Korea: The Impossible Country – Winner announced!

Korea: The Impossible Country, a new book by Daniel Tudor, Economist correspondent in Seoul

Congratulations to Cody. T! A copy of Korea: The Impossible Country is on its way to you for this limerick:


There once was a boy who was never
charming, athletic or clever
damn omchina
I can only alba
Soju, my partner forever.


At koreaBANG, we scour the Korean internet for popular stories and articles that are genuinely being talked about by people in Korea. Although there are limits to how much our translated netizen comments represent Koreans as a whole, they do pull back the curtain slightly on a more positive, negative, but ultimately more human side of Korea that is sometimes neglected.
Books on Korea are a plenty, but few seem to really get beyond kimchi and k-pop and deal with some of the less often-discussed topics that affect Koreans on a daily basis. We were therefore interested to hear that Daniel Tudor, the Economist‘s Korea Correspondent, has a book coming out later this month that really delves deep into South Korean contemporary society.
Although it makes no mention of a Ladygate, and you’ll be pleased to know netizens don’t feature, we feel the book portrays Korea from a comprehensive and fascinating angle that’s worth sharing with our readers. To promote the book, and find out more behind Daniel’s motivations in writing it, we caught up with him for an interview in his natural habitat, Seoul.

koreaBANG: You touch on quite a few topics in your book that are often ignored in other publications: homosexuality, the concept of han and its opposite heung, and you don’t seem to shy away from open criticism of the chaebol industries and crazy megachurches. Are you trolling the conservatives? Disagreeing with them surely makes you a jongpuk, does it not?Daniel Tudor: Haha.. I suppose if you put it like that, I’ll look like a lefty in the Korean context. But the Korean political context is pretty different to back home, I think… here, sometimes what is right is left, and what’s left is right. So regarding criticism of the chaebol, if one talks about abusive practices like price-fixing, or fishy corporate governance, they’ll make you out to be a bit of a commie. But actually, genuine competition and rules that make for a level playing field would be just considered normal/proper capitalism elsewhere.

So if that’s enough to make me a jongpuk, then sign me up for a Kim Il Sung lapel badge! It is amusing that people will sometimes throw the term bbalgaengi at someone who criticises capitalism as it is practiced in South Korea. Actually I’m quite capitalistic myself- I’d like my own business in Korea eventually, and would like to be able to compete. And besides, North Korea is hardly communist. I think this is the greatest misunderstanding about the North – the way I see it is that its a traditional Korean monarchy, like Joseon. I’d like to rename it Hu-joseon (‘later Joseon‘).

Daniel Tudor

Daniel Tudor, Korea Correspondent for the Economist and author of Korea: The Impossible Country

And socially I suppose I am pretty liberal, so I’ll unapologetically express support for greater women’s rights, and better treatment of sexual minorities in Korea or anywhere else. And as for the megachurches, well, some of them do deserve criticism. Not all of them, but definitely the ones where the head pastor treats church funds like his own personal ATM and then spouts off about moral values.

Also in some way I’ve tried to go for topics that I feel have been ignored a little by others. For instance, in the English language, there’s pretty much nothing you can read about the lives of gay people in Korea. I don’t know whether I’ve done a good job on it or not, but anyway, I thought it needed doing. The whole business of writing a book on South Korea itself is a little bit like that – there’s so much written about North Korea, there’s so much written about the Korean War, and the economic growth era as well- but the last time anyone did a ‘what is South Korea like today?’ book was in the late 1990s with Mike Breen‘s The Koreans. A decade and a half in Korea is like a century in my country, so we’re definitely overdue another one.

koreaBANG: But even though the book’s about Korea, you didn’t really write about North Korea at all… why?DT: Basically I think there are too many books about North Korea now, and I don’t really see what I could add to our understanding of the place. I’d probably sell more books if I became a Pyongyangologist, but life is too short to think like that.

One of the great tragedies of Korea coverage is that the South gets completely overshadowed. Put Kim Jong Il or Kim Jong Un on the front of your magazine, and people buy it; put Lee Myung-bak on the front of your magazine and people will ask ‘who’s that?’ South Korea is an incredibly interesting place with so much going on, and yet the whole world is more excited by a few crappy rockets that don’t work properly. So in a way I’m deliberately saying ‘stop fussing about North Korea for a second, and take a look at the South’.

