Korea: The impossible country by Daniel Tudor answers just about every challenge an introduction to a foreign nation must surmount. It’s well-written, comprehensive (history, culture, foreign relations, politics, economy, education, family life and social mores).
In addition, Tudor’s book has the special advantage of being a recently released (2012) comment on a country that desperately needs foreign interpreters. Sandwiched between the great Asian powers (China and Japan) and divided by the 20th century’s two great ideologies (capitalism and communism), South Korea remains a marvel of national distinctiveness amidst modernity’s global homogeneity.
At the conclusion of the Korean war, which hasn’t really ended (there’s an armistice, not a peace), South Korea was physically devastated and demoralized. The occupation by Japan from the 30s to 1945 had been harsh and demeaning; the struggle to define Korea’s future before its civil war was inconclusive; the Korean War itself was a rampage of forces representing most of the world’s great powers up and down the length of the peninsula.
But Tudor is right that South Korea’s self-invention in the subsequent decades is unmatched anywhere. Now South Korea’s fifty million are relatively wealthy, their products are sought-after worldwide, and they even have a substantial influence throughout Asia thanks to their film and music industries.
His explanation of this turn-around is complex. On the one hand, he notes the extraordinary drive Confucianism and a sense of inferiority/victimhood have lent the South Korean workforce, which works harder and longer than just about any other workforce in the world. He also explores the virtual fanaticism South Koreans bring to the matter of education. South Korean kids study all the time, before school, during school, after school, on weekends and vacations. This generates top scores on global charts, especially in math and science. No wonder companies like Hyundai and Samsung produce such excellent products. On the other hand, he explores the dark side of South Korea’s drive to the top: high suicide rates, low birth rates, low levels of loyalty to firms that are not very loyal to their workers, extraordinary consumption of alcohol, which is socialized to the point of unconsciousness (an entirely acceptable ending to a typical wild night).
At this point, South Korea has just democratically elected its first female leader, daughter of its greatest dictator, so there are changes afoot in a country proud of the “pure blood” of its 5,000 year old history, but it’s a nation that is aging fast and registers near the bottom of most measures of happiness.
In its rush to the top, South Korea concentrated about half of its population into ugly apartment buildings in Seoul. The impact on “community” seems to have been strong. People don’t know their neighbors or have time for them. And yet in a broader sense, this is one of the least individualistic nations on the planet, as can be seen in its mega-churches and marriage practices, often mediated by match-makers focused more on the socio-economic prospects a couple might expect than on their affection for one another or personal compatibility. South Koreans like the feel of themselves as a crowd and a community even if there is a high level of personal anonymity within the larger group...and this is despite the manic emphasis on outstanding grades and complementary credentials.
Tudor writes well about about Korean food, for instance, and notes the Korean habit of presenting many dishes at a meal that are shared--your spoon, my spoon, his spoon--by everyone at the table. This is the kind of communal “boundary” that seldom is crossed in the West but nonexistent in South Korea.
At the same time, Tudor explores the magnetic attraction South Korea has had, economically, for immigrants from Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines. Each year South Korea becomes, by definition, more multicultural and somewhat more accepting and tolerant. By contrast, the walled kingdom of North Korea draws almost no one to work there, much less live there. Over time, this may moot the unification question, if South Korea’s gigantic economic achievements, vis-a-vis North Korea, haven’t already done so. The likelihood is that the two populations will grow further apart, not closer together, as the one “goes global” and the other remains stuck in its cave.
There are lengthy analyses in this book of South Korea’s musical scene, the kind of topic that’s hard to write about unless you really live it, and the kind of topic that’s essential if you want to explore “youth culture.” U.S. soldiers brought a lot of rhythm and blues, soul, jazz, and rock to South Korea. South Korea likes heart-breaking ballads, glitz with tears. Somehow South Korean musicians have managed to produce both kinds of music and generated large audiences at home and abroad.
Occasionally Tudor repeats facts and observations, which is as much the editor’s fault as his own, and there are times when he seems over-reliant on certain sources and/or “informants.” But this is a broad, quick study, not a scholarly study in depth. It’s readable, as they say, a good, sweeping introductory guide to a nation that becomes more important every year.
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