If you’ve been binge-watching Korean historical dramas, you’ll most likely find yourself curious and digging up more information about Korea’s rich history.
Apart from searching on the internet, another fun and engaging way to dive deep into the past is by reading some of the greatest Korean historical books!
The 12 Best Korean Historical Books You Will Love
Ready to have a blast from the past? In this article, we’ve listed our top picks for the 12 best Korean historical books you need to read!
- The Two Koreas: A Contemporary History by Don Oberdorfer and Robert Carlin
- The Birth of Korean Cool: How One Nation Is Conquering the World Through Pop Culture by Euny Hong
- In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom by Yeonmi Park
- Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick
- Korea: The Impossible Country by Daniel Tudor
- The Aquariums of Pyongyang by Kang Chol-Hwan
- History of Korea: A Captivating Guide to Korean History
- The New Koreans: The Story of a Nation by Michael Breen
- Korea’s Place in the Sun: A Modern History by Bruce Cumings
- In Mortal Combat: Korea, 1950-1953 by John Toland
- Human Acts: A Novel by Han Kang
- White Chrysanthemum by Mary Lynn Bracht
1. The Two Koreas: A Contemporary History by Don Oberdorfer and Robert Carlin
Written by veteran journalist Don Oberdorfer and Korea expert Robert Carlin, ‘The Two Koreas: A Contemporary History’ is a well-documented book that describes the historical events of Korea from World War II to this day.
It also became one of the best books to read for understanding how the Korean Peninsula split into two countries: democratic South Korea and communist North Korea. And it emphasizes the country’s conflicts, global engagements, and how the two Koreas have different political and social systems.
2. The Birth of Korean Cool: How One Nation Is Conquering the World Through Pop Culture by Euny Hong
From America to the Gangnam neighborhood in Seoul, Euny Hong witnessed how South Korea took over the world by storm through business, technology, and pop culture.
To share her historical perspective, observations, and experiences, Hong wittingly wrote ‘The Birth of Korean Cool,’ which follows the global success of Psy’s hit song, ‘Gangnam Style,’ and how it became a powerful tool or strategy to become a successful and well-known country.
It highlights how South Korea continues to shift and evolve and emphasizes how Koreans became great innovators in different industries.
3. In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom by Yeonmi Park
In Order to Live ‘In Order to Live’ is a powerful and emotional book that reveals the struggles and tough lives of ordinary people in the most repressive country, North Korea.
As a child, Yeonmi endured deprivation and deception with her family. After escaping to South Korea through China’s smugglers and surviving traumatizing experiences, she serves as a leading voice for oppressed people and human rights activist who shares tales of her own life to inspire.
4. Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick
‘Nothing to Envy’ is another compelling nonfiction narrative written by Barbara Demick, an award-winning journalist. It is based on interviews with North Korean refugees.
The book depicts scarcity, starvation, and desperation and follows the story of six North Korean defectors. It detailedly describes people’s daily struggles for over fifteen years during the North Korean famine.
5. Korea: The Impossible Country by Daniel Tudor
Daniel Tudor is a Seoul-based writer and journalist who studied, explored, and sought fruitful information about contemporary Korea to write his first book, ‘Korea: The Impossible Country.’
The book grabs the interest of the readers with its comprehensive content about various topics like Korea’s ancient history, foundation, politics, business, economy, and South Korean pop culture — everything that has to do with the rise of a small country into an economic powerhouse.
Not only does it tackles famous stories and events, but features some interviews with well-known personalities who contributed to the country’s economic development.
Read It Now: Korea: The Impossible Country by Daniel Tudor
6. The Aquariums of Pyongyang by Kang Chol-Hwan
The Aquariums of Pyongyang had to be in this list of the best Korean historical books.
It’s another heart-wrenching autobiography that comprehensively describes the terrors and inhuman acts inside brutal concentration camps in North Korea.
