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Brothers at War: The Unending Conflict in Korea

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By Sheila Miyoshi Jager.
New York: W.W. Norton, 2013
608 pages, ISBN: 978-0393068498 , Hardback
Reviewed by Michael J. Seth

Almost every author writing on the Korean War states that it is often, and aptly for Americans, called the “forgotten war.” Sheila Miyoshi Jager in her book Brothers at War: The Unending Conflict in Korea provides one of the most persuasive cases for its importance, not only because it had a large impact on shaping the geopolitics of Asia and the Pacific but also because it is a conflict that has never ended. She does this in a long but engaging book that is accessible to undergraduate students or to anyone with a limited background on the topic. The author does not provide much in the way of new information or interpretations, but unlike other accounts of the Korean War, she includes developments up to the present.

The book is divided into four sections. The largest covers the Korean War as it is conventionally presented: the division of the peninsula, the creating of two rival regimes both claiming to be the legitimate representative of the entire nation, the events leading up to the conflict, and the war itself. There is probably no more readable account of the Korean War available. Where Jager departs from other histories of the Korean War are the next three shorter sections that bring the postarmistice conflict up to the present. Together, they account for two-fifths of the main text. The first of these post-1953 sections covers what she considers to be the “Cold War era” in which rivalry and tensions between the two Koreas took place within the larger context of the Cold War, a period that ended in the late 1960s. With US-Soviet détente, the improvements in US-PRC relations, and the American withdrawal from Việt Nam, Washington’s focus on Korea shifted to stability rather than containment. At this point, the conflict became more of what the author calls a “local war,” a period of intense competition between Seoul and P’yŏngyang marked by violent incidents that had relatively little global impact. A final part of the book deals with the period since the early 1990s, when South Korea became a democratic society and North Korea had lost the contest for legitimacy. The conflict then entered a phase in which the main concerns of Seoul, Washington, and the international community were over P’yŏngyang’s nuclear weapons and the repercussions of what was assumed to be the inevitable collapse of the North Korean regime. Jager has made good use of the information available from the North Korean International Documentation Project at the Wilson Center in Washington and from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Korea to incorporate the most recent insights into the Korean War, as well as to provide numerous anecdotes. Drawing upon these sources and the secondary literature, she provides clear and balanced explanations for the causes of the Korean War and the complex relations between the powers involved. She also, in an evenhanded way, discusses the brutality shown by all participants in the war. Throughout the book, Jager weaves into her narrative the experiences of participants in the conflict, making the Korean War real and understandable. Even those familiar with the topic will find these many personal accounts fascinating and informative.

Jager provides a clearly presented analysis of why P’yŏngyang lost what she calls the “legitimacy wars.” North Korea’s economy began slowing down as early as the 1960s, just as the South’s began its remarkable takeoff. Already in deep trouble, the loss of its chief economic patron, the Soviet Union, after 1990 plunged North Korea into sharp decline. She also credits Seoul’s democratization as important, in part because it occurred as South Koreans became fully aware of the prison camps, the political repression, and the grim material conditions in the North. But democracy also brought another change, a growing indifference among younger Koreans to their Northern compatriots and opposition to reunification, at least in the near future. Many Southerners no longer viewed the regime of Kim Il Sung as an alternative Korea, but rather as a strange and troubled backwater whose collapse could bring a flood of refugees that would be ill-equipped to live in a modern democratic society and who would endanger their newly won prosperity.

There are, of course, limits to a book that tries to do so much, and the last section of the book is perhaps too condensed. Anyone trying to understand North Korea today and the current relations between the two Koreas would be advised to also look at another new book, Andrei Lankov’s The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia (Oxford University Press, 2013). Nonetheless, Jager has provided one of the best studies of the Korean War available.

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