97 of 106 people found the following review helpful
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.
35 of 38 people found the following review helpful
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.
23 of 25 people found the following review helpful
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 [...]
20 of 22 people found the following review helpful
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.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
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.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on September 13, 2013
Note: I received a review copy of the translated version of this book from Mr. Tudor.
It is clear that Daniel Tudor, formerly with the Economist magazine, loves Korea. In the media interview about this book, Tudor often recounts the electric excitement he felt when he first visited Korea in 2002, in the middle of FIFA World Cup that Korea co-hosted with Japan. What is admirable is that Tudor did not let his love for Korea devolve into wide-eyed orientalism. In Korea, the Impossible Country, Tudor explains Korea like a person in a long-term relationship about her partner. He praises Korea for its unusual achievements, but does not avert his eyes from its unusual problems either. In both cases, his tone is constant and warm, being neither overly excited nor unduly critical.
In Impossible Country, Tudor introduces the contemporary Korean society by arranging a grand tour of Korea, touching upon its modern history, social zeitgeist, pop culture, aesthetics, religions and social mores. Tudor's treatment of these topics is brief, but not cursory. He does a great job of finding granular factoids--many of which are probably not commonly known even among Koreans--that are both interesting and properly representative of the aspect of Korea that he explains. One of the ways in which Tudor achieves this is by actually talking to, and getting the voices of, the Koreans on the ground. (Many books in English about Korea eschews this seemingly obvious step.) In particular, the interview with a mudang [무당], i.e. a shaman, was particularly entertaining.
Impossible Country is also excellent in providing significant counter-currents within the Korean culture, which is essential for the reader to avoid reducing Korea into a series of stereotypes. For example, as the book discusses han [한]--a sorrowful emotion that is widely recognized to form a significant strain in Korean aesthetics--Tudor introduces a novelist who claims that han is a relatively new concept implanted by Imperial Japan in the early 20th century as it was colonizing Korea. Regardless of the strength of this claim, simply introducing this claim does much to refresh the prevalent discussion about han that is often banal in English-language literature about Korea.
This book is not without faults. Although Impossible Country does a good job providing details, certain parts of the book seem a bit too hasty as it moves from Point A to Point B. In many parts, it overly relies on Confucianism to explain away characteristics of Korean society when jumping straight into the facts would have been preferable. But these are nits that need not concern the target audience for this book.
The Bottom Line: Read this book if you have no more than basic knowledge about Korea. Even if you consider yourself fairly proficient about Korea, there is enough in this book that may teach you a thing or two.
Reading Korea (readingkorea.blogspot.com)
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on August 9, 2013
Some months ago, I travelled to Europe for a training program for communication skills, and there was a suggestion by the communications coach, after learning that i came from Korea, that I should write an essay to explain the Korea the people and the country with a spin on doing business there and submit to one of those management magazines. He said that while Korea profile is growing internationally, the country and its people are still an enigma. That was a surprise to me but as I thought about it more, he was completely right. Between China and Japan, it is not as if there isn't enough to talk about in East Asia. So Korea's share of the limelight would have been somewhat limited. That is starting to change as the country starts to become a more active player on the global arena in many facets of political, economics and cultural activities.
I was born, raised in Korea, and spent 15 years overseas and been back for the last 15, hence I consider myself to be more bicultural than most with a reasonable knowledge of the country, but I am happy to say that I still learned a lot from reading this book. It gives historical insights to why things have developed the way they have with enough substance to give the topics some justice. There are lots wrong with the country, but the author always balances it out with why, and that there are changes and in most areas, it is going in the progressive direction. The author obviously has a positive view of the country and this shows throughout the book. But he does so without hiding the ugly parts and that balance is nicely achieved. There are of course topics that is well known to those who are from the country or those who know the country well. In my case, I felt that they were captured and represented reasonably accurately.
The writing contains somewhat dry sense of humor typical of the Economist magazine articles, and can make the reading enjoyable. There are some repetition of similar topics which can be a little bit tiring, however for those who are not familiar with Korea will not be bothered by the repetition.
Overall, it is an excellent reading, and I strongly recommend to those who are interested in Korea. As Korea becomes more globalized and more foreigners come to Korea to live and work, they could do well to read the book to get a primer about the country, the people and their cultures. Those who have been here for a while will also get some aha moments reading the book.
