Book Review: Korea: The Impossible Country (Daniel Tudor)

Korea has achieved what many thought impossible – in a couple generations, the country has rebuilt itself from war-torn devastation to a first-world country known for many reasons. At present, the country faces a number of other issues, possibly considered ’first-world problems’, that have to be addressed to continue its success. If you’re interested in seeing how Korea got to where it is today (and why things are the way they are), a glimpse of history provides the context.

The book starts with a very good review of Korean history, complete with the nuances (and without the nationalist tint) seen in Korean sources. If you’re familiar with the country’s back story there are few surprises here, but a tale on the country’s most recent history is more helpful after seeing how it got here.

The first major section, “Foundations”, sets the tone for the rest of the book. The major religions of Korea – including a very good chapter on shamanism – all receive relatively equal treatment. I was a bit surprised to see almost no discussion on Korea’s non-religious – those who have given up religion or don’t see a place for it. The final chapter, a section on the battles for Korean democracy, should be required reading for any expat interested in intelligent conversation with a local.

The second part discusses the power of jeong (the shared connection and obligation), the dilemma of competition, han (a deep sorrow fueled by uncontrollable tragedy), and to a lesser extent heung (a devil-may-care spirit of joy). As these the cultural codes of Korea, they merit the attention of would-be expats or anyone studying the people. Where once these forces both greatly assisted the country, Daniel mentions that some of these forces (particularly the first two) have begun to become counter-productive in some ways.

Entitled “Cold Reality”, the third part mentions several of the issues Korea is currently facing – North Korea, the media, the working culture, the English craze, and so on. That the book is brand new (and therefore up to date, up to a reference of May 2012) provides context to even recent changes. This section also does an exceptionally good time of separating the outward behavior of people from their inner feelings on societal issues or their jobs, which is often accomplished via survey results. Each chapter ends with a reminder of the challenges that have brought us to the present, typically with an optimistic hope for the country.

In a few cases, the author repeats a fact or point made previously. Additionally, some pieces read like something published in a news magazine, complete with interviews that dominate a given section of the book. Given that Daniel is an accomplished at the Economist and contributes to Newsweek, the style is to be expected.

The fourth part is more light-hearted, and explains how Koreans have fun when not working. Again, the historical connection with the past is clear, as is the rapid change that has endured over the past decade. Someone that came to Korea even five years ago may not recognize some parts of the country nowadays. Areas popular with expats get mentioned (including a very different translation for “Itaewon” than I’ve ever heard before), along with the rapid growth of coffee shops as social hubs.

The final part expresses concern for Korea’s low birth rate, along with Korea’s cultural wave and the backlash from it. The features here are individual chapters on two wrongfully maligned facets of society – the GLBT community and the historical treatment of women. There’s nothing particularly new here, but it is a very good run-down of a history not easily found in one place. An epilogue entrusts that Korea can pull another miracle to find contentment – something that is sorely lacking despite the abounding material wealth.

While the text is excellent as expected, I’m a little surprised at the lack of a pronunciation guide, or even a single word in Korean hangeul (everything is Romanized, to the detriment of anyone unsure of Korean pronunciation). Overall, though, it’s a minor oversight in a well-researched book worthy of several hours.

Recommended for any new expat, history lover, or anyone interested in the country’s transformation.

Korea: The Impossible Country is available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and on Tuttle’s own site.

Book by Tuttle Publishing, $22.95 (USD), available at all leading bookstores.

Disclaimer: Chris in South Korea received a pre-release review copy from the publisher.