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Korea: A Century of Change, by Juergen Kleiner. Singapore: World Scientific Publishing Company, 2001, 425 pages. (ISBN 981-02-4657-9, cloth).

Reviewed by Carl Saxer
Yale University


Over the last several years a number of works have been published that seek to give an overview of modern Korean history. The book here under review, Korea: A Century of Change by Juergen Kleiner, a professor of international relations at Boston University, is one of them. Over twenty-three chapters the author, as he tells us, aims to give " a comprehensive account of Korean politics during the last hundred years. It is intended to enable the reader to study all important aspects of political developments on the peninsula and those surrounding the peninsula" (page viii).

Chapter One thus provides a very brief overview of Korean foreign relations since the 14th century, focusing on relations with China and ending with the early western attempts at establishing contacts with the country. The significantly longer Chapter Two then deals with the opening of Chosun and the international politics of rivalry around the peninsula, concluding with the establishment of Japanese supremacy on the peninsula. Already in this chapter the choices the author makes in what he deems significant strike the reader as slightly strange. The Kapsin coup attempt, for instance, is dealt with in less than one page, while the adventures of Paul Georg von Moellendorff take up more than twice the space. Chapter Three gives an overview of Japanese colonial policies and analyses briefly Korean attempts at resistance against colonial power. The author makes the tendentious claim that it is "difficult to have a balanced discussion with Koreans about the period of Japanese rule" (p. 43), and that after the war Japan did nothing to improve relations with Korea. He argues that "Japanese government officials made remarks of regret and apologies, but what was missing was a broad-based effort at reconciliation similar to the efforts of the Federal Republic of Germany towards France; but Japan is no Christian country" (p. 43).

Chapter Four deals with the liberation of the peninsula from Japanese rule and the establishment of two competing states. In Chapters Five and Six the author analyses the developments leading up to the Korean War, the war itself, and, using documents made available through the Cold War International History Project, argues that the question of who started the Korean War can now be firmly answered: Kim Il Sung was the driving force behind it, but he would not have been able to start the war without Stalin's consent and support. In Chapter Seven the author turns to the establishment of the Republic of Korea in 1948, the presidency of Rhee Syngman, his overthrow, and the founding of the Second Republic. The Park Chung Hee era is dealt with in Chapter Eight; Kleiner focuses particularly on Park's 1961 coup, the normalization with Japan, South Korean participation in the Vietnam War, and the critical 1971 presidential election. Chapter Nine examines the events leading up to the Yushin reforms, the new 1972 constitution, and the assassination of Park.

The coup by Chun Doo Hwan and his cohorts in the Hanahoe military faction is examined in Chapter Ten. The author deals both with the massacre in Kwangju and the trial against Kim Dae Jung in some detail. Chun Doo Hwan's consolidation of power is analyzed in Chapter Eleven, and here again the choices that the author makes in regards to what he feels is significant seem odd. While in Chapter 10 Kwangju is covered in less than two pages, the author spends more than eight pages going into detail about the downing of flight KE 007 and four pages examining the Rangoon bombing. Nowhere does he explain to the reader on what basis these events are emphasized over others. Chapter Twelve gives a good overview over the events leading up to the transition to democracy in the late 1980s; here Kleiner introduces discussion of both endogenous and exogenous issues, but rightly argues that it was mainly domestic factors that decided the outcome.

The first two years of the Roh administration are examined in Chapter Thirteen. The author argues that the 1990 three-party merger between Roh, Kim Young Sam, and Kim Jong Pil was "a step taken to overcome regionalism, which had been the greatest problem of the party system in the 6th Republic" (p.224However, Kleiner fails to mention that a reason for Kim Jong Pil joining the merger was the ruling party's wish to see the passage of a constitutional amendment that would put in place a cabinet system, for which a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly would be needed. Chapter Fourteen examines the reforms of Kim Young Sam, especially his failed attempts at ending 'money politics', before he turns to a detailed analysis of the "trial of the century" against the former presidents and their followers. The author argues that Kim Young Sam's change of heart, in which he decided to actively seek a special law to prosecute the former presidents, rather than leave the judgment to history, was due to political expediency and that Kim's inconsistency "contributed to legal confusion" (p. 244). The chapter concludes by briefly analyzing the 1997 presidential election that brought Kim Dae Jung to power and the policies he pursued after inauguration.

Chapter Fifteen offers a brief overview of the development of the Korean economy with slightly less than half of the chapter focusing on the 1997 financial crisis and subsequent recovery. In contrast to Adrian Buzo's recent The Making of Modern Korea, Kleiner makes no attempt at according North Korea equally full treatment. In fact, only two chapters deal with domestic developments in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea: Chapter Sixteen analyses the rise to power of Kim Il Sung and the establishment of the DPRK, while Chapter Seventeen provides discussion of Kim Jong Il's ascendancy, a brief examination of the food crisis in North Korea, and consideration of prospects for the future.

Chapters Eighteen to Twenty deal with the foreign relations of South Korea. Kleiner argues for minimal effect of foreign powers on South Korea's internal politics, stating that "even a mighty one like the US, had only limited influence" (p. 318). Chapter Twenty gives a detailed analysis of the background and implementation of the Northern Policy during the Roh administration; in fact, the book is at its best, as here, when it treats international politics. In Chapter Twenty One the foreign relations of North Korea, especially with its larger neighbors are examined. The next chapter, perhaps the strongest in the book, follows with a detailed analysis of the North Korean nuclear issue. Finally, in Chapter Twenty Three, the author looks at developments in the dialogue between the two Koreas over the last few decades.

Although, as noted, the choices Kleiner makes about what to regard as significant can strike the reader as odd, the book does give a comprehensive overview of the political developments on the Korean peninsula during the last century. However, the book is seriously marred by numerous typos. Here a few examples must suffice: for instance, although the term Chosun is used through most of the book, on page 29 one encounters Choson. Yun Po Sun is Yon Po Sun on page 159; on page 212 the Korea Annual becomes the Korean Annual. On page 232 Kim Dae Jung in 1993 is leaving for Oxford; in fact he went to Cambridge. Roh Tae Woo suffers particularly badly: on page 240 he is first referred to as Tae Woo, then later on the same page as Rho, on page 242 as Roh Taw Woo, and on page 327 as Roh Too Woo. Page 285, note 12 makes a reference to a work by a Maretzki, but a full bibliographic citation is nowhere to be found. Northwestern University political scientist Tong Whan Park is referred to as Tong Wham Park on page 322. The absence of comprehensive proofreading to weed out most of these errors is unacceptable. Finally, as the book is of significant length, readers might also wish for a comprehensive conclusion, rather than the chapter that now closes the volume, which simply offers an overview of the North-South dialogue.


Saxer, Carl 2002
Review of Korea: A Century of Change, by Juergen Kleiner (2001)
Korean Studies Review 2002, no. 12
Electronic file: http://koreanstudies.com/ks/ksr/ksr02-12.htm

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