The New Koreans – The Story of a Nation tells the fascinating story of how a small, impoverished, war-ravaged people became one of the world’s most advanced and coolest countries. It tells this story in a manner that is both entertaining and informative, providing an in-depth historical, cultural, political and sociological look at the country.
While I did know the basics of South Korea such as its spectacular economy and authoritarian and war-torn past, I learned a great deal more from this book. I especially liked how the book was organized into themes and chapters covering specific aspects of the country and people, ranging from contemporary times to Korea’s historical roots to Japanese colonization and the Korean War. Breen’s affection for the country, where his wife is from, is obvious as is his disdain for the North.
Having worked as a foreign correspondent in South Korea since 1982, Breen includes lots of insights from his career as well as anecdotes of encounters and interviews with high-ranking politicians and businessmen. But he wisely does not let these overwhelm his narrative, which combines history, cultural references and recent news events.
There are certain themes that are well-known, such as the Koreans’ competitiveness, pride and patriotism, but this is tempered by a lack of self-confidence and inferiority. This stems from Korea’s historical geopolitical status as a small state wedged between much bigger and powerful neighbours, chiefly China and Japan. In the 20th century, division after World War II caused the north and south to separate under the respective influences of the Soviet Union and the US, which continued Korea’s long history of foreign domination. This partly explains why despite being firm allies, South Korea sometimes harbours anti-US sentiment.
While for many people the predominant issue on the Korean peninsula is the South’s standoff with the North, a poor pariah state ruled by a boyish madman with nuclear weapons, the two had a long history of being a unified state since the 7th century. This was formed from three historic kingdoms Baekje, Goguryeo and Silla, the latter of which conquered the first two. This state was followed by Goryeo, which lasted for 456 years until it was overthrown by a general, who created the Joseon Dynasty, which ruled Korea until it became a colony of Japan in the 20th century. The book also looks at the country’s tense relations with North Korea, with which it split from after World War II and then fought off an invasion from in 1950.
Since the second half of the 20th century, South Korea has become an economic success story, accompanied by a transition into a full democracy. This sounds similar to Taiwan, though one surprising difference was that South Korea actually had presidential elections whilst supposedly an authoritarian state. However, rulers did interfere in elections to ensure their victories as well as declare martial law, so for the most part, these elections were not free and fair. As a result, coups, protests and bloody crackdowns were common throughout the seventies and eighties, until after the 1988 Olympic Games held in Seoul.
Nowadays, South Korea is better known for K-pop, Samsung, and Hyundai, with a growing international cultural clout (as seen by this year’s Academy Awards Best Picture win by Parasite). Thanks to The New Koreans, we know that behind this cool national exterior is a country that has (and continues to) overcome a tortuous and turbulent past and has more than earned its place in the global spotlight.