Korea – a book by Michael Pembroke

I’d like to recommend Michael Pembroke’s Korea: Where the American Century Began (Richmond, Victoria, Australia: Hardie Grant Books, 2018). Despite the title, it is less of a book about Korea than the United States and the evolution of its policies vis-à-vis North and South Korea and China and East Asia more generally. Pembroke is at his best in recounting pivotal moments of the Korean War, focusing on strategic failures of the U.S.-led United Nation’s forces, but also of the Koreans and Chinese that led to such huge military and civilian loses and the present stalemate around the 38th parallel. As some of the endorsements note, it truly is a page turner, but also one of the clearest critical accounts of American decisions leading into and out of the Korean War.

The book underscored my sense that many Americans do not learn as much about the Korean conflict as compared to the World Wars, Vietnam and more recent wars, such as Desert Storm and the Iraq War. I completely agree with Pembroke’s point in a postscript that “Few people, and even fewer Americans, know the true story of the Korean War; few understand the reasons for North Korean hostility toward the United States; and few acknowledge any historical responsibility for the current impasse” (p.253). Pembroke’s perspective might not be viewed by all as ‘the truth’, but it is a well-documented and very convincing account that certainly provided me with a better basis for asking more informed questions about the way forward in Korea.

Pembroke’s father was the commander of an Australian platoon fighting with UN forces in Korea. This does not necessarily give him an independent perspective, but one from which his critical perspectives gain more credibility. I learned less about Korea than I expected, but far more about the US and the Korean War. It is so clear, succinct and timely – an extremely relevant book for anyone with a serious interest in US policy in relation to North Korea, that it is must reading.