For those with even a brief experience living in South Korea, there is one thing on which all will concur: they are a proud people. Proud of their food, their history and their culture, while imbued with an abundant sense of achievement regarding how far the country has progressed in such a short span of time.
That is not to say that this pride begets satisfaction. Most often, far from it. As collective narrators of the world’s most improbable tale of rags to riches, the Korean storyline remains irrevocably anchored to writing the next chapter; all the while crafting weighty expectations into the story arc of its characters that might better be called impossible rather than improbable.
It is from this point of view that Daniel Tudor writes his book, Korea: The Impossible Country. Though a fitting title for his prose, the idea for the book’s name first came about during an interview Tudor conducted with a former aid to the late dictator Park Chung-hee, who said back in the 1950s that, Korea was the poorest, most impossible country on the planet.
From there on, the title stuck.
A wide-ranging, Sunday-on-the-sofa read, Tudor’s book spans Korean history from its mythical founding by Dangun to the modern glitz of the world’s 15th-largest economy. He does so by means of personal insights, coupled with assorted interviews featuring Koreans ranging from Oldboy‘s Choi Min-sik to a Shaman priestess to the country’s first astronaut, Yi So-yeon.
I recently had a chance to interview the interviewer and get some of his thoughts on life here on the peninsula.
Born in Stalybridge, England, just outside of Manchester, and educated in politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford, 30-year-old Daniel Tudor has spent the past five years living in Seoul as a correspondent for both The Economist and Newsweek.
While thankful to be here covering the impossible, he is grateful that it’s only in the role of professional observer.
I love living here, but often, I feel thankful that I’m not part of this society’s rat race, said Tudor, before segueing into the dual meaning of his book’s title. I think that this society makes life ‘impossible’ for its citizens in some way, by setting up impossible ideals to live up to, and forcing people to accept a very narrow definition of what ‘success’ can be.
This irresolvable notion of success and the path to get there, from attaining high test scores to cosmetic surgery, is widely spoken of in Tudor’s book, his first, which now takes its place in the sparsely occupied English-language canon on Korea.
Before settling in for his five-year stint, he had been coming to Korea off and on since 2002. His covering Korea for two of the world’s most famous publications came by chance.
People don’t like to be so outspoken here, so that often leads to boring interviews. And if you criticize someone, they are liable to go ape on you. There’s a little over-sensitivity, especially where the foreign press is involved.
I just applied online for an internship with The Economist in 2008. I decided to apply on the spur of the moment, on deadline day. It was a really lucky thing that I did, because it changed my life.
During his time here, Tudor has witnessed vast changes on the southern part of the peninsula. The nickname Hermit Kingdom is a dated cliché, as is The Land of the Morning Calm, but South Korea is still weaving its way into the global conscious for attributes other than Samsung, Hyundai, K-pop and breaking news related to the non-resident string of North Korean Kims.
For the first time in its history, Korea is paying mind to its soft power and the image it projects to the world. With that in mind, over the past several years, the government has made great efforts to brand itself. Tudor, say the endeavor has often missed the mark –especially in regard to attracting tourists.
The thinking is, ‘What do we want foreigners to recognize about us?’ Usually the answer is all that is ‘traditional’, safe, and frankly not that exciting, said Tudor.
Koreans themselves don’t, by and large, get excited about pansori (traditional Korean songs) or traditional dance, and yet the rest of the world is supposed to? The question instead should be, ‘What in our culture will be interesting or inspiring to people from other countries, and how should we provide it?’
Tudor feels that ordinary life in Korea is its most marketable quality and that tourism should emerge organically, without perceived notions of what foreigners want to do when coming here.
I think it’s all about the experience, rather than, âLook at this old palace, and go to this kimchi museum.’ I’ve had loads of people visit me over the years and they’ve all been impressed by how much fun Korea can beâlet’s say we go out for an evening, eat some great food, drink makgeolli, talk to random locals in a pojang macha (small tent restaurants), do some noraebanging (karaoke), and so on, but the government never promotes that. They even move pojang macha out of the way when big international events come to Korea, as though they were something to be ashamed of.
Tudor says that he still has a few more books to write while he is here, but for now, journalism pays the rent and he is perfectly content covering the rapidly evolving Korea.
Korea is a great long-term story. I love this theme of developmentalism giving way and Lee Myung-bak being the last developmentalist president of Korea.
‘The big question, as far as I’m concerned, is now, can Korea start to abandon its overzealous competition mania? Competition is what got Korea this far, but as time goes by it is becoming a hindrance.’
Are there any drawbacks with being a foreign correspondent based in Seoul?
On the downside, people don’t like to be so outspoken here, so that often leads to boring interviews. And if you criticize someone, they are liable to go ape on you. There’s a little over-sensitivity, especially where the foreign press is involved.
Part of Tudor’s job is keeping up with the Korean media. As for his fluency in the language, he says, It is about 50 percent. I can read a newspaper slowly, but my speaking isn’t so great.
What about his take on the newspapers he reads?
The media is a business, with each article clicked on a source of revenue. It is unfortunately in the interests of the media to pander to basic fears and biases, and exaggerate everything, because doing so makes more money. And in these days of declining revenue, it becomes even more tempting. Just wait and see how this election is reported: It’ll be fascist Park Geun-hye versus commie Moon Jae-in, depending on whose story you read.
Returning to his book, I wonder: What if the publisher comes back asking that his next book be titled, Korea: The Possible Country?
The big question, as far as I’m concerned, is now, can Korea start to abandon its overzealous competition mania? Competition is what got Korea this far, but as time goes by it is becoming a hindrance, not just psychologically but also economically, in many indirect ways. If Korea can be flexible enough to change in this regard, then it will be a truly ‘possible’, not to mention, happier country.
Photos courtesy of Daniel Tudor.