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KOREA: THE IMPOSSIBLE COUNTRY, by Daniel Tudor, charts the improbable rise of South Korea from the devastation of war and impoverishment to rapid development and prosperity

The rising of a nation

BY JEFF KINGSTON

MAR 17, 2013

KOREA: THE IMPOSSIBLE COUNTRY, by Daniel Tudor. Tuttle, 2012, 320 pp., $22.95 (hardcover)

This superb book charts the improbable rise of South Korea from the devastation of war and impoverishment to rapid development and prosperity, and from brutal dictatorship to the most vibrant democracy in Asia. It is “impossible” in terms of its economic and political achievements, “the most unlikely and impressive story of national building of the last century,” Daniel Tudor writes.

The Korean War (1950-53) claimed the lives of 3 million people, including 2.5 million Korean civilians, at a time when the combined population of the entire peninsula was only 30 million. In the mid-1950s GDP per capita was less than $100 and the average life span was 54 years old, compared to $32,000 and 79 as of 2012. This phoenix-like rise from the ashes was based on hard work, sacrifice and extensive state support for industry. The economy was foundering until Park Chung Hee (the current president’s father) took over in a coup in 1961 and ruled with an iron fist until gunned down by the head of the KCIA intelligence service in 1979. He is credited with the “miracle on the Han,” the era of phenomenal economic growth that was largely based on nurturing national champions. Famously, Park called businessmen “corrupt swine,” but enriched those who did his bidding.

Samsung, the star of Korea Inc., accounts for 20 percent of GDP and has a stake in virtually all market sectors where there are profits to be made, from Apple-beating mobile phones and Sony-trumping electronics to resorts, real estate, insurance and shipbuilding. This “ginormous” influence is a mixed bag; there is intense pride that a Korean firm has taken on the world’s best firms and won, but Koreans are ambivalent about its stifling omnipresence and political influence at home. Journalists criticize the behemoth at their peril as Tudor explains that libel laws in South Korea stack the deck and even if scandalous allegations are proven true, damages are awarded if the court decides that reputations have been sullied. So much for freedom of the press.

Tudor provides a primer in Korean history then launches into the modern era by examining the role of shamans and the spiritual world. He wryly compares English teachers to shamans, noting that both are paid relatively large sums of money based on an exaggerated faith in their powers.

South Korea’s problems are so similar to Japan’s that many passages read as if the country names are interchangeable. Korea has a higher suicide rate, a similarly low birth rate, a rapidly aging society, wealth without prosperity, growing disparities and just like Japan over one-third of the workforce is hired on fixed term contracts as nonregular workers with low pay, few benefits and no job security. But the differences are also stark as South Korean firms and their government adjusted quickly to changing global markets while Japan, Inc. appears relatively stodgy and complacent.

Cronyism, we learn, is driven by social obligations, even if technically illegal. In this “stubbornly persistent culture of corruption … when scandals involving the powerful occur, punishments are usually inadequate.”

There is some handwringing in Japan about an education pressure-cooker, but this is nothing compared to the achievement obsession that permeates South Korea. Tudor reports that some households spend one-third of their monthly income on tutoring alone, and schooling appears to be run on a boot camp basis, meaning little sleep or play for the young. He further argues that education is perpetuating inequalities as wealthier families can outspend others on private tuition, and their children can get in the best universities and land the best jobs.

Koreans’ high aspirations make it an impossibly stressful society, one where people find happiness elusive; it is 102nd in global happiness rankings. Tudor writes, “This is a country that puts too much pressure on its citizens to conform to impossible standards of education, reputation, physical appearance, and career progress.” Image is everything so designer brands rack up massive sales while Koreans lead the world in plastic surgery.

Everyone knows Psy’s hit tune “Gangnam Style.” Here, the upscale Seoul neighborhood of Gangnam is exposed as a hotbed of ostentation where one sees “the most immaculately dressed, beautiful, and yet curiously unhappy-looking women.”

