In This Review

The Koreas: The Birth of Two Nations Divided
The Koreas: The Birth of Two Nations Divided
By Theodore Jun Yoo
University of California Press, 2020, 360 pp

Yoo brings both clarity and nuance to the complex, interwoven histories of the two Koreas since 1945. He places individual stories against the backdrop of economic, social, political, business, and cultural trends. As Yoo traces North Korea’s path from wartime devastation in the 1950s to industrialization and then to famine, stagnation, and its current diplomatic isolation, he also explores the North Korean leader Kim Jong Il’s amateur filmmaking, a North Korean–born sumo wrestler who hides his identity to avoid discrimination in Japan, and a North Korean spy successfully masquerading in South Korea as an Arab of Filipino Lebanese descent. The book is especially strong on South Korea, covering not only political and economic developments but also the outflow of children for adoption in the 1950s and 1960s, the sociology of sex workers catering to American troops and Japanese tourists, urban planning, the feminist movement, movies, and fiction. Yoo introduces better-known figures, such as the artist Nam June Paik and the religious leader Sun Myung Moon, as well as lesser-known but equally vivid characters. South Korea has become the most wired society in the world, Asia’s dominant cultural influencer, and surely one of the most stressed-out developed countries, with the most cosmetic surgeries and suicides per capita. Although the main lines of contemporary Korean history are familiar, even specialists will learn a lot from this book.