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12 Essential Books to Read Before Visiting South Korea

South Korea is a fascinating country with a rich history and culture. In recent decades, it has also become a major economic and technological power. As a result, there is a growing interest in South Korea from people all over the world.

South Korean literature is among the most beloved in the world, and immersing yourself in some fantastic Korean books is sure to enrich your travel experience.

visit south korea

South Korea is one of the most popular countries to visit, move to, and work in right now. A lot of that is down to K-pop and K-dramas, but there is such an amazing wealth of beautiful literature and a long and fascinating history beyond all of that.

Korean Books to Read Before You Visit South Korea

This list of fiction and non-fiction books about Korea is designed to introduce readers to South Korea from a variety of perspectives.

It includes books on Korean history and the Korean war, culture, and literature. Some of the books are written by Korean authors, while others are written by those who have lived in or studied in South Korea.

Let’s jump in.

Korea: A New History of South and North by Victor Cha and Ramon Pacheco Pardo

korea a new history of south and north

In one of the newer books about Korean history, authors Victor Cha and Ramon Pacheco Pardo draw on decades of research to explore the complex story of this divided nation. They examine Korea’s unique common history, as well as the sharp differences between North and South that have emerged since the Cold War division.

The book also sheds light on the evolving identities of the two Koreas, and the prospects for unification. It is an essential read for anyone who wants to understand Korea’s past, present, and what possibilities there are in the future.

Buy a copy of Korea: A New History of South and North

Human Acts by Han Kang

Translated by Deborah Smith

han kang human acts

Han Kang made waves in the world of literature a few years back when her novel The Vegetarian was awarded the Booker International Prize 2016 (also translated by Deborah Smith). Her book, Human Acts, however, is arguably a more raw and political story.

Human Acts sheds light on the criminally lesser-known political suppression of South Korea that lasted until the Gwangju Uprising of 1980.

From multiple perspectives, including that of the ghost of a boy killed during the uprising, we get to see the turmoil, tears, and bloodshed that led to the vibrant and prosperous nation we have today.

Read More: If you’re looking for Korean short stories then check out the Yeoyu series.

Buy a copy of Human Acts here.

At Dusk by Hwang Sok-yong

Translated by Sora Kim-Russell

at dusk hwang sok-yong

One of South Korea’s most prestigious novelists brought us this work in translation recently, in 2018.

It tells two stories: that of a rags-to-riches architect looking back on his life and childhood in a kind of Citizen Kane way, and that of a young woman struggling to forge herself a career in theatre.

At Dusk is a fantastic mirror held up to the disparate classes, artists, and businessmen of Korea today, and it’s a real tear-jerker to boot. Read our review of At Dusk right here.

Buy a copy of At Dusk

Our Korean Kitchen

our korean kitchen

Written by married couple Jordan Bourke and Jejina Pyo. Bourke is a renowned chef and, working together with his wife and her cultural expertise, they have welded together a fun and engaging cookbook that teaches us all the ins and outs of Korean home cooking.

Our Korean Kitchen is easy to follow and the tantalising pictures are a wonderful motivation, we had great success with the kimchi recipe! Before you head to Korea, it’s good to know what to expect, food-wise.

Maybe even cook some for yourself. You’re certain to fall in love with Korean food, so best to get a head-start. Here are six of the recipes from the book for free.

Buy a copy of Our Korean Kitchen

Read More: 12 Best Korean Cookbooks Available Now

A History of Korea by Kyung Moon Hwang

a history of korea

If you want an introduction to Korean history before you visit South Korea, this is the best book to pick up. A History of Korea concisely covers every major change and event that has led Korea to where it is today. It avoids being dry by favouring brevity and clarity.

Everything you need to know about Korean history can be found and enjoyed here, covering a whopping 1.5 millennia of Korean history (both North and South).

Important themes that define Korean culture are explored with detail and enthusiasm, giving you not only a lesson in Korean history but an insight into Korean social and political behaviour. A really enlightening read and an essential book to read before you visit South Korea.

Buy a copy of History of Korea

The New Koreans by Michael Breen

the new koreans michael breen

Written by a man who has spent many years living in and studying the world of South Korea. The New Koreans is a fascinating exploration of the economics, history, and politics of Korea today.

The country is now rich and prosperous. It builds some of the best tech money can buy. And it has the biggest pop music industry. How did it get here? Read this book to find out.

