Book Review – KOREA: The Impossible Country by Daniel Tudor


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)


6 thoughts on “Book Review – KOREA: The Impossible Country by Daniel Tudor

  1. Awesome review! It was lovely to learn more about Korea beyond K-Pop and its interesting to see that societal pressure for our young to do well seems to be a very Eastern trait. I didn’t know about the saving face thing and I have to say that is quite worrying. But, having said that, this sounds like a book I need to read and will enjoy!


    1. You will definitely enjoy the book, I am sure. Btw, I am in Korea right now (Sent by Samsung Bangalore on a business trip) and I see many things mentioned in the book firsthand here. Fall season in Korea is pretty too, with all the maples and gingkos of various shades.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Wow, first, I hope you are enjoying your trip! 🙂 Second, so, clearly, the book is a very, very accurate representation of Korea. I am yet to see an effusion of gingko, but images I’ve seen online are just simply stunning. I hope one day you feature some beautiful photos of Korea! ☺️


      2. Yes yes, I plan to post images and descriptions about places I visited in Korea, including fall foliage places. To be honest, I have 3-4 pending book reviews to post, Japan travel and now Korea travel. Only if I can get some time! Hopefully in December.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. I can’t wait to see more of Japan, it’d be interesting to see! If you don’t mind, can I ask how it’s been like meeting people in Japan?

        That’s quite a lot. Enjoy your travels first, you can always write a blog post, but not always enjoy the rich culture of another country every day. 🙂


      4. Hello Sophia! Sorry for the extreeeeeeeemely late reply. These months have been really hectic for me with another 3-month business trip to Korea.

        How was it like meeting people in Japan?
        One word answer: Life-changing.
        It is a well-know fact that the Japanese are super polite, super helpful, mindful of others , good samaritans and law-abiding citizens. I met many Japanese people during the course of my trip, be it the priests at the temples, the receptionists at my hostel, the vendors, or even people on the streets. Because of the fact that I learnt some Japanese before I went to Japan, I could connect to them instantly! At many occasions, the Japanese go OUT OF THEIR WAY to help you find your way. They are especially mindful of foreign tourists and are ever ready to help them first! I even had some discussion about a priestess-caretaker of Kodaiji temple in Kyoto where she showed me a portrait of Nene, wife of 16th century Japanese warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi. She told me that her sitting posture comes from the sitting posture of the queens of India! Guess, what I told them. I showed them a picture of Sivagami from Bahubali on my phone in which she was sitting in the same posture 😛 😛 😛 and told her “Kanojo wa Indo joou desu” (She is a representation of an Indian queen). The priestess was quite thrilled and called several of the other caretakers around and asked me to show it to them!

        Another time, I was admiring the gardens of temple from the outside when an elderly Japanese woman walked up to me and started chatting with me. And she gave me a finger ring saying it is for my “future girlfriend or wife!” 😀


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