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Korea Blog: British Denmark Expat Michael Booth Takes the Measure of Korea in “Three Tigers, One Mountain”

Michael Booth’s Three Tigers, One Mountain isn’t a book about Korea, but in a sense it contains a book about Korea. Subtitled A Journey through the Bitter History and Current Conflicts of China, Korea, and Japan, it takes on an entire region in the form of a travelogue driven by one question: “Why can’t the nations of east Asia get on?” Commissioned last year to review the book for another publication, I had enough space to deal with its largest emergent theme, the origin and persistence of anti-Japanese sentiment in Asia, but not to get into depth on Booth’s treatment of any one tiger in particular. Japan has drawn on-again-off-again interest in Western publishing since the days of Lafcadio Hearn, and in recent years almost too much has been said about the rise of “the Dragon.” But the rarity of books on Korea, even these days when the place makes political, economic, and cultural news, compels me to consideration even when Korea shares a book with other countries.

Though the English-language press now gives space to Korea, much of that space is occupied by the same subjects as if they’re set on repeat: the increasing global popularity of K-pop, K-dramas, and the rest of the “Korean Wave”; the dominance of hulking corporate chaebol like Samsung, Hyundai, and LG; the discomfiting enthusiasm for plastic surgery among Koreans; the periodic resurfacing of South Koreans’ animus toward the Japanese; the surprising indifference of South Koreans toward North Korea; the constant pressure faced by Korean students; the thoroughgoing unhappiness of the Korean population. I may joke with reporter friends about how clapped-out such topics have become, but — as the foregoing links suggest — I’ve also gone to those wells once or twice myself, despite not being a journalist. I do my  best to approach the clichés of 21st-century Korea from unusual angles, but the fact remains that much of what’s interesting about Korea still gets ignored in favor of what may once have been interesting.

Booth also hits all these points, as well as others that might be expected from a broad introduction to modern Korea. What elevates this above standard reportage is his use of the first person: Booth has built his reputation in part as a travel writer, and the most illuminating parts of his book convey Korea as seen through his eyes as he motors around the country. (It feels at times like an automotive version of Korean journeys previously undertaken by his fellow Englishmen: Simon Winchester in Korea: A Walk through the Land of Miracles, Clive Leatherdale in To Dream of Pigs, Graham Holliday in Eating Korea.) As the travel-narrative genre dictates, Booth doesn’t just observe, he experiences. In the obligatory cosmetic-surgery chapter he goes to Gangnam to get his nose worked on. (He doesn’t just seek an intellectual understanding of the industry but, to take a common Korean saying literally, “feels it on his skin.”) Discussing tae kwon do, he doesn’t just frame it as “the country’s first post-war attempt at cultural branding” — something well worth noting — he puts on a set of “white pajamas” and takes a lesson himself, much as Anthony Bourdain did when he showed up here.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.