Korea: The Impossible Country, by Daniel Tudor, Tuttle, RRP 19.99/$22.95, 336 pages
It is 25 years since the American humorist PJ O’Rourke wrote a notorious article in Rolling Stone marvelling at the “foreignness” of South Korea and the “strange” people who inhabit it. As evidence, O’Rourke described attending a political rally at which a protester bit off his finger and daubed the name of his favoured election candidate in blood on his coat.
Back then, South Korea was in transition from authoritarian rule; today its democracy is ranked by the Economist Intelligence Unit as more advanced than France and its per capita income, at $30,000, is closing in on the European Union average. Yet, to many outsiders, the country remains an alien and misunderstood place, better known for its barbed-wire border with North Korea than for its successful global brands such as Samsung and Hyundai.
Daniel Tudor tries to put this right in Korea: The Impossible Country, arguing that its proximity to more powerful and populous neighbours – China and Japan – has led the world to overlook “the most unlikely and impressive story of nation building of the last century”.
But this is not a history book. Tudor, Seoul correspondent for The Economist, provides a fairly perfunctory account of the “miracle on the Han River”, which saw South Korea transformed from postwar ruin to prosperous democracy within four decades. The book’s real value comes in its exploration of the cultural forces behind the country’s zeal for self-improvement.
Tudor, who has lived in Seoul for almost a decade, finds clues in Buddhism, for example, to explain why Samsung cannot match the innovation of “individualistic” Apple but is good at embracing new technology and perfecting it. He quotes a company anthem at LG Group, another of the sprawling “octopus businesses”, or chaebol, that dominate the economic landscape, where employees once sung: “We are industrial soldiers leading the times, with our new and continuous creativity and study … there is happiness for our race and mankind.”
Yet happiness often seems the one thing still eluding this country of 50m people. Koreans have a word, “han”, for the sense of melancholy ingrained in their national psyche. It is usually attributed to the peninsula’s history of invasion and oppression by neighbours and, more recently, the civil war that split families between the communist North and capitalist South.
Growing wealth has done little to lighten the mood. The suicide rate has doubled during the past decade and is now second-highest in the world after Lithuania. Tudor attributes this to some of the same characteristics that have made the country so successful: intense competitiveness and a thirst for betterment, which mean that South Koreans are rarely satisfied with their lot.
Pressure to succeed starts early, with children spending hours each evening at after-school cramming classes to prepare for all-important university entrance exams. This has resulted in one of the world’s most highly-educated populations but without enough good jobs to go round.
Tudor, whose easy writing style makes for an engaging read, wisely avoids detailed discussion of next month’s election. But he echoes the view of independent candidate Ahn Cheol-soo that more must be done to unleash the pent-up potential of women and the young.
He spends more time analysing the rise of Korean popular culture, which has swept across Asia during the past decade and is now going global with the success of PSY, the rapper whose hit, “Gangnam Style”, has become a worldwide internet sensation.
Some see PSY’s breakthrough as evidence that South Korea is finally establishing itself in the global consciousness as the modern, sassy society it is. That may be true but his satire of life in the rich, fashionable Gangnam district of Seoul also reflects unease over the rising social divisions charted in Tudor’s book.
A former presidential adviser is quoted likening South Korea to an aircraft taking off. Only once it gets to cruising altitude will its people be able to sit back and relax. The champagne has begun flowing in Gangnam but for most Koreans contentment always seems just out of reach.
Andrew Ward is a former FT Korea correspondent