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Korea’s Place in the Sun

Korea's Place in the Sun Book CoverBy Bruce Cumings
Review by Ju Young (History and Politics)

Despite being Korean by nationality and identity, I spent my formative years in Turkey and — despite my appearance and my family background —I felt that I was increasingly alienated from the history and the culture of my parents. So, I decided I would dig a little deeper into the rich literature surrounding Korean history.

I came across Cumings’ Korea’s Place in the Sun in a rather uninteresting manner: it was at the top of my search list for my unimaginative Google search “interesting book Korean history”. After reading the book, I came to understand that this book was much more than interesting, it was eye-opening and helped me bridge the extraordinary physical and the cultural distance that lay between myself and what I considered my home.

Cumings takes a very expansive view of Korea’s rather tumultuous history and its experience with imperialism and war, and takes us on a detailed journey of modern Korean history. Especially fascinating was his discussion of the “Gwangju Uprising”, or as my father would call it, the “Gwangju Democracy Movement”. My aunts and uncles on my mother’s side had always told me that this “treacherous rebellion” was a violent uprising staged by communists, consequently squashed by our courageous military forces. The story that my father explained to me, however, was of how ordinary people marched through the streets of Gwangju in search for freedom and democracy, only to be brutally gunned down and murdered by the military. Cumings succinctly explains the context of the uprising and tells us an extremely enlightening story of the media narrative that followed, and how disinformation about the supposedly communist etymology of this rebellion had spread throughout the Korean media and survived in the minds of millions of Koreans to this very day.

Reading Korea’s Place in the Sun helped inject a new, outsider perspective of Korea that I had never been exposed to. My understanding of Korean history was informed exclusively by family and the limited amount of Korean media I consumed — reading Cumings and his perspective helped me reconsider the various preconceptions I had inadvertently formed about various historical events. Studying history is fascinating for exactly this reason: it compels us to consider alternative explanations and descriptions of historical events and countries. Even if you might be extremely familiar with a certain topic or event, exploring various historical accounts of events from multiple historians helps us expand our thinking on a certain subject and motivates us to be more critical and analytical thinkers.

There are numerous books on any historical subject that you might be interested in, and reading any of these may be valuable because of the unique historical perspective that they bring to the table. Cumings helped me zoom out from my parochial view of history, and inspired me to do my own research. I encourage anyone interested in history to do the same.

Korea’s Place in the Sun by Bruce Cumings
ISBN-10 : 0393327027
ISBN-13 : 978-0393327021

Try checking the availability of this book at your school or local library or explore second hand bookshops and websites. You may also wish to purchase from either Amazon or Blackwell’s.

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