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The Koreans: Who They Are, What They Want, Where Their Future Lies Paperback – January 17, 2004

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin; Second Edition, Revised edition (January 17, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312326092
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312326098
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.8 x 8.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (56 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #443,847 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Kirkus Reviews

A veteran British journalist examines the history, culture, and economy of North and (principally) South Korea, where he lives for half of each year. Realizing that most readers know Korea only because of the war (1950-53) or because of the communist North's nuclear potential and noisy aggressiveness, Breen limns with patience and perspicuity an engaging portrait of this least-known of the major Asian economic powers. He describes, for example, the ``fierce sense of identity'' among Koreans and concludes that in Korean society ``you are your DNA. He examines Korean religions and educational systems, observing that the peninsula's undergraduate programs are inferior because students experience ``no pressure to perform as undergraduates. In a rapid summary of Korean history, Breen notes that the Koreans ``have remained a distinct people'' for centuries, despite domination by China, Japan, and others. He has a powerful command of anecdote and detail, illustrated for example in his description of community-wide rock fights in the 19th century to settle public disputes and in the horrible image of the 100,000 pickled Korean noses the 16th-century Japanese warriors took to their country to certify their body counts. Breen credits the late South Korean president Park Chung-hee for providing the leadership that propelled his nation into the front ranks of economic powers, but he also presents a devastating analysis of the pervasive bribery and corruption in the Korean business, education, medical, and legal systems. In a clever though questionable analogy, Breen attempts to infer broad cultural truths from the ``lawless, selfish and rude'' behavior of South Korean drivers, asserting that ``traffic behaviour illustrates how society regulates itself. In general, a splendid work of explication and analysis by one who admits to being both charmed and angered by his subjects. -- Copyright ©1999, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


"Michael Breen illuminates through countless anecdotes and personal observations the weird and wonderful ways of Asia's most paradoxical, polarized country. Few Koreans, let alone foreigners, have a better understanding than Breen of how a people can be alternately warm and ruthless, shrewd and childlike, tolerant and pigheaded. This is a thoughtful, passionate, and enlightening look at the world's eleventh largest economy and one its oldest cultures; required reading for the neophyte and Korea hand alike." --Steve Glain, former Seoul correspondent, The Wall Street Journal

"Michael Breen gives readers an insight into the history and character of a complex people which helps us assess how they might deal with the current complex period in their development." --Catherine Lee, Seoul correspondent, The Economist

"For anyone who wants to know Korea and the Koreans better, this book is an excellent place to start. Michael Breen's achievement is to have gotten under Korea's skin. His portrait of Koreans is at once highly personal and convincingly recognizable. both engaged and engaging, this book comes as close as an outsider can get to an insider's account of contemporary Korea [and its] undoubted importance as a key player in the global economy of the twenty-first century." --Aidan Foster-Carter, Korea expert, Leeds University

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Customer Reviews

Finally, the book is very well written and an easy read.
Niall McCabe
Breen overall shows a large repertoire of Korean knowledge, and I would recommend this book to anyone trying to get an insight on Koreans or Korean culture.
Scott M
You will definitely learn a lot about Korea reading this book.

