KOREA: THE IMPOSSIBLE COUNTRY, by Daniel Tudor. Tuttle, 2012, 320 pp., $22.95 (hardcover)

This superb book charts the improbable rise of South Korea from the devastation of war and impoverishment to rapid development and prosperity, and from brutal dictatorship to the most vibrant democracy in Asia. It is “impossible” in terms of its economic and political achievements, “the most unlikely and impressive story of national building of the last century,” Daniel Tudor writes.

The Korean War (1950-53) claimed the lives of 3 million people, including 2.5 million Korean civilians, at a time when the combined population of the entire peninsula was only 30 million. In the mid-1950s GDP per capita was less than $100 and the average life span was 54 years old, compared to $32,000 and 79 as of 2012. This phoenix-like rise from the ashes was based on hard work, sacrifice and extensive state support for industry. The economy was foundering until Park Chung Hee (the current president’s father) took over in a coup in 1961 and ruled with an iron fist until gunned down by the head of the KCIA intelligence service in 1979. He is credited with the “miracle on the Han,” the era of phenomenal economic growth that was largely based on nurturing national champions. Famously, Park called businessmen “corrupt swine,” but enriched those who did his bidding.

Samsung, the star of Korea Inc., accounts for 20 percent of GDP and has a stake in virtually all market sectors where there are profits to be made, from Apple-beating mobile phones and Sony-trumping electronics to resorts, real estate, insurance and shipbuilding. This “ginormous” influence is a mixed bag; there is intense pride that a Korean firm has taken on the world’s best firms and won, but Koreans are ambivalent about its stifling omnipresence and political influence at home. Journalists criticize the behemoth at their peril as Tudor explains that libel laws in South Korea stack the deck and even if scandalous allegations are proven true, damages are awarded if the court decides that reputations have been sullied. So much for freedom of the press.

Tudor provides a primer in Korean history then launches into the modern era by examining the role of shamans and the spiritual world. He wryly compares English teachers to shamans, noting that both are paid relatively large sums of money based on an exaggerated faith in their powers.

South Korea’s problems are so similar to Japan’s that many passages read as if the country names are interchangeable. Korea has a higher suicide rate, a similarly low birth rate, a rapidly aging society, wealth without prosperity, growing disparities and just like Japan over one-third of the workforce is hired on fixed term contracts as nonregular workers with low pay, few benefits and no job security. But the differences are also stark as South Korean firms and their government adjusted quickly to changing global markets while Japan, Inc. appears relatively stodgy and complacent.

Cronyism, we learn, is driven by social obligations, even if technically illegal. In this “stubbornly persistent culture of corruption … when scandals involving the powerful occur, punishments are usually inadequate.”

There is some handwringing in Japan about an education pressure-cooker, but this is nothing compared to the achievement obsession that permeates South Korea. Tudor reports that some households spend one-third of their monthly income on tutoring alone, and schooling appears to be run on a boot camp basis, meaning little sleep or play for the young. He further argues that education is perpetuating inequalities as wealthier families can outspend others on private tuition, and their children can get in the best universities and land the best jobs.

Koreans’ high aspirations make it an impossibly stressful society, one where people find happiness elusive; it is 102nd in global happiness rankings. Tudor writes, “This is a country that puts too much pressure on its citizens to conform to impossible standards of education, reputation, physical appearance, and career progress.” Image is everything so designer brands rack up massive sales while Koreans lead the world in plastic surgery.

Everyone knows Psy’s hit tune “Gangnam Style.” Here, the upscale Seoul neighborhood of Gangnam is exposed as a hotbed of ostentation where one sees “the most immaculately dressed, beautiful, and yet curiously unhappy-looking women.”

Korean drinking habits are legendary, and Tudor, apparently drawing on extensive fieldwork, explains the relevant customs in a nation that leads the non-Western world in per capita booze consumption. Korean workers have the longest working hours in the industrialized world and thus it is not surprising that 74.4 percent report that their jobs make them depressed. Many seek solace in the bottle and have a popular expression, “Let’s drink and die.” The author also gives many useful tips about doing business in South Korea, where personal bonds are key and alcohol is a “relationship catalyst.”

Tudor sparkles in explaining Korean cultural concepts and values, and its deep social, generational and political divisions. He writes well and has an eye for the quirky detail while charting changing norms in sex, divorce and gender equality. Learning about Korea has never been more entertaining.

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies at Temple University, Japan campus.

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