South Korea was “the poorest, most impossible country on the planet” when it was founded, according to an advisor to its third president. Yet, in just fifty years it has transformed itself into an economic powerhouse and a democracy that can serve as a model for other countries. How was it able to do this, despite having been sapped by almost half-century of colonial rule, ruined by a brutal war that tore the country apart into two, and lacking a democratic tradition? Who are the Korean people, who achieved this second “Asian miracle”? And having accomplished it, what are their prospects now?
South Korea has undergone two miracles at once: economic development and democracy. And that too in a considerably short span of a few decades! This book is the story of the nation regarded as an enigma to many – Korea and its people. Often, this small east-Asian nation of 51 million people is overlooked in favour of its more powerful and populous neighbours – China, Japan and North Korea. I am sure all of us know something or the other about these countries but not much about South Korea. Given this fact, Daniel Tudor has done an exceedingly good job at writing a book about South Korea and Koreans. You can think of it as a crash course to Korean culture, especially if you are planning to travel to the county, but, in my opinion, you’ll be able to grasp its nuances better if you’re a Koreaboo like me 😛 😛
In Korea: The Impossible Country, the author has given detailed insights into every imaginable sphere of everyday Korean life and culture, ranging from various religions that are practiced to the fractious political environment, from delectable flavours that make up the colourful and vibrant Korean cuisine that is now starting to pervade food halls around the world to cultural, moral and philosophical codes of conduct that have been prevalent since ancient times and are still regarded with utmost importance. In short, this book offers you a description on a variety of subjects about Korea that more or less fits the ‘all-you-need-to-know-about-Korea’ tag. It begins with a brief history of the peninsula – from the prehistoric Gojoseon era to the relatively modern post-war period, which left millions of people dead and even more people homeless and starving in its wake, setting the base for the rest of the book to follow.
A lot of research has been put into the making of this book, and I appreciate the author for it. He has taken opinions of many groups of people into account, which gives a holistic view of any topic being discussed. He is forthcoming in his own opinions and does not shy away from discussing the negative aspects such as the ever-increasing suicide rate among young Koreans, the deeply entrenched political rivalry between the provinces of Jeolla and Gyeongsang, their mindless obsession with material items and outward appearance and the xenophobia that still exists in the minds of Koreans which is reflected in part by their inclusion-exclusion philosophy of Woori (Us) and Nam (Them), to name a few. I kind of knew about some of the negative aspects, still it elaborated these in detail and introduced some more which I had previously not known such as Koreans’ natural disposition to saving their face and uphold their reputation in a judgmental society, no matter the personal and familial implications that it might have.
What I loved reading the most was not about the current political situation, their history of economic growth or even the booming K-pop and K-drama industry, but the everyday life of ordinary Koreans and the various hardships they have to face. To mention a few, pressure on Korean students to do exceedingly well in studies, then get into a well-reputed university, then land oneself in one of the few lucrative jobs with giants (Chaebols) like Samsung, Hyundai and Kia Motors, then be able to earn enough to be able to buy a decent apartment in the scene of sky-rocketing real estate prices to further their prospects in the ‘Marriage Market’ , their struggles are never-ending. I was surprised to learn that the mania of learning English has spread so much that parents are willing to spend one-third of their hard-earned Salary on their child’s English education. I couldn’t help compare this to the current scenario in India and realised that many Indians could also relate to the same societal pressure and competitiveness as do the Koreans.
“Koreans are so incredible. But, it’s really sad, they just don’t realise it. Koreans are very good at being unsatisfied. Sometimes, we need to have a break, and some champagne to cheer us up.I
I would have liked it better if the author hadn’t repeated some of the stuff discussed in one chapter by repackaging it and presenting to the readers in a later chapter, but those who are not familiar with Korea would not be bothered by the repetition.
At the end, I can say that I am glad to have chanced upon this book while casually browsing in a bookstore at Incheon International Airport in South Korea during my layover from Osaka to New Delhi. It has definitely broadened my knowledge of this wonderful country and I hope to visit it someday 😀
Annyeonghi-gyeseyo! (Goodbye in Korean)