on August 27, 2013
I am Korean, and bought this book from a local bookstore. It sure is a page-turner for those who are interested in South Korea. The author does a brilliant job describing many aspects of Korean culture. I was very impressed about the author's depth of knowledge and research. However, I must point out that, possibly due to his elite background, his insight and sources are limited to the upper middle class. The majority of Koreans belong to the lower middle/working class, who are now dangerously pushed to the limit with low wage and almost no social security. They wouldn't dream of getting a plastic surgery, buying new gadgets every time they come out, or sending their kids to multiple of expensive Hagwons/English speaking countries as described in the book. Most people simply can't afford such things. Thus the social divide between the two groups are getting bigger and bigger, posing serious threats to Korean society, yet the author fails to recognize it.
I believe this book will be a good guide for English instructors/businessmen hoping to come to Korea, because what they will encounter is the upper middle class. However, if you are looking for up-to-date full information or a thorough analysis of South Korea, you might want to look for additional sources.
on November 29, 2012
Tudor's book is not so much the "inside story of an economic, political, and cultural phenomenon" that the cover proclaims it to be so much as it is a thorough survey of *who* Koreans are and *why* they are so. Anyone can look up the history of Korea's chaebol or its political (and military) history, and merely need notice what's hot in pop music to spot Korea's cultural influence. But Tudor avoids such a facts-only approach and frankly (but lovingly) introduces the reader to the factors that motivate, scare, cheer, and depress the average Cho.
Foreign visitors to Korea often find themselves faced with a language, cuisine, environment, and even climate that is so different from their own that they resign themselves to Korea being too impenetrable (and yes, impossible) to contemplate. A subset of these expats find that two years working at a hagwon gives them an unassailable opinion of the 'fascinating natives' and offer an outsider's deconstruction of Korean society in blog form despite no real intimacy with the people or language. They are right in proclaiming that Korea is interesting, but lack a true understanding. Korean-authored works tend to be well-informed, but often oblivious to what their target readership wants to know. Tudor hits the sweet spot and gives a knowledgable explanation of what a Western audience wants to know (and would find interesting, even if initially they might not be curious).
The book includes current events up through mid-2012 and will surely benefit from an update in a few years as Korea gathers more and more of the world's attention with the PyeongChang Olympics and whatever else may happen. For now (and most likely in the future as well), the book should be the first choice for anyone wishing to learn about modern Korean society.
on December 4, 2012
The world has seen many books about countries, cultural regions and growing economies in Asia. Not necessarily about Korea in particular but Japan's longstanding history as a global cultural and economic powerhouse as well as China's recent economic stellar rise and its immense history have attracted pundits, commentators, critics and dubious self-proclaimed experts to share their two cents worth. Most of them shouldn't have.
It is against this backdrop that Mr. Tudor's book is refreshingly insightful and beautiful to read. There are three aspects about it that stand out in particular: Analysis, scope and humility.
1. Mr. Tudor is never satisfied dealing with the subject matter of his book on an observational level. Instead, in each chapter he leaves the level of observation and enters the realm of analysis. He offers surprising, succinct and powerful insights into why Korea is how it is. It never becomes absurd though. Many have tried to do similar things with China (a country in which I have lived and worked for several years). Confucius and the Cultural Revolution have been used to explain every single aspect of contemporary China, however unrelated. Mr. Tudor doesn't fall victim to this obsession. He knows when to warn the reader of the limitations of his own analysis.
2. Mr. Tudor does a brilliant job in presenting Korea from many different viewpoints, including modern pop culture, history, economy and general society. He connects dots that only a true subject matter experts can see. He doesn't present the different aspects of South Korea in isolation but instead shows the reader relations between them. Every chapter of this book hence offer several eye-openers. Also, Mr. Tudor impresses by appearing really savvy in all the areas he covers. He seems young enough to really understand youth and pop culture but at the same time conveys extreme competence when talking about South Korea's history and economy.
3. For me personally, the 3rd aspect is the most important: humility. Frankly, I am tired of the above-mentioned group of 'experts' who more often than not claim omniscience. Mr. Tudor is confidently aware of his status of an observer. He's undoubtedly a very savvy, well informed and sharp observer with much access and deep understanding but he never seems to forget that he's a foreigner living in Korea and not a Korean. He underpins this by carefully quoting other (mostly local) people who have been thinking and writing about the topics covered in this book. He pairs this with a beautifully simple language.
