwang's food writing never loses sight of Korea's reality on the ground-level; in doing so, Hwang cuts through much of the fat that infects the discourse about Korean food.

In Eating Seoul, Hwang teams up with Jeong Eun-suk, a noted food writer who chronicled the international spread of Korean food, particularly in Japan. Together, the authors take a saunter through various parts of Seoul. They eschew the shiny streets of Gangnam and opt for the narrow, winding alleys of Eulji-ro and Yeongdeungpo. There, they tell the stories about the food of the people rather than the food of the promoters--not 한우 [hanu] beef or 신선로 [shinseollo], but 순대 [blood sausages], 족발 [pig trotters] and 삭힌 홍어 [fermented skate].

Such stories invariably move toward history, which reflects the rough-and-tumble history of modern Korea. Unlike the pretentious books that purport to introduce Korean food to the world, Hwang and Jeong focus on the small storefronts that sold the same food for decades. Their stories are rarely glorious--for example, 돼지갈비 [marinated pork] was born in an attempt to create a knockoff of marinated beef (which was the gold standard of Korean barbecue) in the mid-1950s, in the immediate aftermath of the Korean War. The writers heap a generous portion of the humble restauranteurs' own words, leaving no doubt that the book is about reality on the ground.

The Bottom Line:  Read this book if you would like to get a glimpse of the people's plates in Seoul--where they are, how they taste, and how they came to be.

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Monday, September 16, 2013

기시 노부스케와 박정희 by 강상중 et al (2010)

::The Skinny::

Title:  기시 노부스케와 박정희: 다카키 마사오, 박정희에게 만주국이란 무엇이었는가 [Kishi Nobusuke and Park Chung-hee: What Manchukuo was to Takaki Masao, Park Chung-hee]

Original Title:  Dainihon manshu teikoku no isan

Written by:  강상중 [Kang Sang-jung], 현무암 [Hyeon Mu-am].

Translated by:  이목 [Yi Mok].

Language:  Korean

Publication year:  2010.

Pages:  312 pages.

Price:  $34 at Bandi Books US

In less than 30 words:  Highly insightful book that connects the most important leaders of Korea and Japan, through the prism of Manchukuo

Reading List category:  History, Society

Keywords:  Park Chung-hee, Manchuria, Japanese imperialism

Writing style:  Academic. Dry but not dense. Breezy read.

Rating:  4 stars

::The Review::

As enough time has passed since Korea was liberated from Imperial Japan, there has been a growing body of literature in Korean language, by scholars domestic and abroad, that attempts to confront Imperial Japan's impact on Korea's modernization. Written by a Korean-Japanese scholar, originally in Japanese, 기시 노부스케와 박정희 adds an important angle to this discussion: the role of Manchukuo to both post-war Japan and post-war Korea.

Manchukuo is the puppet government that the Imperial Japan established in Manchuria, as it advanced to conquer China prior to World War II. This newly established state became a hothouse for ambitious young Japanese leaders, allowing them to test daring economic and social policies that they were not otherwise able to at home. Manchuria also became a land of opportunity for Koreans. Disenfranchised by the Japanese at home, Koreans moved to Manchuria in droves, searching for open land and chances for advancement. (It is a historical tragedy that such land and advancement came at the cost of the Chinese who previously were living in Manchuria--a recurring pattern in the history of imperialism.) So perhaps it was fate that the two men who would largely shape post-war Japan and post-war Korea--Kishi Nobusuke and Park Chung-hee--cut their teeth in the Manchukuo system.

While the book is an easy read, it is not a broad overview. It requires a solid foundation of background knowledge about how Korea and Japan developed after World War II to properly understand its thesis. Without such background knowledge, this book would be difficult to follow. However, for those equipped with such knowledge, 기시 노부스케와 박정희 paints a fascinating picture of the land that was Asia's answer to the Wild Wild West. (It is not a coincidence that The Good, The Bad, the Weird, the recent Korean movie that attempted to show the "Cowboy Eastern", was set in Manchuria of the 1940s.) For those interested in modern East Asian history, the book illuminates a blind spot for many.

The Bottom Line:  Read this book if you have a solid base of knowledge about post-war East Asia, and wish to explore further into the past.

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Saturday, September 14, 2013

Korea, the Impossible Country by Daniel Tudor (2012)

::The Skinny::

Title:  Korea, the Impossible Country

Written by:  Daniel Tudor

Language:  English

Publication year:  2012.

Pages:  336 pages.

Price:  $16.25 at

In less than 30 words:  Excellent overview of South Korean history and society that hits just the right notes.

Reading List category:  Society, Culture

Keyword(s):  Overview, Contemporary Korean society

Writing style:  Breezy, witty, easy-read

Rating:  5 stars

::The Review::

Note:  I received a review copy of the translated version of this book from Mr. Tudor.

