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Mark Clifford: Troubled Tiger

Troubled Tiger cover(M.E. Sharpe / Routledge 1998)

Chronicles the modern history of Korea from the 1960s to the mid-90s, focusing on the drive for economic growth and the control exerted by the Blue House over the direction of the economy. Clifford gives us a politically balanced view, emphasising the successes of Park Chung-hee, but not shrinking from laying bare the corruption, coercion and mistakes made by Park, Chun and their successors.

The development of the Chaebols is covered – explaining how they were family feifdoms (and still are?), and how their growth has been geared towards not profits but growth in sales and assets – at almost any cost; and how their growth has been funded less by equity capital investment and more by loans from banks who had to follow government orders.

Also illuminating is Clifford’s description of the methods the Blue House used to keep people in line. Tax audits were one way. Ring any bells?

There are some great stories, told with a journalist’s flair, for example the account of the amateurish attempts to bribe US congressman in the mid-70s — the KCIA-led “Operation White Snow” (which inevitably became known as the “Koreagate” scandal). And the narrative is spiced with detail from personal interviews: a particularly amusing one is the story of Roh Tae-woo’s state visit to Mexico in 1991, where Roh refused to sully himself by associating with grubby Korean businessman — despite the fact that part of the purpose of the visit was to drum up business.

The subtitle of the book is Businessman, Bureaucrats and Generals in South Korea. What I would have liked more of, given that this book was revised in 1998, is a blow-by-blow account of the market turmoil in 1997; I would also have liked a more in-depth examination of the workings of a typical chaebol – the cross-subsidies within the group, the inherent profitability or otherwise of the different divisions. I guess though that that sort of analysis is more appropriate in a business-style book. This book is aimed very much at the general reader, and it is none the worse for that.

Read a fuller review of this book at the Korean Studies portal, which rightly raises a caveat about the liberal, Anglo-American perspective from which the book is written.

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