All in all, Mr. Tudor manages to not only present South Korea in a hitherto unseen professionalism, objectivity and detail but to convey why he wrote this book in the first place: Not to build himself a monument but because of his love and enthusiasm for South Korea.
on November 11, 2012
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 are 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.
Disclaimer: Chris in South Korea received a pre-release review copy from the publisher - original post at [...]
on February 20, 2013
The subtitle of this important book stems from two extraordinary facts about South Korea: that in the space of two generations it has gone from being one of the poorest countries in the world to being a member of the OECD (the group of rich countries), and it has gone from being under the rule of US-backed military dictatorships to being a thriving democracy. Such dramatic changes make the country worthy of study on a number of fronts and Daniel Tudor has made a strong effort to help us understand this remarkable, if also darkly flawed, state.
The book begins with a brief history of Korea from ancient times up to the division of the peninsula in 1948 and the ensuing civil war that ended in 1953. The overview introduces some key themes about relations with China and Japan, the influence of religions and Confucian ethics, attitudes to outsiders and the consolidation of the national culture with its own script and origin myth.
The main body of the text is divided into five parts. The first looks at the influence of shamanism, Buddhism, Confucianism and Christianity, and then the rise of industrial capitalism and democracy. Tudor covers each of these social influences well but makes insufficient distinction between elite and popular culture and how these played out differently over time. This would have helped to explain some apparent anomalies later in the book.
The second part looks at specific cultural traits and how they influence both attitudes and behaviour. These include social bonding and attachment, status competition, maintenance of `face', melancholy and joyfulness, family structure and obligations, and `neophilia' - that Korean obsession with the latest thing. Many of these traits can be seen in other Asian countries but Tudor tries to give them a particular Korean flavour and for the most part succeeds.
In the third part of the book the focus shifts to politics, including relations with North Korea, the links between politics and industrialisation, and the melding of political and business cultures. There are also chapters on the drive for perfection and the current mania for learning English - or rather, for acquiring a certificate to say you have passed an English exam. Much about Korea's industrialisation has been better explained by the Cambridge economist Ha-joon Chang and there is a lot of repetition of facts and arguments in this section that showed the need for some judicious editing, but there is plenty of interest to digest.
The repetition unfortunately continues in the following part of the book, which shifts from cultural analysis to descriptive accounts of housing, diet, cinema, the music scene and the party culture (North Korea has a party culture as well, of course, but only with a capital `P'). These chapters read more like a travel guide or a series of magazine articles. There is little insight into why popular culture has taken its current forms, except in the field of music. Tudor completed the manuscript of this book before the extraordinary phenomenon of PSY and his Gangnam Style song, and I wondered how Tudor would have explained it. The Gangnam area of Seoul gets a number of mentions, though, and you can see why its inhabitants are so ripe for ridicule.
The final part of the book looks at ideas about nationalism and cultural identity and how these are changing. There are chapters on the gay subculture and the role of women, but again the accounts are more descriptive than explanatory. Change is happening but it is very slow.
Korea is rich, its culture is influential in Asia and it has some global companies that are titans of modern capitalism, but the picture is not all rosy. The country has the highest suicide rate in the OECD and the second highest globally (take a bow, Lithuania). Koreans work some of the longest hours in the industrialised world and take very few holidays. Like workaholics everywhere, they are hopelessly unproductive as a result, languishing in the bottom ranks of OECD productivity. Work culture is hierarchical, bureaucratic and conformist, and industry mainly relies on copying innovation from elsewhere. Creativity outside the arts and computer industry is thin on the ground. Discrimination against women is still strong, as is active prejudice against gays, even though homosexuality is not illegal.
Before World War II, the elite culture was based on neo-Confucianism but shamanism and Buddhism were popular among the poor and in rural areas. Women in poor and rural households had greater autonomy to go about in public and participate in work than their rich sisters, and in the chapter on gay culture Tudor notes that same-sex couples were regarded as unremarkable in rural society before the twentieth century. Today the elite culture of politics and business is dominated by a fundamentalist form of Protestant Christianity, yet 70 per cent of the population is not Christian and animist faith persists. All through this book I saw signs of an elite-popular divide in terms of culture and beliefs, and found it frustrating that Tudor did not discuss this and its impact on social change.
