Korea: The Impossible Country is a new book by The Economist‘s South Korean correspondent Daniel Tudor, exploring the history, social nuances and modern culture of South Korea. Having interviewed several prominent individuals responsible for shaping Korea into what it is today, including Oldboy star Choi Min-sik and Korea’s first openly gay celebrity Hong Seok-chon, Korea: The Impossible Country is informed by several views from inside Korea, as well as Daniel’s own. The result of this is an honest, intriguing look at Korea today, and what it may become in the future.
Since we were so impressed with the book and eager to discover more of Daniel’s thoughts, we interviewed him about his life in Korea, the pressures of Korean society, and where he thinks Korea is heading next.
Chincha: How did you end up working as South Korea’s The Economist correspondent?
Daniel: I was a student in 2002. My best friend at uni was – and still is – Korean. He invited me to the Football World Cup. It was the best time with this carnival atmosphere: I can’t express how good it was. Obviously Korea’s not always like that, but I saw enough in it that made me want to come back. After I graduated I came and taught English for almost a year. I hated it. I liked Korea, but I hated teaching. I was about to leave but then I ended up getting a job in equity trading. After this I went home for three years, did a masters degree, lived in Switzerland and then had an internship with The Economist in London. I wrote a story about Minerva (the Korean blogger who was arrested for predicting economic situations that later came true) and later the magazine’s Asia editor got in touch about the Korea correspondent job when it opened up.
Chincha: It seems from the book that you’re really positive about Korea. That’s one of the things I really like about it.
Daniel: Thank you. That’s what I want people to see. There are things that I criticise; there are things I don’t like, but I don’t want to be one of those whingeing foreigners – there are many of them, right? Genuinely, I love it here and if you put in some effort to learn something and if you do love it then you have a certain right to say if there are some parts of it that can change.
Chincha: Is that why you wrote this book?
Daniel: I think there’s a gap. The last big, general book trying to show what Korea is really like that was not a Lonely Planet guide was probably Mike Breen’s The Koreans in 1998 and nobody’s done anything like that since. There are a lot of Korean war or ‘economic miracle’ kind of books, and a shitload on North Korea, but no one’s really done anything on what South Korea’s like right now. It’s an interesting place and I felt that there was a gap in the market. I’m not in a position to cure cancer, but I am in a position to write a book on South Korea, so I thought I should do it. Hopefully someone will buy it, too.
Chincha: Why have you called the book Korea: The Impossible Country?
Daniel: There are two meanings. The first one is positive. One of the people I interviewed in the book was an advisor to President Park Chung-hee (South Korea’s notorious past dictator). He said that around 50 years ago Korea was the poorest, most impossible country on the planet, which no one even expected to survive at that point as a country. What it’s done in terms of, not just the economy, but democracy and culture is pretty amazing. In that respect it was this impossible country that achieved something amazing and got to where it is today.
But also, if you look at your young Korean friends, most of them have a very tough life. There’s competition, a lot of stress. You need to be seen to be doing well, receive all these qualifications, go to that university, get that job, and all this crap. In that way it’s almost impossible to satisfy the demands of Korea. I love it here but I’m glad I’m not part of that.
Chincha: You interviewed a lot of high-profile people in the book. Did any of these interviews stand out to you in particular?
Daniel: The austronaut Yi So-yeon. I didn’t know what I was going to ask her, I just wanted to talk to her and see what came out of it. She came out with all this stuff about women’s place in society, how hard it is, how you have to achieve so much and not be able to sit back and relax. It’s full of all these ideas about that – I got 1000% more than I expected from her. The way she thinks about Korea is similar to how I think about it.
There was a ton of stuff that the shaman priestess I interviewed told me that I couldn’t fit in the book, mostly about how she became a musok-in. She said that a Chinese monk, a Japanese samurai and Jesus were trying to ‘get her’ but after she accepted the Chinese monk she went through this period of a trance which lasted for days. She descended into hell and when she woke up she was on the roof of her house, naked. All the people in the neighbourhood thought she was mental. She also told me not to buy a blue car, especially when I’m 34.
Chincha: I came across a lot of other interesting facts in the book that really piqued my interest. Was there anything that surprised you in particular?
Daniel: I realised how exceptionally hardcore Korea is when it comes to competition, mainly in terms of how much proportionally people spend on luxury items such as Louis Vuitton bags and so on.
Chincha: Can you tell us something else about Korea that we’re not likely to know already?
Daniel: One thing I really like to talk to people about is old style Korean music from the 60’s and 70s. Before Park Chung-hee clamped down on it it was really good. Do you know Shin Joong-hyun (known as the ‘Godfather’ of Korean rock)? He’s about 75 now, I interviewed him for the book. He’s a really cool guy, a real gentleman. He got sent to jail in 1975 for smoking weed. I’ve spoken to a lot of older people about this and apparently it was a lot more common than people realise. Peter Underwood, who was born in Korea, was telling me that there used to be a time when KT&G, during a national tobacco shortage, started using hemp in cigarettes. But then the American government leaned on Korea to ban it and to stamp it out. The Peace Corps were sent to go around the country pulling up weed plants.
Chincha: How about three words to describe Korea?
Daniel: Human, extreme and fun.
Chincha: It really is fun! I especially enjoyed your writings on heung - joy.
Daniel: People always know about han – sadness – but there’s also a lot of joy in Korea. Old people back home seem really depressed. Old people here, you see them dancing in the streets and getting pissed in the daytime. I hope I’m like that when I’m 70.
Chincha: Any predictions on Korea’s future?
Daniel: Korea’s going post-development so people will be concerned about quality of life and not numbers – and I think that’s a good thing. This president now is going to be the last development president, so I don’t think we’re going to see more leaders who decide to build massive projects and spend all their money on that. I think there will be more presidents interested in quality of life and the welfare state. I think there’ll be more interest in culture overall and different ways of living.
Working for Samsung or Hyundai is becoming more and more difficult and there are so many graduates and so few decent jobs around now that people will discover ‘permalancing’ – permanent freelancing.
I think we’ll see more openness. I think Korea has already changed so much in the time I’ve been coming here. When I first came I would get on the metro and old men would stare at me with this get-out-of-my-country look, but now no one cares. I hope it doesn’t give up what makes it Korea, though. I hope the jeong doesn’t go away. I feel that over time people’s English is getting better and better and their experience of the west is greater, but I hope that people don’t give up on who they are.
Interview by Loren Cotter
Images courtesy of Daniel Tudor