Having said that, there is one North Korea-related section, but its focus is on how Southerners see it. I’m arguing that increasingly, people here don’t want reunification, so we need to correct our assumption about this, and accordingly reassess predictions about ‘when’, ‘how’, and ‘if’ reunification can take place.

koreaBANG: Your book about the South is called The Impossible Country; Victor Cha also recently released a book on the North called The Impossible State. What is it that makes Korea so impossible?

DT: Yeah, I was absolutely mortified when I heard his book had that title. Especially because his came out first! I hope nobody thinks I ripped him off. Anyway, I think North Korea is ‘impossible’ for pretty obvious reasons, but regarding the South, there are two sides to it.. the first is the classic ‘Korean miracle’ story: one of my interviewees, an ex-advisor to Park Chung-hee, said ‘we were the poorest, most impossible country on the planet’, in reference to how miserable a state this country was in just fifty years ago. It would have been impossible really to imagine South Korea becoming what it is today, a wealthy democracy with growing cultural clout, back then. A lot of people didn’t even think it would survive as a nation. The second is that Korea today for a lot of people is ‘impossible’. The insane level of competition in Korean society – to be the best educated, the best looking, the wealthiest, with the best husband/wife, and so on – makes life extremely difficult. When I look at my young Korean friends, I think to myself, ‘God, your life is tough’ (I’m sure it was materially worse for their parents’ generation, but that was a different kind of tough). I love Korea, but I do thank my lucky stars that I’m not obliged to live up to Korean social expectations about success.

Daniel Tudor with Yamagata Tweakster

Daniel Tudor with Korean rapper Psy of 'Gangnam Style'

Daniel Tudor with Korean rapper Psy of ‘Gangnam Style’

koreaBANG: What makes this book different to our bookcase full of Land of the Morning Calm, Kimchi Kingdom, Coldest Winter, Crouching Economic Tiger: Hidden 38th Parallel books that otherwise saturate the ‘I lived in Korea and wrote a book’ market? Some of those books don’t exist (yet), but you get the idea.

DT: Haha.. fantastic titles there. As they suggest, the Korea narrative for English readers has always been one part economic miracle, one part Korean War, and a layer of ‘wow, look at those crazy North Koreans’ on top. I wanted to avoid these over-told stories as much as possible, and tell you something about what South Korea is like right now. I don’t know how well I’ve done that, but simply because there’s no real competition in this space, I think my book should do okay by default!

Also, I draw on proper experts in every chapter. I know very well that as a Westerner and a foreign correspondent, it will be very easy for people to just say ‘oh, you’re looking through a Western lens, you don’t know Korea, so get out of my face’. My reply to that is, maybe I don’t know what its like, for instance, to be a shaman priestess [mudang], but I spent hours and hours talking to someone who is. I wasn’t around when students were protesting against Park Chung-hee in the 1970s, but I spent hours and hours talking to Park Won-soon, who very much was. I talked to academics, taxi drivers, politicians, rock stars, ‘salarymen’, actors, the first Korean astronaut, and World Cup captain Hong Myung-bo. Oh, and a room salon girl. All of them told me useful, interesting things, and hopefully have made the book more informative and a better read.

koreaBANG: In the many years you’ve spent in Korea, meeting people, interviewing the president, getting drunk with shamans, or something, has anything happened to you that might have ended up on koreaBANG if we’d known about it?

DT: Well, I’m a big fan of koreaBANG but I’m not sure I’d like to be the kind of guy who gets featured in your stories! For me, the person who best encapsulates what this website is all about is Kang Yong-suk, the politicianturned-reality show contestant. And I can’t say I’ve done anything like the wacky, hilarious stuff that he’s become famous for. I’m sure there are times when I’ve had a bit too much soju and could have been featured in one of those ridiculous ‘look at these degenerate foreigners’ stories that sometimes crops up in the local press.

My life these days is all work, work, work, though. The only really fun thing that happened to me lately was meeting Psy, after his concert. He gave me a big sweaty hug. But that’s about it!

Book cover for 'Korea: The Impossible Country'

Win a copy of Korea: The Impossible Country!

For your chance to win a copy of Daniel’s book, we’d like YOU to write a limerick about something impossible that has happened to you in Korea!

What are some important things to know?