As for my communications coach, I will let him know that someone else has done a fine job of putting together an explanation on Korea, so the world doesn't need my article in a hurry.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Author Tudor asserts that (South) Korea is home to two miracles - the first is an economic transformation out of poverty, and the second is its transformation from military dictatorship in 1987 to a stable democracy. The 'bad news' is that South Korea is second only to Lithuania in terms of suicide rates, quintupling between 1989 and 2009; only 7% are 'very satisfied.'
An estimated 3 million died during the three-year Korean War that ended 7/27/53; 2.5 million of those were civilians. This was out of a combined population (North and South) of 30 million. Furthermore, its infrastructure was almost totally destroyed, as well as half the houses. Life expectancy was about 54 years at the time, and GDP/capita less than $100.
Buddhism is credited by some for Korean's capacity for overcoming obstacles - one c an escape one's karma through continuous self-improvement. Study doesn't stop with a college degree, but is lifelong. During the Korean War the importance to learn was so strong that universities set up tents in the mountains for students to learn by candlelight.
Confucianism is not a religion but a system of moral philosophy that originated in China. At its heart is the belief that humans are improvable through cultivation and moral action, and that a harmonious society can be created when all members fulfill certain obligations. The first is the necessity to treat others with humanity. Leaders that fail to do this lose their mandate to govern and may be disobeyed. If he behaves benevolently, subjects are to accept his word. Second there is the need to observe social rituals - the correct way to show respect for each other and behave in harmonious ways (eg. drinking tea, at dinner, mourning the dead). The ideal society is ruled by those especially wise - hence the practice of national exams to determine who would join the civil service, or enter universities today. Loyalty is essential - to family most of all. Ruler-subject, father-son, older-younger, husband-wife.
Buddhism and Confucianism are not mutually exclusive - both assign importance to helping others and to self-improvement. 'SKY' graduates (Seoul University, Korea University, Yonsei University) are considered to be on the fast track - 7/10 CEOs of the largest firms, and 8/10 judges come from SKY schools. The top-level civil service exam brings a lifetime of stability and respect to those that pass - 1 in 41.
South Korea experimented with democracy after the war, but Syngman Rhee ('48) quickly became a despot and was forced to flee to Hawaii in 1960. His follower couldn't hold things together so General Park Chung-hee seized power 5/61 and started Korea's progress.
Business leaders were initially publicly humiliated, even jailed and fined, because of prior corruption and tax evasion. Park then offered 18 leading entrepreneurs a deal they couldn't refuse - participate in his development plans or go to jail.
His '62-'67 plan focused on fertilizer, cement, chemicals, oil refining, and textiles. Shipbuilding was soon added (Daewoo). State funds were flush with U.S. government loans, payments and earnings from VN War participation, soft loans and compensation from Japan for its depredations.
Park was not corrupt, though many others were. His strong leadership and integrity held society together. He also instructed companies to export and therefore learn to compete with high quality and low costs. This was in return for being protected from foreign imports. The state (President Park) controlled the banks and purse-strings for all.
Chaebol corporations were vertically integrated, rigidly hierarchical, paternalistic, and favored family members - the one who did the best job eventually became chairman. Wages were kept low and unions were barred, but had headcounts were also higher than they needed to be. The government set export targets. Domestic competition was non-existent. Chaebol are no longer financially supported by the government, but their size makes taking them on foolish.
Companies that performed best were rewarded by Park. Jeong Ju-young (Hyundai) learned to jump at any opportunity proposed by Park and often was able to outperform goals, then using remaining government funds for initiatives of his own. Tariffs have been reduced.
Park exhorted the populace to improve South Korea and help it beat North Korea and Japan. Long days and six-day workweeks were the norm. Children were told they were on a historic mission to revive the nation. Export targets were constantly increased.
Between school and private tutors, children might study 15-16 hours/day. Korea is the third largest supplier of foreign undergraduates to Harvard. In 1997, 70% of elementary schoolers and half of middle and high-school students received some amount of extra schooling or tutoring. About 9% of high-schoolers receive private lessons after 11 P.M. Over 98% of those between 25-34 have graduated from at least junior college. Many do not find steady work. Mandatory Saturday work is no longer allowed for companies employing at least 1,000. Work week now down to an average of 48 hours.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
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.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
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!