Michael Breen: The Koreans – Who They Are, What They Want, Where Their Future Lies
Thomas Dunne Books, 1998 & 2004
With a commendable dose of filial piety appropriate to the subject of his book, Michael Breen dedicates his work to “Mum and Dad”. Having lived in Korea on and off since 1982, maybe some of the national characteristics are rubbing off on him. As one of the well-established “Korea hands”, who has covered events on the peninsula for The Times and The Guardian, Breen is well qualified to attempt the task of explaining Korea to a non-Korean.
This user-friendly introduction to everything Korean has ambitious aims: “Who They Are, What They Want, Where Their Future Lies.” How does it succeed? Anna Fifield, until recently the Seoul bureau chief of the Financial Times, had it on her list of essential reads for anyone coming to Korea for the first time. Originally written in 1998, it could be argued that with a country as fast-moving as South Korea it must be out of date by now. But even without the updates and revisions made in 2004, this book is still current, because this is a book which attempts to capture some of the essential Korean characteristics, which do not change in the course of a couple of years.
With any book with the aims of this one, there is the risk of generalising, of stereotyping. Indeed, in a book which covers so much ground in under 300 pages there is bound to be some simplification in the interests of brevity.
There will of course be anecdotes that Koreans would rather not have in print. One example is Breen’s tale about the planned voiceover for the opening ceremony of the 1988 Seoul Olympics: each national team was to be greeted by a one-sentence summary of their national characteristics. Ireland was to be summarised as “also known as Guinnessville, because it is the home of the Guinness Book of Records”. This Breen regards as an instance of a Korean habit of “labelling” other people, including foreigners. It is a habit to which everyone is prone, as Breen acknowledges: “All Koreans are [insert appropriate epithet here]” – and often the epithet is not too complimentary. But Breen doesn not fall into that trap. If sometimes a Korean says what he thinks you want to hear (rather than the truth), it is because he doesn’t want to hurt your kibun (your feelings or state of mind). When Breen is talking to an air hostess who says that the Korean flight was the “worst” in the entire global network because the way the passengers behave. On cue, a Korean barges past and barks “Ya! Whisky!”. Breen’s only thought is that the Koreans are being condemned for knowing what they want but without having been trained to say “please”.
Whether you put a positive or negative spin on many of the characteristics that Breen enumerates, they will ring true. No matter your subjective view, for example, on Korean behaviour once they get behind the wheel of a car (and your view will probably be that they drive like maniacs), the statistics speak for themselves: Korea is consistently at the top of the OECD’s league tables for car accidents. Breen has fun with this stereotype and tries to make a a symbol of wider political behaviour. “Koreans tend to swerve out the the way of obstacles, rather than brake. There is always a way round things if you have connections, money, courage and imagination.”
The book has four sections: Society and Values, History, Economy, and Politics. Even if you might think you know your way round one of these topics, you are likely to find additional insights and detail as you turn the pages. You will smile in agreement as Breen makes unexpected connections, or as he endeavours to explain some facet of the Korean character which has always puzzled you. Breen’s is one of the few books I have come across which attempts to get to grips with Han, “a kind of rage and helplessness that is sublimated, and lingers like an inactive resentment.” “Han has hung like a tranquil mist in the valley of our hearts” explains a Korean psychoanalyst interviewed for the book.” Then the shocks of national division and rapid economic growth came. “These traumas acted as a chemical change, turning our static han into dynamic han.” The two pages devoted to the discussing are tantalising. What is needed is a full-length examination of whether han is a concept of literary criticism invented in the twentieth century which has taken on a life of its own, or whether it is genuinely a a characteristic inherent in the Korean people. Such an examination is outside the scope of Breen’s book, and it is to be hoped that someone takes up the challenge in the future.
The strength of Breen’s book is that it gives the reader valuable tasters which prepares them for their encounter with Korea but which does not pretend to give all the answers.