  • Your limerick has to be about Korea.
  • We want your limerick to be in English, but you must use at least one word from the koreaBANG glossary in your entry. Bonus points if you use more! Be as creative or as surreal as you like. Give us a menboong!
  • Keep your limerick fun, clean and, above all, respectful.
  • Multiple entries are allowed but there’s only one prize per winner.
  • Contest Deadline: Midnight (KST) on Wednesday 24th October.
  • Winners Announced: Winners will be contacted directly and announced on koreaBANG the following day.

For some inspiration, here’s a short extract from the book that talks about heung, the opposite to han.

From Korea: The Impossible Country:

Though the image of Korea conveyed by its most successful TV and film exports like Taegukgiis one of tragic melancholy, this country is also the home of a devil-may-care, “for its own sake” kind of joy. For Master Ko, the mention of the word heung (‘joy’) is enough to bring a smile to his face and a kind of breezy animation to his frame. He leans forward, moving his shoulders up and down, to express the energy and satisfaction the word gives him and to convey its meaning physically. “Imagine there is an Earth God, and you pour alcohol on the ground in offering—he is so happy that the ground shakes”: this is the feeling of heung, he says.Though the urban reality of today and the long hours of office work do not lend themselves to heung, there remains nevertheless a love of pure amusement, especially among older people. For instance, if one goes to Tapgol Park in central Seoul, one sees retired people drinking and dancing their afternoons away. Country festivals in great variety still take place and are occasions for abundant eumju-ga-mu—drinking, singing, and dancing. The most famous of these is the annual Danoje celebration, which grew out of shamanistic ritual commemoration of the sowing season. At a Danoje, one can witness ssireum (a kind of wrestling), nol-ttwigi (a game in which participants perform back flips and other aerial stunts while jumping on see-saws), and shamanistic gut as well as singing, dancing, and the consumption of large amounts of alcohol. Similarly, older Koreans have a practice of forming excursion groups, renting a bus, and going on long journeys to some site—the special feature being that the bus will be stocked with beer, rice wine, and Korean spirits like soju and have a karaoke machine. The excursion is transformed into a party on wheels.

Eumju-ga-mu is really never far away in Korea. Drinking (and drunkenness) is more socially acceptable here than in neighboring countries like Japan, as well as most of the rest of the world. According to the World Health Organization, South Koreans drink slightly more alcohol than the Irish and the British and almost double the amount drunk by the Japanese, on average. Very often, drinking will be accompanied by song and dance. It is in fact socially useful, even in business, to be considered skilled in at least one of

the three (especially drinking). Eumju-ga-mu is enjoyed by both young and old and people of all social classes and regional backgrounds. Official tourist literature tends to downplay the significance of eumju-ga-mu, since it may not look sophisticated or appealing to outsiders. However, visitors to Korea often remark that their most lasting memories involve experiences like drinking in a pojang macha (tent bar), followed by singing and dancing in a noraebang (karaoke-type room), rather than visiting one of the “Kimchi Museums” or “Folk Villages” that they are forever being encouraged to attend. Quite simply, eumju-ga-muis one of the most attractive aspects of this country’s culture.Even political protests can have a joyful side. While joy may seem completely at odds with the serious purpose of such events, stages may be erected upon which protest leaders sing upbeat songs in between the usual speeches and demands for the righting of whatever injustice they seek to overturn. Another instance of the pursuit of sheer joy is samulnori, drumming based on old shamanistic ceremonial practice, which is performed in groups. University students form clubs to practice samulnori and will gather in circles to hammer out rough, noisy rhythms for hours on end.

The boisterousness of this country’s culture of enjoyment often surprises visitors, for it runs completely contrary to the rather inappropriate “Land of the Morning Calm” image, as well as the stereotype of East Asian people in general being placid and contemplative or overly business-like and serious. Surely, this was never truer than during the 2002 World Cup, when South Korea managed to reach the semi-finals, on home turf. For the entire World Cup period, the whole country converted to carnival mode, with impromptu parties, informal football (soccer) matches, and of course, eumju-ga-mu taking place on streets, in parks and public squares, and even on trains. All it took was one person in a busy place to shout “Daehan-Minguk!” (“Republic of Korea”) and seemingly everyone would stop what they were doing and start singing and dancing. As then- president Kim Dae-jung declared, it was the happiest moment for the nation since the mythical Dangun founded Korea five thousand years before.

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