The New Koreans by Michael Breen

Love in the Big City by Sang Young Park

love in the big city sang young park

translated by Anton Hur

Love in the Big City is a queer Korean love story. It is a tale of hedonism and friendship; a book about looking at life from all angles: with love and hate and anger and fear in our eyes.

Translated elegantly and beautifully by Anton Hur, Love in the Big City considers how we live our lives when time is ticking, when there is fun to be had and things to be seen; when there are things to fear and people who want to hurt us.

Love in the Big City paints a raw and honest but ultimately kind picture of love and life in the modern day, and for that, it is one of the finest modern Korean novels.

Buy a copy of Love in the Big City

The Korean War by Max Hastings

The korean War Max Hastings

I don’t know about you but the Korean War was not covered at all when I was in school. Hastings’ book is not an easy read, but it is an essential one for anyone who wants to understand the Korean War and its impact on the world.

His writing is clear and concise, and he does an excellent job of explaining the complex military and political issues that were at stake. We found a traumatic, bloody, and captivating story of civil unrest, political divides, and Western interference.

The Korean War by Max Hastings will teach you everything you need to know about the story of the Korean War. Everyone should know more about what divided the North and South and the lasting legacy of that decision.

Buy a copy of The Korea War

Read More: Here are some useful travel articles to check out before you visit South Korea.

The Court Dancer by Kyung-sook Shin

Translated by Anton Hur

The Court Dancer Kyung-Sook Shin

Based on a true story — set in the final years of 19th century Korea as China, Russia, and Japan are threatening the nation trapped between them — The Court Dancer is being described as a love story first and foremost: the romantic tale of a man and a woman from two different worlds, colliding in a moment of beauty.

This is the tale of a woman born without a family, adopted into the courts of the Joseon Dynasty, romanced by a French diplomat, whisked away across the waves to foreign shores, and all the while trying to find the time to understand who she is, what she is, and what she wants out of a life that has never really been hers.

If you want to understand pre-Korean War history and see what European globalisation looks like from an Eastern perspective, this book will prove illuminating.

Visiting Korea’s beautiful palaces after reading this book is a real treat. Read our review of The Court Dancer right here or learn more about Anton Hur.

Buy a copy of The Court Dancer

Hello, South Korea: Meet the Country Behind Hallyu

hello, south korea

In a sea of books about Korean culture, this one is an easily accessible and colourful exploration of the country and culture that has captivated the world. From its rich history and unique customs to its vibrant pop culture and global exports, this book has something to offer everyone.

Go beyond the surface of Hallyu and discover the real Korea. Learn about the country’s long and fascinating history, from its days as the Hermit Kingdom to its modern-day status as a global powerhouse. Meet the people who have shaped the country and its culture, from the incredible haenyeo divers of Jeju Island to the K-pop stars who have taken the world by storm.

Of course, no book about Korea would be complete without a discussion of its food and fashion. From the diverse varieties of kimchi to the popular glass skin beauty trend, you’ll learn all about the culinary and fashion delights that Korea has to offer.

Buy a copy of Hello, South Korea

Read More: Best Korean Snacks and Where to Buy Them

Drifting House by Krys Lee

Drifting House Krys Lee

Written by a woman born in Seoul but raised in the US, this is a gripping and desperately sorrowful collection of short stories which shine a light on the darker side of Korean society over the past hundred years.

Drifting House looks at the salarymen of Seoul, the starving children of North Korea, and the alienated immigrants attempting to settle in the US.

It is Korea and Koreans as viewed from every angle, and a truly wondrous book that teaches us empathy, history, politics, and humanity. An absolute must-read.

Buy a copy of Drifting House

Flowers of Fire by Hawon Jung

flowers of fire

Flowers of Fire is a must-read for anyone interested in feminism, gender equality, and the #MeToo movement. Jung, the former Seoul correspondent for the AFP, draws on her on-the-ground reporting and interviews with many women who became activists and leaders to tell the story of the South Korean #MeToo movement.

The book highlights the courage and resilience of South Korean women in the face of threats, defamation lawsuits, and a criminal justice system that often sides with abusers. Jung’s writing is both informative and inspiring, and she does an excellent job of explaining the complex issues at stake.

Flowers of Fire is an essential read for anyone who wants to understand the #MeToo movement in South Korea and its impact on the global conversation about feminism and gender equality.

Buy a copy of Flowers of Fire

Read More: Thinking of taking a trip to Japan or China? Here’s what to read before you go

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