While he does not shrink from discussing the negative aspects of Korean society, Tudor is at times a little defensive, trying to paint a positive image overall. He is worried that people might think that Koreans are shallow. K-Pop is so mindless and manufactured that it makes Stock-Aitken-Waterman look like profound intellectuals. Koreans are obsessed with luxury goods and showing off, and there is an inexhaustible passion for looking good, with spending on cosmetics, clothes and plastic surgery all exceptionally high. Advertisements for tongue operations to improve your English appear regularly in the media. Shallow? Never crossed my mind: in modern capitalism this sounds like the height of sophistication. At least Koreans have the ability to laugh at themselves. If you watch Korean comedy shows on TV or enjoy PSY's mockery of the consumer culture, you will see there is cause for hope.
Tudor believes that the adaptability of Korean culture and the determination and cohesion of its people will ensure that progress continues. I think he is right and that the shallow bits will be taken with a grain of salt. Korea tells us a lot about how, and how not, to live and this book is a reliable companion in explaining how the place works. I would have appreciated much less repetition in the text and more use of the religious, structural and cultural themes from parts one and two in explaining why the society looks and acts the way it does in the latter parts of the book, but by and large Tudor takes us into an Aladdin's cave of ideas and information that makes this `impossible' country far more plausible. Highly recommended.
on February 7, 2016
I made a mistake as I was looking more for a book about the history of Korea. I love Korean historical films and they make me curious about Korea's history and rulers. This is interesting though because South Korea is so amazing in it's success. I have watched a number of modern Korean films and television dramas and they have given me a taste of what Korea is like today. It is an interesting combination of some of the old traditions and the influences of the western world, which they are totally open too. Also, Christianity is a positive for Korea. I'm sorry that we let Korea be divided during the war as it should not have been.
on January 24, 2015
Going back 7 seven months, I knew nothing about South Korea. But as I have come to be a big fan of K-Pop and KDrama, I took a special interest in Korea and began to ask questions not only about why the entertainment is so outstanding but also: Why there is such a hysterical emphasis on education? Why is everyone in this country so competitive with each other? Why is double-eyelid and double-jaw plastic surgery so mainstream to the point that is almost expected in men and women? Why are sales of make-up higher for men than women? Why is the suicide rate among the highest in the world? And in spite of success, freedoms and a high standard of living enjoyed by few in Asia, why do the far majority of South Koreans claim to be unhappy?
for all these questions and more, this was the perfect book to read. Daniel Tudor tackles each facet of Korean history and society. In a direct, simple, perceptive, sensitive and easy-to-read manner, he explains why South Korea is the way it is. From the home to school to work place, Tudor explains it all. That includes a candid look at the steamy nightclub culture of Seoul as well as a close look at current views on homosexuality.
As Tudor (native of Great Britain) lives in Seoul and is part of the day-to-day life, he has a tremendous insight into what makes everything tick. But he also does not hesitate to offer a few personal opinions about culture, education, politics, music and South Korea’s future.
My only contention with Tudor is his somewhat negative view of K-Pop. On three occasions, he labels the South Korean K-Pop groups as “manufactured.” He seems to have a westernized romantic view of rock groups as is the case of The Beatles or The Beach Boys, groups that formed by chance and in a totally natural way. In South Korea, pop groups are largely groomed by big corporate entities such as SM Entertainment. Talent is either spotted or recruited at a young age. Parents sign their children into long-term contracts in which singing, acting and dance become their life. And when they are ready to go public, SM Entertainment (and other companies like them) have top notch training, good music, effective promotion and busy concert schedules. Are we really any different? Are ballet companies run any differently? Are state run gymnastic teams formed by high school friends?
K-Pop is so successful because it represents the best of the best. The only thing left to chance is the public mood, the latter of which may or may not be ready for a certain song or drama.
Aside from the latter observation, this is an excellent book to read if, like me, your goal is to understand the mind, heart and soul of Korea. Job well done!
on July 16, 2016
Korea. The impossible Country is a passionate comprehensive introduction to Korea, its culture and its people. The book is easy to read, engaging, very informative, and a great introduction to the country, especially if you intend visiting. Tudor's depth of knowledge is admirable and impressive and although his expertise is economics and business, the book has a soul. What is more, Tudor is able to dig into the Korean soul and present it to you in its many faces. You will dive through Korea's collective psyche and understand why Koreans behave and do things in a certain way.
