Cor­rect­ing mis­con­cep­tions

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“when I was home in Eng­land for christ­mas a few years ago, I started telling my par­ents’ friend about soju (a type of Korean liquor) and how cheap it is at around £1 (rM5.50).

“the friend quickly an­swered – ‘But it’s prob­a­bly a lot of money for them, isn’t it?’

“what he didn’t re­alise is that Korea is now the 13th big­gest econ­omy in the world.”

other com­mon ques­tions he tack­les in the book in­clude “Do all Kore­ans re­ally eat dogs?” and “Is North Korea go­ing to nuke Seoul soon?”

Even in this re­gion, where the spread of Hal­lyu (Korean wave) has raised South Korea’s pro­file some­what, there are a lot of (of­ten ro­man­tic) mis­con­cep­tions about the coun­try, he says.

“there seems to be more cov­er­age of Korea in the me­dia with the ex­plo­sion of K-pop and Korean dra­mas, but people still don’t know much about the coun­try, much less un­der­stand the ‘ Korean-ness’.”

In­tent on cor­rect­ing these mis­con­cep­tions, tu­dor’s Im­pos­si­ble Coun­try tries to give the big pic­ture by link­ing to­day’s South Korea with its in­dus­trial, po­lit­i­cal and cul­tural suc­cesses to the his­tory, tra­di­tions and be­liefs that form the coun­try’s foun­da­tions and char­ac­ter.

Ad­mirably, tu­dor leaves no stone un­turned in his ex­am­i­na­tion of South Korea’s com­plex quirks and idio­syn­cra­sies, prob­ing ev­ery­thing from Bud­dhist ethos to the people’s leg­endary hard-drink­ing ways, sui­ci­dal ten­den­cies and in­fat­u­a­tion with ev­ery­thing Amer­i­can.

He also does not shy away from the tough sub­jects in­clud­ing chae­bol (con­glom­er­ate) abuses, dic­tato- rial lead­ers, specif­i­cally Fa­ther of Mod­ern Korea (and fa­ther of cur­rent pres­i­dent Park Guen-hye) for­mer pres­i­dent Park chung-hee, and the pre­vail­ing xeno­pho­bic pure-blood ide­ol­ogy in Korean so­ci­ety.

“I was wor­ried of of­fend­ing the Kore­ans at first but I hope they un­der­stand that I’m look­ing at Korea from the point of some­one who loves the coun­try,” he says.

He stresses that the book is based on re­search and in­ter­views, not only his own opin­ions and anal­y­sis, “I did not want to be an­other westerner telling Asians about Asia.”

there are many things that had to be seen from the South Korean per­spec­tive, such as the coun­try’s ten­sion with Ja­pan – you first have to un­der­stand its painful past of be­ing bul­lied by its neigh­bour. or that, de­spite their noisy threats, North Korea is not likely to at­tack its south­ern rel­a­tive yet.

Still there are pre­con­ceived no­tions about South Korea that re­main true: for one, its so­ci­ety is still gen­er­ally sex­ist de­spite elect­ing its first woman pres­i­dent re­cently.

“the fact that the first fe­male pres­i­dent of Korea is the daugh­ter of a revered for­mer pres­i­dent, to me, only re­in­forces pa­tri­archy,” he adds.

Does he think the coun­try’s mir­a­cle bub­ble will burst soon?

“I don’t think so. Korea is not as big as china but for its size, it can punch above its weight.

“Some­one said this to me the other day: tra­di­tion­ally Korea con­sid­ers it­self like a shrimp caught be­tween two whales, a small coun­try caught be­tween two su­per­pow­ers try­ing to sur­vive.

“But now, Korea is like a dol­phin. It may not be as big as china or the US, but it is quick, ag­ile and smart. And people like dol­phins,” he says with a grin.

these are in­ter­est­ing times for South Korea, says tu­dor. “Mainly be­cause South Korea changes very fast; some­thing that is an is­sue now – for ex­am­ple, its neg­a­tive stance to­wards mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism – will be dif­fer­ent in two, three years. Korea is never static.”

He be­lieves now that it has gone past its manic eco­nomic and so­cial de­vel­op­ment stage, South Korea can af­ford to fo­cus on its cul­ture and arts.

“You see more people car­ry­ing gui­tars on the streets now, which to me is al­ways a good sign.”

the only thing he wishes, he says, is for the people there to savour their suc­cess and be happy.

“If I had a magic wand to change any­thing about Korea, I’d make Kore­ans more con­fi­dent about their coun­try and be happy with their achieve­ments. they de­serve it.”

Korea: The Im­pos­si­ble Coun­try is avail­able at ma­jor book­stores.

Open-air con­certs are com­mon in Hong­dae, Seoul’s heart­land of youth cul­ture. — Korea Tourism Or­gan­i­sa­tion

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