It is clear that Daniel Tudor, formerly with the Economist magazine, loves Korea. In the media interview about this book, Tudor often recounts the electric excitement he felt when he first visited Korea in 2002, in the middle of FIFA World Cup that Korea co-hosted with Japan. What is admirable is that Tudor did not let his love for Korea devolve into wide-eyed orientalism. In Korea, the Impossible Country, Tudor explains Korea like a person in a long-term relationship about her partner. He praises Korea for its unusual achievements, but does not avert his eyes from its unusual problems either. In both cases, his tone is constant and warm, being neither overly excited nor unduly critical.

In Impossible Country, Tudor introduces the contemporary Korean society by arranging a grand tour of Korea, touching upon its modern history, social zeitgeist, pop culture, aesthetics, religions and social mores. Tudor's treatment of these topics is brief, but not cursory. He does a great job of finding granular factoids--many of which are probably not commonly known even among Koreans--that are both interesting and properly representative of the aspect of Korea that he explains. One of the ways in which Tudor achieves this is by actually talking to, and getting the voices of, the Koreans on the ground. (Many books in English about Korea eschews this seemingly obvious step.) In particular, the interview with a mudang [무당], i.e. a shaman, was particularly entertaining.

Impossible Country is also excellent in providing significant counter-currents within the Korean culture, which is essential for the reader to avoid reducing Korea into a series of stereotypes. For example, as the book discusses han [한]--a sorrowful emotion that is widely recognized to form a significant strain in Korean aesthetics--Tudor introduces a novelist who claims that han is a relatively new concept implanted by Imperial Japan in the early 20th century as it was colonizing Korea. Regardless of the strength of this claim, simply introducing this claim does much to refresh the prevalent discussion about han that is often banal in English-language literature about Korea.

This book is not without faults. Although Impossible Country does a good job providing details, certain parts of the book seem a bit too hasty as it moves from Point A to Point B. In many parts, it overly relies on Confucianism to explain away characteristics of Korean society when jumping straight into the facts would have been preferable. But these are nits that need not concern the target audience for this book. 

The Bottom Line:  Read this book if you have no more than basic knowledge about Korea. Even if you consider yourself fairly proficient about Korea, there is enough in this book that may teach you a thing or two.

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Friday, September 13, 2013

K-Pop: Roots and Blossoming of Korean Popular Music by Kim Chang Nam (2012)

::The Skinny::

Title:  K-Pop -- Roots and Blossoming of Korean Popular Music

Written by:  Kim Chang Nam

Language:  English

Publication year:  2012.

Pages:  151 pages.

Price:  $17.50 at

In less than 30 words:  Brief overview of the history of K-pop that leaves out far too much.

Reading List category:  History, Pop culture

Keyword(s):  K-pop

Writing style:  Academic. Uneven, and at times disorganized.

Rating:  3 stars

::The Review::

The author of this book deserves a special mention. Professor Kim Chang-nam is himself a pretty important figure in Korean pop music history, as he was one of the leaders for 노래를 찾는 사람들 ["People who seek music"], one of the more important bands of the 1980s in Korea. Unfortunately, the book would have been better if Professor Kim simply wrote about his own story.

As of the writing of this review, this book is the only book in English that attempts to cover the entire history of Korean pop music, beginning in the 1920s. For a reader who knows absolutely nothing about the history of Korean pop music, this is an okay introduction. But ultimately, the slim 150-page book simply is not up to the task of describing nearly a century of Korean pop music history in adequate detail. Partly, that is because of insufficient number of pages, often filled up with large pictures.

But partly, it is also because of the deliberate choice that the author made:  Kim devotes approximately half of the book for the history between 1920s and 1990s, and the other half for 1990s to present, because he focuses more on the smaller definition of K-pop involving the current generation of idol groups. The result is, to me at least, a gross injustice in historical writing. Shin Joong-hyeon, Korea's "godfather of rock" and likely the most important figure in Korean pop music history, is described in two paragraphs--while discussion about the idol groups of the 2000s take up the last one-third of the book.

There are also irritating failures of execution in the book as well. The song's titles are translated without giving the original Korean title in the body of the book. (The book does have an index of songs with Korean script at the end.) The title of one of the most important songs in Korean pop music history, namely 황성옛터, is mistranslated: it should be The Old Castle Ruins rather than Vestiges of the Yellow Castle. (Professor Kim likely thought 황성 was 黃城 ("yellow castle"), but it is actually 荒城 ("castle ruins").) At p. 40, the book discusses the frequently appearing words in the K-pop songs of the 1970s without any citation. This study is a pioneering work by Professor Lee Yeong-Mi of Korea National University of Arts, and Lee deserves the credit.

The Bottom Line:  Read this book if you would like to learn more about the history of K-pop and unable to read in Korean, because you have no other choice. But know that even the 10th best book about the history of K-pop in Korean language is probably superior to this one.

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Thursday, September 12, 2013


Welcome to Reading Korea, from the Korean who brought you Ask a Korean! This blog will be the space for a bit more serious and focused study on Korea. Please take a look around the tabs across the top to get a feel for the purpose of the blog.

Right now the cupboard is bare, but that will change over time. In the next several days, I will unveil the reviews of the Korea-related books that I recently read. In the meantime, if you think there is a Korea-related book that I should not miss, or if you think this blog could use any tweaking, please feel free to send your suggestions at

As always, thank you for your support.