Korea: The Impossible Country is an accessible, vibrantly written 360-degree explanation of what South Korea has become after half a century of break-neck change. Authored by the Seoul-based correspondent for the Economist, Daniel Tudor (Somerville, 2000), it’s a book I suspect we should all be reading.
Korea is a coming nation that’s already arrived in several ways, whether you count the rapidly emerging car brands Kia and Hyundai, or the current phenomenon of Korean K-pop artist PSY’s number one hit Gangnam Style (Of which more below – we asked the author what it all means).
Yet as Tudor notes at the outset, most of us have a poorly assembled notion of Korea. It ranges from capsule histories of the Korean War to the much-circulated idea that Koreans eat dogs. The truth over that point, as Tudor points out, is that Koreans do eat dogs — but the practice is confined to an older generation and much disputed by a younger one.
The role of the Korean War, meanwhile, was to kill almost 10 per cent of the entire population of Korea in 1950, a total of 2.5 million citizens. The scale of this tragedy is commensurate with what followed: an exaggerated emphasis on human capital and education which led to South Korea’s miraculous economic growth, from $100 per capita income in 1953 to $30,000 GDP per capita today.
Somewhat like China, the miracle has been achieved at the sacrifice of much else, particularly general happiness: Koreans set themselves impossible tick lists in every aspect of life and work, Tudor explains, and then feel dreadful when reality falls short. The country has the world’s second highest suicide rate.
That aside, Tudor seems to suggest that Korea stands now on the brink of mainstream global influence and success. Part of the cause is an embrace of a fundamental, western-style liberalisation perceptible in everything from the soaring number of coffee shops, to gay politics and even female emancipation. On this last point, however, the author concedes that five hundred years of woeful gender inequality under an imported, Neo-Confucianism, is being broken down all too slowly. Change is, however, at least in the air.
We caught up with Daniel Tudor to ask him about how number one hit Gangnam Style fits in to Korea’s current cultural climate.
Oxford Today: What’s the status of PSY within Korea following his success with Gangnam Style?
Daniel Tudor: His status seems somewhere slightly higher than God. People are always looking for someone to put Korea on the map, and he’s done more than anyone else in that regard. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (who is also Korean) joked that he was disappointed to now be only the second-most famous Korean. One year ago, PSY was considered a bit old and uncool, but his recent success outside Korea has made him the country’s top celebrity.
OT: Is this song transgressive in any way, or just good humoured?
DT: The song is, I suppose, slightly transgressive in that it pokes fun at Gangnam, a nouveau riche area. But it is a very light kind of humour: it isn’t biting social satire, despite what some have written. I think that such commentators have over-analysed Gangnam Style, and overlooked the simple fact that it is just extremely funny, in a ridiculous sort of way.
If there is any serious rule-breaking in Gangnam Style, it comes in the way it subverts the character of the mainstream Korean music industry. It has dance routines, girls in short skirts, and a catchy melody as usual, but presents itself in a ridiculous way, in contrast to the usual po-faced stuff on offer.
OT: To what extent might we regard this as a one-hit-wonder?
DT: It is a chance viral hit, but it is also evidence that Korea is changing. This country is famous for ‘hard’ stuff: heavy industry, economic growth, and so on, but now, we’re witnessing the birth of a more creative, interesting, and fun Korea. The ironic thing is that the mainstream ‘K-pop’ groups are assembled in an ‘old Korea’ way – as though they were products being put together in a factory. For several years, the government has regarded K-pop as the a potential ‘national champion’ industry, in the way that shipbuilding and semiconductors are. But they didn’t realise that music is different. With his cheeky rule-breaking and sense of humour, PSY has given the Korean government and music industry a very valuable lesson.