Book review: Daniel Tudor’s “Korea: The Impossible Country”

Sometime you just need some overproduced K-Pop in your life.

Everyone knows about the “Hallyu wave” — the rise in popularity of Korean entertainment and culture that started in the 90s and is still going on today, if the programming of local television stations is taken as an indication.

Beyond their conquest of our airwaves, Koreans are also present in a very physical way here in the country. Not only has the Philippines recently welcomed its one millionth tourist from South Korea, the number of South Koreans coming here to the country to study the English language show no signs of declining any time soon.

However, there is still more to South Korea than K-Pop stars, Korean dramas, and students looking to learn English in a country closer to home. In “Korea: The Impossible Country”, The Economist’s Korea correspondent, Daniel Tudor, takes a look at the country beyond the kimchi and the K-Pop and reveals to readers a complex country full of conflicts and contradictions.

Indeed, there is so much more to Korea than what we see on our television screens — and some of it may even be shocking to the casual follower of Korean history.

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Local admirers of everything Korean may be pleased to find out that the people of the Korean peninsula share a few similar traits with those of us here in the Philippines.

Foremost of these is the concept of “jeong,” or “the invisible hug.” Defined as “feelings of fondness, caring, bonding, and attachment that develop within interpersonal relationships,” it often leads to an interdependence that results in friends, schoolmates, or coworkers looking out and supporting each other first and foremost. It’s a concept similar to our very own “bayanihan,” and is something that Filipinos and Koreans can definitely bond over.

The chapters on the changing face of the Korean family and the high regard given to the English language will resonate with local readers as well. One can’t help but notice the parallel changes happening in Korean and Filipino families, and how both could learn a thing or two from each other.

In fact, Tudor writes quite a bit about Korean characteristics that Filipinos would do well to emulate. Foremost of that is the high regard given by Koreans to education. The book reveals that after the Korean War, the Syngman Rhee government increased elementary school enrollment eight times and secondary school enrollment 10 times, with 19 percent of the government’s budget spent on education. It’s a policy one certainly wishes the Philippine government would take.

But what gives “Korea: The Impossible Country” its added oomph is its willingness to take on the less than savory aspects present in the Korean peninsula.

Just like the Philippines, the Korean market is dominated by an oligarchy of family-run businesses, or chaebol. Through the years, these chaebol have grown to become global powerhouses as well — brands like Samsung, LG, and Hyundai are now competing against Western products.

What most of us may not know, and what Tudor reveals in the book, is that these chaebol found their start in a crony system not unlike that of former President Ferdinand Marcos. A past full of corruption, bribes, and dubious government connections are shared by these chaebol, and it is fascinating to read about and discover.

As powerful an export as Korea’s media has become, it is surprising to find out that the country has a dismal record when it comes to freedom of the press and free speech. South Korean libel laws are one of the strongest in the world — one can still be sued even if the allegations are true. As such, the book says that these laws have often been used to suppress political dissent in the country.

The pushback against the Hallyu wave is also fascinating to read, especially since it still hasn’t started here in the Philippines. In places like China, Japan, and Taiwan, Korean content is regulated, and is sometimes even subject to opposition. In 2011, thousands of protesters picketed Japan’s Fuji TV because of a perceived excess in its Korean programming.

Female fans looking to bag themselves a K-Pop husband — or at least the closest approximation of it — are also bound top be disappointed by the book’s frank appraisal of the country’s xenophobia. We may welcome them here in the country, but the same may not be the case in South Korea. As the book plainly states in Chapter 25, “Multicultural Korea?”, some bias exists in the country, especially against Southeast Asians.

The book maintains that it doesn’t seem like it will change any time soon: “It is unfortunate that while South Koreans are opening up very quickly to people from abroad, the pace of change is much slower for those from places like Indonesia or the Philippines. Since discrimination against people from these countries is mainly a product of wealth disparity, it will probably remain in spite of the decline of pure-blood nationalism.”

It is this wealth of information, the balanced perspective on the pros and cons of Koran society, as well as the clear and concise prose that prevents the book from reading like an academic textbook, that makes “Korea: The Impossible Country” impossible to resist. Admirers and detractors of everything Korean have a lot to gain from reading this book, and precious little to lose.

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