Korean drinking habits are legendary, and Tudor, apparently drawing on extensive fieldwork, explains the relevant customs in a nation that leads the non-Western world in per capita booze consumption. Korean workers have the longest working hours in the industrialized world and thus it is not surprising that 74.4 percent report that their jobs make them depressed. Many seek solace in the bottle and have a popular expression, “Let’s drink and die.” The author also gives many useful tips about doing business in South Korea, where personal bonds are key and alcohol is a “relationship catalyst.”

Tudor sparkles in explaining Korean cultural concepts and values, and its deep social, generational and political divisions. He writes well and has an eye for the quirky detail while charting changing norms in sex, divorce and gender equality. Learning about Korea has never been more entertaining.

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies at Temple University, Japan campus.

Korea: The Impossible Country [Hardcover]

Daniel Tudor (Author)

Book Description

Release date: November 10, 2012

South Korea’s amazing rise from the ashes: the inside story of an economic, political, and cultural phenomenon

Long overshadowed by Japan and China, South Korea is a small country that happens to be one of the great national success stories of the postwar period. From a failed state with no democratic tradition, ruined and partitioned by war, and sapped by a half-century of colonial rule, South Korea transformed itself in just fifty years into an economic powerhouse and a democracy that serves as a model for other countries. With no natural resources and a tradition of authoritarian rule, Korea managed to accomplish a second Asian miracle.

Daniel Tudor is a journalist who has lived in and written about Korea for almost a decade. In Korea: The Impossible Country, Tudor examines Korea’s cultural foundations; the Korean character; the public sphere in politics, business, and the workplace as well as the family, dating, and marriage. In doing so, he touches on topics as diverse as shamanism, clan-ism, the dilemma posed by North Korea, the myths about doing business in Korea, the Koreans’ renowned hard-partying ethos, and why the infatuation with learning English is now causing huge social problems.

South Korea has undergone two miracles at once: economic development and complete democratization. The question now is, will it become as some see Japan, a rich yet aging society, devoid of energy and momentum? Or will the dynamism of Korean society and its willingness to change—as well as the opportunity it has now to welcome outsiders into its fold—enable it to experience a third miracle that will propel it into the ranks of the world’s leading nations in terms of human culture, democracy, and wealth?

More than just one journalist’s account, Korea: The Impossible Country also draws on interviews with many of the people who made South Korea what it is today. These include:

  • Choi Min-sik, the star of “Old Boy”
  • Park Won-soon, Mayor of Seoul
  • Soyeon Yi, Korea’s first astronaut Hong Myung-bo, legendary captain of KoreaÆs 2002 FIFA World Cup team
  • Shin Joong-hyun, the ‘Godfather of Korean Rock’
  • Ko Un, poet
  • Hong Seok-cheon, restaurateur, and the first Korean celebrity to ‘come out’

And many more, including a former advisor to President Park Chung-hee; a Shaman priestess (‘mudang’); the boss of Korea’s largest matchmaking agency; a ‘room salon’ hostess; an architect; as well as chefs, musicians, academics, entrepreneurs, homemakers, and chaebol conglomerate employees.

Editorial Reviews

Review

“But this is not a history book. Tudor, Seoul correspondent for The Economist, provides a fairly perfunctory account of the “miracle on the Han River”, which saw South Korea transformed from postwar ruin to prosperous democracy within four decades. The book’s real value comes in its exploration of the cultural forces behind the country’s zeal for self-improvement.

“He spends more time analysing the rise of Korean popular culture, which has swept across Asia during the past decade and is now going global with the success of PSY, the rapper whose hit, “Gangnam Style”, has become a worldwide internet sensation. Some see PSY’s breakthrough as evidence that South Korea is finally establishing itself in the global consciousness as the modern, sassy society it is. That may be true but his satire of life in the rich, fashionable Gangnam district of Seoul also reflects unease over the rising social divisions charted in Tudor’s book.”—Financial Times

“Daniel Tudor is one of the most influential foreign correspondents in South Korea—and one of the least known. As the reporter for the Economist, which doesn’t use bylines, most of his work is published anonymously. But Mr. Tudor’s profile is about to take a sharp rise with the publication of his new book, Korea: The Impossible Country.

