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A Disappointing Book on Korea’s Future


Korea and Its Futures: Unification and the Unfinished War

Roy Richard Grinker

St. Martin’s Press, 1998

ISBN: 0312210914


Review by Jerry Winzig


Korea and Its Futures is a real letdown.  It’s subtitle, “Unification and the Unfinished War”, promises new insights.  The book’s cover, which shows a cross with North and South Korea at the head and foot and East and West Berlin on the arms, implies there are lessons to be learned from Germany’s reunification.  The text even mentions the reunifications in Vietnam and Yemen.


But none of the reader’s hopes are fulfilled.  Roy Richard Grinker, an anthropology and international studies professor at George Washington University, uses a ponderous academic style that slows the reader down to a crawl.  His lengthy, convoluted sentences are frequently 60 to 80 words long and are difficult if not impossible to understand.


At long last, this reader was left to conclude that there is little of substance in Grinker’s account.  Vietnam and Yemen are mentioned only once.  In spite of the drawing on the cover, comparisons to Germany’s experiences make up only a small portion of the book and are not terribly specific or insightful.


Even more disturbing is that much of Korea and Its Futures is sheer nonsense.  Grinker blames south Koreans for knowing little about north Koreans and laments the fact that the people of North Korea are often absent from south Korean fiction.  He is astonished that south Koreans really think north Koreans “have not progressed to the degree that south Koreans have”.  He reports that south Korea’s 1996 school textbooks “perhaps the most propaganda-free textbooks ever assembled in south Korea–explicitly say that the north started the war” and complains about the “historiographic myopia” that focuses too much attention on June 25, 1950.  He even blandly asserts that, far from being propagandized as a father figure and “the Great Leader”, Kim Il Sung (and now his son, Kim Jong Il) was actually portrayed as a “mother figure” and was portrayed in north Korean literature as “feminine, motherly, nurturing, and soft; his face as indulgent, round, dimpled, and relaxed.”  How bizarre!


Grinker seems to have very little understanding of the terrible, debilitating legacy of communism.  There is no mention of the collapse of the former Soviet Union, no lessons to be learned from Russia’s incredible difficulty in recovering from years of communist rule.  There is no discussion of the potential for political disintegration following the collapse of totalitarian rule, no references to the breakups in Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and Chechnya.


There is no discussion and no suggestions for how to prepare for the reunification of Korea when the northern half has a per-capita income less than one-ninth of the south.  How will south Korea cope with mass starvation and malnutrition in the north?  How will the isolated citizens of north Korea cope with the free environment of democracy and capitalism?  Will they have the same difficulties as the people of Russia?


A recent New York Times article says that the Russian national motto is “Shto dyelat?–What is to be done?” and goes on to quote one Russian commentator as saying: “People have to understand that they’re the masters of their own fates.  Socialism greatly perverted us.  We became used to being guaranteed a piece of bread.”  If this is Russia’s experience, how will the people of north Korea cope, when they didn’t even get that guaranteed piece of bread?


Grinker is right about just one thing: Korean reunification needs to be discussed more openly.  Preparations need to be begun.  U.S. and south Korean policies that accentuate north Korea’s self-imposed isolation need to be re-examined.


At the same time, however, the terrible danger inherent in north Korea’s situation needs to be acknowledged.  Eleven million people in Seoul live within artillery range of a small, very poor nation-state with a million-man army.  It truly is a very precarious situation with no easy solutions.  That’s why it’s too bad Grinker provides us with so few insights.


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