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Korea: The Impossible Country

South Korea's Amazing Rise from the Ashes: Danny Yee reviews thje inside story of an economic, political and cultural phenomenon

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N. Seoul Tower, South Korea

Korea: The Impossible Country consists of twenty-eight chapters that are largely independent, mostly tackling one feature of Korean culture or society or politics or economics. There is some historical background, but the focus is on contemporary South Korea and its recent history.
Daniel Tudor was the Korea correspondent for The Economist and his pieces are pitched at that kind of quality magazine level. They are based on first-hand observation, interviews, and research; they plumb no great depths but do include some broader analysis, looking at patterns and trends.

A brief history of Korea down to the end of the civil war is followed by an overview of its core religious strands, with chapters on shamanism, Buddhism, Confucianism and Christianity. Chapters on capitalism and on democracy together make up a history of post-war Korea, looking at president Park Chung-hee, the role of the chaebol industrial conglomerates and Korea's "miracle" path from abject poverty to affluence (the "impossible" of the title), and at the transition from dictatorship to democracy.

Turning to aspects of Korean cultural codes, Tudor writes about jeong ("the invisible hug"), the ubiquity of competition and the stress that places on people, chemyon or face, han ("unresolved resentment") and heung ("joy"), the declining importance of clans and the shift from extended to nuclear families, and the Korean obsession with the new.

A potted history of relations with North Korea ranges from justification for authoritarian security laws to more recent incidents and growing skepticism about reunification. A somewhat rambling piece covers political appointees in business and in the media, the regional divide between Jeolla and Gyeongsang, and the way the left-right divide is "rooted in history, racial identity, and the division of Korea". There is a chapter on company loyalty, management hierarchies and career progression, and another on business etiquette. And there are chapters on matchmaking, weddings and marriages and on the Korean obsession with English.

A number of pieces look at aspects of culture: architecture and the revival of interest in traditional hanok houses; Korean cuisine; the "boom and bust" of Korean cinema; the variety of contemporary Korean music "beyond K-pop" (Tudor gives us his own recommendations in the Hongdae independent music scene); and socialising and the culture of alcohol and drinking (and coffee shops).

Tudor ends with pieces on Korea's engagement with the world: "defensive nationalism" and its decline; the growing acceptance of multiculturalism; the "Korean wave" and the spread of Korean culture in East and Southeast Asia; the improving (though still poor) status of homosexuals; and moves towards gender equality and acceptance of working women.

Tudor's perspective is upper middle class, with almost nothing on Korea's working class traditions. The pieces often seem heavily dependent on single informants. And the absence of a chapter on Korean literature seems strange, with that attaining increasing international visibility in English translation. These are minor complaints, however.

The Impossible Country is an easy read, with its independent chapters, but offers a wealth of information about contemporary Korea. The perspective seems quite balanced, presenting the unusual features of Korean society and culture and history without either stigmatising or glorifying them. It will be useful for anyone visiting South Korea or simply curious about the country; it also makes a good complement to more formal reading in history or economics.

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