This book could have been a Wikipedia sort of book or a travel guide sort of book but it succeeds at being none of that but being informative and a good companion from travelling. The book touches on the eternal and the mundane in five fascinating sections:
1- Foundations: We are presented with a brief analysis of the most influential religions in Korea (Buddhism, Christianity and Confucianism) and the specific forms that Capitalism and Democracy take in that country.
2- Cultural Codes: We immerse ourselves into those beliefs, ways of being and attitudes that make Koreans who they are: Jeong, Chemyon, Han, Heung, competition, family and neophilia.
3- Cold Reality, focuses on those aspects of life that make the functioning of society possible but aren't as thrilling as others: politics, business, work, marriage, studying and being fluent in English.
4- In the hours not spent working: eating, drinking, music, cinema, and the living space are the subject of this section.
5- More of Us and Less of them, analyses Korean attitudes towards foreigners, gays, women, and the many faces of Korean nationalism.
The book is preceded by short historical introduction. Nothing boring, it is short and sweet, very informative and a good introduction to the History of Korea. Plenty of historical details are also found in each chapter when a historical background is needed.The epilogue is a brief summary of what Tudor discusses throughout the book, that is, what makes Koreans a remarkable nation and the challenges that Korea has and needs to face in the changing world we live in.
Tudor is basically an economist and there are plenty of statistics and business and economical references in the book. However, they add to the overall believability of the book.
I love that one can read the chapters individually if one wants, as they are complete in themselves, making the book very versatile and practical.
I didn't find any typo in the book, something really cool.
>>> Two of the main absentees in the book are Korea's working classes and rural dwellers, who are barely mentioned. Korea is a very urban country. I get that, but I would have liked having a bit of more background on rural areas and rural culture and see how they differ from the urban Korea or not. On the other hand, the working class is barely mentioned, and I would have liked to know more about them as well. Are their interests, struggles and obsessions the same as those people who would send their kids to an American University and have plastic surgery to look better in their resumé?
>>> There is a total absence of Korean literature, theatre and visual arts regarding painting, sculpture and experimental visual arts and artists in section 4. Korea has a vibrant literary scene, a scene where women are dominating and are well-respected. Any visual artists that is not part of the film industry...?
>>> One of the chapters I was looking forward to read was that on Korean food. One can find a list of typical Korean dishes anywhere, so I expected this chapter to go beyond that and offer a bit of depth about Korean culinary culture. Tudor does so superficially. Some of the questions that interest me and aren't mentioned are: Which hours do they eat in the day? Is their main meal in the morning, midday or evening? Is there a foodie culture in Korea as we have it in Western countries? Is eating out expensive? Do Korean have a strong street food culture as other Asian countries? Does everybody cook at home these days or is still a women's task? Which differences do you see in food eating according to social classes in Korea? Is there a "vernacular" tea culture in Korea? Do they love programs like MasterChef? Which foreign foods do they love the most? I think Tudor knows all of this and more, so I would love have loved that sort of information commented on, even if lightly. Perhaps in the new edition of the book?
Some of the things Tudor says about Korean can be seen also in Western Europe, USA and Australia, so I wonder whether those are specifically Korean, and in which ways they are specifically Korean.For example:
> Yummy mummies who don't work using their children's achievements to push their own egos and, therefore, push their kids unnecessarily for their own sake are everywhere.
> The obsession with technology. Yes, sure, Korean moves faster than other countries in the world of gadgets, but you find similar obsessions with gadgets and technology in many Western countries. there are many people camping outside their local Apple store before the launch of a new gadget or new version of a gadget to get it.
> Gay actors who keep in the closet not to destroy their careers. Certainly, gay people have a brighter life in the Western World (Western Europe especially) but, where I live, there are constant items of news on TV about people being abused, bullied or marginalised because they are gay. The Australian ex-swimmer Ian Thorpe, had depression, publicly denied being guy, wrote a biography in which he denied it, and when he came out of the closet said that he had kept it secret out of fear because he didn't know if his country would accept him. Also in Australia, a pop singer Anthony Callea kept his gay self hidden for work career purposes, he said, as most of his fans were female teens. Of course, nobody is making life difficult for them, but people who aren't famous have a more difficult day to day.
> The problem of the ageing population and low birth rates. I cannot but agree with what Tudor says, but this is not a typically Korean problem, as it affects most countries of Western Europe, Spain and Italy with one the lowest birth rates in the world and the population ageing at the speed of ageing :).
