In general, a critical biography is defined as "a biography accompanied with and critical presentation of an individual’s life." A critical biography is not simply a biography that describes the figure in a chronological order but presents an overall evaluation of an individual within the context of his/her times. In this sense, a critical biography is a process that illuminates a period’s history through historical figures. A critical biography should not glorify a figure as an object of worship or judge one in black and white, but it must comprehensively treat the person’s achievements as well as failures, frustrations, sufferings, and blemishes.
The first critical biography of a modern Korean figure was “The Sun of the Korean People” (1956), clearly stated as such with a subtitle of “A Critical Biography of Dr. Syngman Rhee,” and this book, containing many negative precedents, began a series of similar critical biographies. As seen in its title, it was the first precedent of a critical biography that has become a confession of faith by praising and proselytizing a person. In the 1970s, writers with expertise and experience began to produce biographies of modern and contemporary figures, but their work remained as stories of historical heroes.
From the late 1980s, writings with an aspect of a true critical biography began to appear, and in the 1990s, formats for a critical biography became standardized. These works, based on extensive research of primary sources, presented the basis of their criticism in detailed notes and bibliographies, and they opened the possibility of critical biography to reconstruct a period’s history through studies of lives of individuals. In the 2010s, the model for a critical biography has matured on the strength of the qualitative and quantitative developments in the research in modern Korean history. Nevertheless, it is regrettable that journalistic critical biographies are still in fashion and even show signs of growth.
For critical biographies to be faithful to its original mission, it is essential that writers develop expertise based on historical methodology. This expertise refers to the ability to collect and interpret primary sources related to the person of interest that may lie scattered at home and abroad. At the same time, the writer should possess interpretive abilities to reconstruct the times while reflecting concerns and actions of the persons who were diametrically opposed to the person of interest.