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Book Review: The Koreans by Michael Breen

I came to Korea too late. It's just that simple. I came as soon as I could, of course, which was straight after university graduation in the US, but I missed out on seeing the "old Korea". It was the Korea of anti-Americanism, the Korea of poverty, the Korea of militant student demonstrations and of government oppression. I missed all that.

41GDTA19NFL._SL160_ When I arrived in Korea on December 28, 1993, this was gone. Life in Korea has had it's challenges for me but through it all, I've been treated well at least as often as I would have back home, have never gotten into an argument about how evil my country is, witnessed true democracy from day one and don't know what a starving Korean would look like. As best I can reckon, I arrived in Korea right when the positive political, social and economic trends were coming together for the country.

I have non-Korean friends and associates who lived in Korea in the 1980s. Some of them were gone from or leaving Korea by the time I arrived. So we have very different views about the country; in many ways, irreconcilable. The fact that one country can have changed this much in such a short period of time is astounding and I think a lot of foreigners who first understood the old Korea are unable to make proper sense of or describe the Korea of today. Or perhaps they just had too much fun obsessing about the bad things they saw: typical "expatriate-itis"

Michael Breen got to Korea in 1982; he wrote this book in 1998 (and updated it in 2004). He should have written it ten years earlier because his descriptions of "old Korea" don't ring true to me when I look at Korea today. But more than that, the book's fatal flaw is not that Breen is still trying to describe the Korean of old, it's that he just hasn't looked hard enough to figure Korea out properly for any time.

Breen apparently never got very far out of the international community in Seoul. He let the views of other expatriates color his outlook on Korea too much. And perhaps it's his journalist background showing through, but this cliche-filled book of stereotypes is a bit too sensationalized. To get things off to an exciting start for his non-Korean readers, he begins by running Koreans down every way he can, presumably so he can pick them back up later in the book. (병주고 약주고...)

In the interest of "fair reporting" (I guess!), the author goes to some effort to mix his condescending views with a smattering of compliments. His basic message to Koreans is: "I don't care what everyone else is saying about Korea and Koreans, I still think you're pretty cool." This, in a nutshell is Breen's double-message throughout the book.

One of Breen's main themes is that Korea hasn't yet grown up; they went to hell and back during the first two-thirds of the 20th century and so they are still working through the after-effects of that. Well, yes, there's some undeniable truth in that, but does it warrant quotes like this? "...Koreans came out of a half-century of Japanese domination with such a profound sense of worthlessness that they seemed to have lost any notion of who they were or where they came from." (pp. 4-5) This is a strong statement that overlooks far too many nuances and counter-currents of thought to be useful in understanding Korea correctly.

In fact, the book is full of similar insights (i.e. "nonsense") which are clearly the product of Breen's discussions at dinner parties with ignorant expatriates. Here are some examples just from the preface and first chapter:

  • p.4 - "You need a high-level bullshit indicator to figure out what's going on."
  • p. 31 - "Koreans are more gregarious than we are. They're so into other people that they don't read books much and they tend to fall asleep when they're by themselves." (Huh?)
  • p. 35 - "Korean is not a good language to argue in because there are so many shades of meaning. It is so easy to be misunderstood. English is a language for clarity and logic."
  • p. 36 - "Korean men who are angry... bellow from the pit of their stomach... You can see why men rule in Korean society."

As I read this book, I found myself constantly writing question marks and asterisks in the margin because of all the dubious assertions. Are disputes in Korean society usually solved by force? Really? (p. 142) Are Koreans reluctant to work as hard as they used to? Is it because their companies give them cheap apartments to live in? (p. 63) Can "an astute observer... summarise the main features of a country's political culture after spending a little time on the roads"? (p. 189) Indeed!

Breen spent awhile in Korea and according to the book jacket, is still a frequent visitor (at least as recently as 2004). His wife is Korean. Apparently he did a lot of reporting about Korea for various international newspapers. Good for him. This book shows clearly that he did some time, met many Koreans and has opinions about Korea. A reader wishing to find out what the politically correct opinions of Korea are in the expatriate community could learn a thing or two through this book. 

But readers looking for a thoughtful understanding of Korea and Koreans reached through diligent research and contemplation will not find that this book breaks new ground. The subtitle of "The Koreans" is "Who They Are, What They Want, Where Their Future Lies". Just the fact that Breen summarizes all Koreans into this "they" and "their" indicates the stereotypical way this book seeks to explain Korea and Koreans.