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Times Literary Supplement: Michael Breen’s “The Koreans” and “The New Koreans”

The Korean word for South Korea is hanguk, but South Koreans more often refer to it as uri nara, “our country”. The equivalent term in Japanese is mainly used by octogenarian ultraconservatives, but in South Korea everyone says it. They also speak of uri mal, uri eumshik, uri ddang, uri minjok – “our language”, “our food”, “our land”, “our race” – all of which can project, to foreigners living there, an unappealingly possessive insularity. Yet it is easy to appreciate that at least 50 million Koreans do feel a sense of belonging, and that they feel it with such certainty.

Michael Breen has had more time than most to cultivate that appreciation. Now the CEO of a public relations firm in Seoul, he began his career in South Korea as a journalist in 1982, arriving from his native Britain into a hastily industrialized military dictatorship still internationally regarded as part of the developing world. Just five years later the country had become a flourishing democracy, boasted a formidable economy, and was preparing to host the Summer Olympics of 1988. Then, nine years later, it took a hammering in the Asian financial crisis. Breen’s experience of these turbulent times provided the material for his first book, The Koreans: Who they are, what they want, where their future lies (1998).

“At the time of writing, the North is suffering from extreme food shortages and the South is recovering from the near-collapse of its financial system. My experience of previous Korean crises suggests to me that the South will overcome its problems”, Breen wrote in that book. Today the North still endures considerable hardship; but the South, having managed to repay its unprecedentedly large $58 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund three years early (in part with a much-publicized gold drive that saw “young couples handing in their wedding rings and old ladies handing in items of tremendous personal significance”), has continued its procession to centre stage. Now Breen has written The New Koreans: The story of a nation, originally intended as an update, but in fact an almost entirely new book. This is in itself revealing: Korea is no longer a country Westerners associate with “war, dictatorship, tear gas, riot police in Darth Vader outfits, M.A.S.H., dog eating, the Olympics”, writes Breen; instead they are more likely to think of it in terms of glossy skyscrapers, technology, global conglomerates, surgically enhanced pop stars, “Gangnam style”, even “the new cool”.

Read the whole thing at the TLS.