In 1977, Kang Chol-Hwan and his entire family were imprisoned at the Yodok camp by the government of dictator Kim Il Sung after his grandfather was accused of treason and other unspecified crimes.
At an early age, he witnessed and suffered unimaginable conditions inside the prison camp, such as public executions, forced labor, torture, and starvation. Fortunately, his life changed when he escaped ‘ten years of hell’ and became the first survivor of the North Korean gulag.
Read It Now: The Aquariums of Pyongyang by Kang Chol-Hwan
7. History of Korea: A Captivating Guide to Korean History
If you’re searching for a book to dive deep into Korea’s history, this book is the one you’re looking for!
‘History of Korea’ is a great introductory book to Korean history. From Korean dynasties and Japanese colonization to Korean War, it gives deep insight into chronicled historical events that marked Koreans even to this day.
Since it’s a detailed guide, it also tackles other topics like foreign invasions, independence, economic growth, and many more!
8. The New Koreans: The Story of a Nation by Michael Breen
In ‘The New Koreans,’ Michael Breen, a journalist covering North and South Korea, writes about his take and observations on South Korea’s emergence from its complex past events and how it transitioned from poverty to one of the most influential economies by itself.
Aside from the country’s economic development, the book also depicts the new Koreans’ ‘national character.’ So, if you’re looking for a book to read before you visit or even live in South Korea, don’t miss out on this one!
9. Korea’s Place in the Sun: A Modern History by Bruce Cumings
‘Korea’s Place in the Sun’ is one of the best books that could walk you through the complete history of Korea from a revisionist’s point of view. It’s a great eye-opener as it motivates the readers to broaden their minds and be more critical and analytical thinkers.
The book starts with Korea’s early history — the Japanese occupation, World War II, the division of the Korean Peninsula, and other significant historical events. Apart from these, the author also focused on sharing his points about the Korean War and the United States’ role in it.
10. In Mortal Combat: Korea, 1950-1953 by John Toland
If you’re interested in the Korean War, this book will surely trigger your curiosity more!
In this book, John Toland, an American writer and historian, narrates the murderous battles through personal interviews with the Chinese and North Korean veterans.
He also writes about the military and political controversies/conflicts during the forgotten war.
Read It Now: In Mortal Combat: Korea, 1950-1953 by John Toland
11. Human Acts: A Novel by Han Kang
Through writing a controversial novel, Korean writer, Han Kang recounts the bitter memories and traumatizing incidents during Gwangju Uprising and massacre back in 1980.
The novel starts with Dong-Ho, a young boy who gets killed in a violent student uprising. The boy’s story is followed by the narrative of other victims’ lives during the Gwangju uprising, where their tragic stories are harrowingly told.
Read It Now: Human Acts: A Novel by Han Kang
For more novels, make sure you our selection of the 12 best Korean novels here!
12. White Chrysanthemum by Mary Lynn Bracht
Although White Chrysanthemum is a novel, it still makes a great historical book set in Korea under Japanese occupation. Its story follows the lives of two Korean sisters separated by World War II.
In 1943, a haenyeo (female diver) named Hana, spends her peaceful days before she gets separated from his sister and captured by a Japanese soldier. Dragged away to a military brothel, she is forced to become a ‘comfort woman’ or a sex slave.
The narrative leaps to 2011 on Jeju Island where Hana’s sister, Emi, lives as an elderly widow. Blaming herself for Hana’s disappearance, she never loses hope and continues to search for her lost sister.
Read It Now: White Chrysanthemum by Mary Lynn Bracht
Aside from satisfying your curiosity, reading Korean historical books allow you to understand what happened in the country’s past. It’s a great way to broaden your mind and learn timeless lessons you can apply to your current life, even in the future.
We hope we’ve helped you find the best Korean historical book that piques your interest.
Feel free to share your thoughts in the comment section below!
For more general books, feel free to also read our list of the 19 best books about Korea.