I notice the editing when the editing is not as good as it should be. I don't mean editing as in correcting typos and odd grammar sentences, I mean editing as the proper job of editing a book by professional editors.
> Tudor repeats himself quite often, things are said over and over again in different chapters, sometimes in the same chapter, and it is not always necessary. Just one example, the per capita earnings of Koreans in the post-war era.
> At times the book reads like a blog, others like a newspaper article, and others as a proper book. That is distracting to me and not good for any book.
> The "Special Feature: Interview with Choi Min-sik" feels like a cut-&-paste from a blog or article added here. I don't know if that is the case, but it reads as a pastiche. The question that matters here is, is this interview really relevant to know the film culture of Korea and necessary to be included in the book? The answer is no.
> The data that Tudor uses for some references to religious practices relates to the 1990s! Hello hello, 2016 calling. I wonder how accurate the statistics were in 2012, when the book was written, and today.
> The author mentions a few books and articles, but does not quote them properly I understand that the book is for the general public, but including a footnote when an explicit reference is mentioned will not disturb the general populace, it is a matter of courtesy to the author mentioned, a professional backup for your reputation, and some readers could be interested in that book or article. Just an example:
" In a paper on the influence of chemyon on Korean consumer culture, Yoosun Hann of the University of Illinois wrote that it was important “not to stand out, but to fit in” (pp. 112-113)
RENDERING FOR KINDLE
~~ The comprehensive final index is not rendered for Kindle, therefore, not linked, therefore, useless for Kindle users. Moreover, the number of pages relates to the printed edition. Cheat! Cheat! Cheat!
~~ If I get an e-book, I expect the book to have any website mentioned in the text out-linked.
After reading the book I am sure he is an expert on Korea. Why not including a list of must-read books and reputed sources on Korea?
I cannot highlight enough how much I enjoyed this book and how much I recommend it to anybody who wants to know about Korea. However, the book is not polished enough, and some areas and social groups are not mentioned or barely so.
on November 14, 2013
The author provides a thorough review of all aspects of life in South Korea. Any prospective traveler to this country would do well to read it.
The author writes with an optimistic, even cheerful tone. This may be a little misleading in that reality may not be as rosy as the author portrays. There are several areas in which I would have liked to see a more detailed, and perhaps more honest, account.
For example, according to Wikipedia, the U.S. still has 84 army installations in South Korea. There are also 2 American air bases and a naval base. The interaction between American servicemen and the local population is sometime strained, especially when Americans are seen with Korean women, who then tend to be labeled as prostitutes. As is typical, Americans military people overseas tend to disregard the local culture and mores, which can lead to a bad image for the U.S. The author borrowed a pun from the British to describe the Americans: oversexed, overpaid, and over here. A light-hearted portrayal, but I can’t help but wonder what the South Koreans really feel about the American presence in their country.
I feel another omission relates to South Korea’s leadership in elementary and high-school education – it’s the highest-scoring country in reading, math and science aptitude. The author fails to explain these achievements and the relationship to a high suicide rate, second only to Lithuania. It seems characteristic of Koreans to devote all of their energy to gaining a high level of achievement, with a disregard for personal health and life quality. This seems especially hard for children, who completely miss out on what should be the enjoyment of childhood.
But I should not dwell on the negatives, because the book is very nicely written, easy to read, and a pretty thorough introduction to South Korea’s history and its development as a world industrial power.
on November 10, 2013
As someone who was born and educated in Korea for 30 years, and has been living in California for 6 years, I can say this book is more extensive and more informative than any other books written about Korea. I met Daniel in Seoul about 3 years ago when he was interested in meeting young entrepreneurs, so he could write something about the "burgeoning entrepreneurship in Korea". Reading this book, I could see that he learned SO MUCH about Korea and Koreans since. In some areas, he knows about Korea better than I do. For example, I learned a lot about Chaebol and their histories through this book. The book dedicates a lot to Korean history, but this is never a history book. The historic facts are simply to support Daniel's own insights of "how Korea became the Korea it is now". With the very insights that he gained through his own experiences and interviews, this book becomes much more interesting and engaging.
I strongly recommend this book to anyone who is curious about 1) how Korea became one of the top economies from one of the poorest countries in just 50 years, 2) how K-Pop and K-Dramas achieved international successes (including Psy), and 3) why Koreans work so hard and also drink so much. ;)
In conclusion, Korea is such an interesting country, so you SHOULD pay a visit someday if you haven't done yet.