North Korea – What’s Behind the Headlines was supposed to take about two weeks to write. Early in March, I thought I’d completed all of my research. I had my story. I knew my angle. Everything looked good.
My premise was simple: For most of its history, North Korea had been distinct from South Korea. Even during the centuries when Korea was united, the northern part of the peninsula was culturally and linguistically different. It was the more aggressive of the two regions.
I also had enough cultural information to show that the spiritual roots of North Korea made it vulnerable to social manipulation, so the people smiled and nodded as their leader spoke… and then they went back to their own lives, as best they could.
I’d heard rumors about prison camps and “total control zones.” I knew a little about the Korean War.
In general, I had a far better understanding of North Korea than I’d started with.
At the outset, my only references were reruns from the old TV series, M*A*S*H, and K-pop music from South Korea. (I was an early fan of “Gangnam Style.”)
So, I started to write this book. Since it’s in the “30-Minute Guides” series, it didn’t have to be a long, complex book.
Then, North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un started making threats.
Every time a news headline appeared, I’d research every historical reference in it. Suddenly, a very different history of North Korea began to emerge. Those facts weren’t so easy to uncover.
As I traced the twists and turns of Korean invasions, the reasons behind those events cast a different light on the “land of the morning calm.” Further research into the horror of the Korean War — and how those North Korean fears are manipulated now — helped me realize the depths of what’s behind the current headlines.
And, I developed a new appreciation for Kim Il-sung’s Juche vision of an independent, self-reliant North Korea.
At that point, it looked like a united Korea might be the best answer, after all. I’m not sure how the religious, political, and historical differences could be ironed out, but… well, South Korea has resources that North Korea needs. And, in return, North Korea has hardy, perpetually optimistic people with a strong work ethic. They could contribute to South Korea’s economic growth.
So, with my book nearing completion, the initial premise had been lost in the rewrites.
To be perfectly honest, I was almost ready to give up on this book.
Then, by sheer luck, I stumbled onto an old map of Korea. It showed the peninsula’s boundaries around 105 BCE. That’s my version of the map, at right. (It’s based on a Wikipedia map by Historiographer, and released under the same terms.)
That map showed how South Korea (then called Jin) controlled far more of the peninsula than the north (then called Gojoseon) did. (The current boundary is fair to both sides, and it’s drifted slightly in favor of North Korea.)
The more I researched Korea’s history — in relation to internal conflicts and invasions from outsiders — the clearer the picture became. And, during the days that followed, more news reports from North Korea revealed even more about the Kim dynasty… where it succeeded and where it’s fallen far short of what its citizens deserve.
At that point in the writing process, I had to break down my original book and rebuild it. My original premise had been accurate: North and South Korea are two very different countries, with contrasting cultures and belief systems.
However, the more hidden history of Korea was also necessary to understand modern Korea.
So, the final book includes the best of everything I discovered on this journey. I’m pleased with it.
No book can convey all the layers of history and cultural conflicts within the Korean peninsula. It’s too complex.
However, for Western readers, I think my book highlights the important points, and my predictions may be accurate.
Next, I’m ready to write some lighter books. This one took much more effort than I’d anticipated when I agreed to write it.
However, I’m glad I accepted this project. I learned far more history — and gained a greater understanding of how news reports are written — than I’d even glimpsed before tackling this complex topic.
Update: Due to the dramatic changes in the political scene — which my publisher cannot keep up with, editorially — we’ve mutually agreed to remove this book from sale.