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

62 of 69 people found the following review helpful By Niall McCabe on June 29, 2000
Format: Hardcover
I purchase this book a week before I left Seoul, in June of 1999, after 5 years living and working, for and with the Korean people. As I read the first chapter on the long flight back to my home in Ireland, I immediately knew this book was going to be everything I had hoped it would be and wished I had access to such a book 5 years earlier before I arrived in Seoul. Mr. Breen, like many other authors starts by giving a brief outline of Korea's troubled history and how this history has effected the Korean people. What separates this book from many other books on Korea is Breen's emphasis ,as the title suggests, on how Koreans behave and why they act that way. Breen explains many aspects of modern Korea(really South Korea) culture, which took me 5 years to understand and appreciate. He discusses areas which most foreigners who visit Korea for a short period of time will probably never notice or if they do not fully ubderstand. An example of such an area is the structure of a Korean office and the importance of desk position, chair size etc. etc. Finally, the book is very well written and an easy read. Breen manages to describe Korea and "The Koreans" in a clear and un-pedantic style accessible to everybody. I would recommend this book to anybody who is planning a trip to Korea for either business or pleasure. For any business traveller, I also recommend Mark Cliffords excellent history of Korean industry "The Troubled Tiger".
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56 of 65 people found the following review helpful By Iljun Jang on May 13, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Mr. Breen's book is filled with insights about the Korean people. I recommend this book without any reservation to anyone interested in Korea and the Koreans, and I think that the two groups who will particularly appreciate this wonderful book are foreigners living in Korea, and expatriate Koreans living abroad. As a Korean who has spent quite a number of years abroad(England and Japan), I have always been weary of the many, many aspects of the Korean psyche and character which must seem strange to foreigners, but never quite been able to put a finger on it. This book not only achieves just that in flying colours with a mixture of vivid anecdotes and scrupulous research, but it also sheds some bright light on WHY we Koreans do what we do - be it "good" or "bad" in the eyes of foreigners. I should note that another gem about this book is that the author has sprinkled it with an abundant portion of English humour("English" here in the sense of "English weather"), and while reading some pages, I was rolling on the floor laughing with stitches. Highly, highly recommended for anyone with an interest in Korea.
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27 of 31 people found the following review helpful By C. Joan Villanueva on December 17, 2000
Format: Hardcover
I have lived in Korea for three years, and never read anything so vivid and insightful into the Korean society, history and culture. The author explains each point with countless examples to prove his point, in such articulate detail I can't imagine any book which explains Korea better. Michael Breen talks about Korea and the foreigner's love / hate relationship with the country, and how Korea tends regardless to captivate and interest foreigners, which I could directly relate to. In addition he explains the history in a fascinating and colorful chronicle, and gives a vivid description of what exactly has shaped the Korean mind and their attitudes towards outsiders. If someone was interested in Korea, this is the first book I would recommend.
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18 of 20 people found the following review helpful By Sir Edgar on September 5, 2011
Format: Paperback
I enjoyed reading this book and it had much interesting information about Korean people. But I couldn't help but feel that it was written by an "ethnocentric" (to be polite) British person who was stuck in the 80s and 90s. Much of the commentary is outdated and irrelevant. The author relies on personal anecdotes most of the time and while this might be entertaining and seem relevant to some (mostly English teachers who have lived in Korea for a couple of years), it just doesn't give a full and complete picture of Koreans. I kept thinking, "Well, let's also hear the Korean side of the story!"

Anyhow, you get a sense of negativity and condescension in the writing, leaving a somewhat bitter taste in the mouth. Much of the writing is full of contempt. It could have been a much better book with just 10% more positivity, research, understanding, and cultural sensitivity. Does the book have useful information about Koreans? Yes. Does it give you an idea of what Koreans are like? Yes. But does it also stereotype and generalize from the sole perspective of a biased Westerner? Yes.

Korea is one of the most rapidly changing societies in the world. A Korean person of the 80s and 90s is not the same Korean you see today. Breen takes an opportunity in the update at the end of the book to say that the modern Korean of the 21st century is a totally different species. It's almost like saying, "Everything I just said I take back! Here are the new Koreans!" Instead he could have benefited from portraying an overall picture of Koreans in changing times rather than fitting them all into one box.

Conclusion: My advice is to read the book, but with a grain of salt that it is dated to the 80s and 90s and over-generalizes.
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28 of 34 people found the following review helpful By Greg Linze on February 18, 2002
Format: Hardcover
The Koreans is a balanced reference work for people with a curiosity about modern Korea. It would probably make a good textbook for college students too. I lived in Pusan for one and a half years and there just aren't too many good books on Korea. The author's points are largely correct, but he sometimes exaggerates, maybe to support his case. Although the author's book jacket bio mentions that he used to write for the Unification Church-owned Washington Times, it makes no mention of his previously published biography of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's early years. I don't know if Breen himself is a member of the Unification Church but the full text of his Moon book is posted on the church's official website under the heading, "Bibliography of Our Publications." Regardless of the author's affiliations, The Koreans is a fair treatment about a country not many people know about.
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