Mr. Tudor pushes into new social and economic territory with his book, including the rising role of immigrants, multicultural families and even gay people in South Korea. He lays out some of the contradictory behavior one finds in South Korea, such as the unending desire for new and trendy gadgets and fashion and yet the tunnel-like view of what constitutes a successful life.”—Wall Street Journal

“Books on Korea are a plenty, but few seem to really get beyond kimchi and k-pop and deal with some of the less often-discussed topics that affect Koreans on a daily basis. We were therefore interested to hear that Daniel Tudor, the Economist’s Korea Correspondent, has a book coming out later this month that really delves deep into South Korean contemporary society. […]the book portrays Korea from a comprehensive and fascinating angle that’s worth sharing with our readers.”—KoreaBang.com

“With a new generation every five years, it’s hard to keep up with Korea. This book is long overdue but Daniel Tudor has done a magnificent job filling the gap. Not only has he captured the new Korea, but he does so in an effortless style that leaves the reader wanting more.”—Michael Breen, author of The Koreans

“Written with affection and deep knowledge, Daniel Tudor’s book fills a huge gap in our understanding of one of Asia’s least known countries. His engaging narrative overturns the stereotypes by depicting a society which, though full of stresses, strains and contradictions, has overcome poverty and dictatorship to become a prosperous democracy. South Korea’s transformation into a vibrant, modern state is, as he says, a story that deserves to be better known. Tudor has done the “impossible country” a service by opening its secrets to the world.”—David Pilling, Asia Editor, Financial Times

“Daniel Tudor covers all the important issues, yet does not simply tell the more familiar stories but looks deeper and wider to give the full story of Korea today.”—Martin Uden, Former British Ambassador to South Korea

“Offering fascinating insight into the role of women in South Korea, [Daniel Tudor] makes a strong economic case for why women’s lives have been changing and why the pace of change will increase.”—Cherie Blair, Leading Human Rights lawyer and founder of the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women

“As a Korean entertainer and the head of an entertainment company, I’ve been representing my country for the past 18 years. I’ve always been curious about how foreigners perceived my country. At last, a book that answers all my questions is out. Korea: The Impossible Country is critical at times but you also feel Daniel Tudor’s love and enthusiasm for this country all the way through. Hope this can be another great introduction to our country and our culture.”—Park Jin-young, owner of the Korean label JYP

Korea: The Impossible Country is an accessible, vibrantly written 360-degree explanation of what South Korea has become after half a century of break-neck change. Authored by the Seoul-based correspondent for theEconomist, Daniel Tudor (Somerville, 2000), itÆs a book I suspect we should all be reading.”—Oxford Today

“Furthermore, unlike the majority of foreign correspondents in Seoul, Tudor has the natural advantage of actually being able to speak colloquial Korean well enough to really get under the skin of issues that affect Koreans, without the need of a local aide. Such language requirements might seem obvious, but it is undoubtedly the case that many foreign correspondents based in Seoul cannot speak the local language, unlike a substantial proportion of their colleagues in Beijing, for example.

The result is a balanced and, more importantly, up-to-date and relevant book that manages to avoid the usual traps and cliches that otherwise make literature on South Korea incredibly boring or predictable to read (South Korea is, in fact, anything but boring—and it is certainly unpredictable.)”—Asia Times Online

“[à] author of this extremely readable perspective on Korea gives a rare fair treatment of his subject matter as well as showing his deep affection, or the Korean “jeong” (as explained in the book, deep inter-affection) for it. [à] His dynamic narrative richly blends in his interviews with contemporary Koreans and is refreshing.”—The Korea Times

“But South Korea has enormous strategic importance: some 28,000 American servicemen are stationed there, holding off the North Korean military threat and a rising Chinese one. This year, Seoul slid into the news when a rapper’s music video went viral. But despite a few wrong-headed attempts to find cultural commentary in “Gangnam Style,” illumination of the fascinating country was limited. Tudor has demonstrated that South Korea has far more going on that is worth exploring.”—The New Republic

About the Author

Daniel Tudor is a writer and journalist based in Korea, where he is the Korea correspondent for the Economist and contributes to Newsweek Korea and other publications. He holds degrees from Oxford University and Manchester University in England and has worked in finance in both Korea and Switzerland.

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