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Author Daniel Tudor Explains Korea: The Impossible Country

The Advanced Technology and Design team had the opportunity to sit down with Daniel Tudor, to chat about his new book, Korea: The Impossible Country, which is due out in mid November.

The book is about South Korea’s amazing rise from the ashes- the inside story of an economic, political and cultural phenomenon. Tudor examines Korea’s cultural foundations- the Korean character, the public sphere in politics, business and the workplace as well as the family, dating and marriage. It includes interviews in every chapter with many of the people who made South Korea what it is today, from So Yeon Yi, Korea’s first astronaut, to Won-Soon Park, the mayor of Seoul. For a full description of the book, click here.

Photo Credit: Seo Ji-hye/Visual MOS

Hailing from Manchester, Daniel Tudor first came to Korea with tickets for the 2002 World Cup with his best bud from college. Anyone who knows Korea knows that the country is absolutely crazy about soccer. As it was such a memorable experience, Tudor decided to try living in Korea for a year. He recalls thinking, “Something must produce that kind of atmosphere,” and was intrigued to find out what that something was.

Tudor currently lives in Korea and is the foreign correspondent for The Economist. Before writing for The Economist, Tudor spent some time teaching English, then working at an equity trade firm and in the finance sector before returning to the U.K. for an MBA at Manchester University.

Read further for a glimpse of his perspective on Korean culture, experiences living and working here and what makes Korea so impossible in “Korea: The Impossible Country”.

What do you find to be the major differences between living in Korea and the U.K.?
In Korea, everything moves so quickly. There’s always something new and surprising. Korea was in an economic and political development stage and now a cultural development stage. Whatever it may be, Koreans want to be good at that thing, or want to get better at that thing. Whereas, in the West, we’ve kind of become just a bit lazy. This is not in an economic sense, but whether an artistic, business or academic thing, Koreans are a bit more committed to improving than say back home.

Can you give a short introduction to the book and why you decided to write it?
It’s an introduction to Korea for people who don’t necessarily know anything about the country. It’s not written for Koreans, but the average English-speaking, person from a Western country who’s interested in Asia and cultural topics, be it a business person or traveler. It’s got a bit of everything from music, food and cinema, things like that, but there’s also business, politics, cultural aspects like han and jeong.

Every chapter has one or two interviews. That’s very important to me because I didn’t want to be [perceived as] this arrogant, Western journalist talking about Korea, but instead talk about Korea with real stories from the inside with my outside perspective on top.

As for why I wrote it, I felt there isn’t any book like this at the moment. There are a lot of books on North Korea, it’s basically become its own genre. There’s a lot on historical periods like the Korean War and the Choson Dynasty, but not on what Korea is like right now. Things are changing in Korea very, very quickly and the last time anyone wrote this kind of book was in 1998 when Michael Breen wrote The Koreans, a book which really became the bible on Korea for English-language readers. He’d be one of the first to admit it’s time for a new one. Fourteen years in Korea is like a century in my country. If you go to any book shop, there are a ton of books on China and Japan, but not many on Korea and especially about Korea and what it’s like in 2012 or this century. I had always felt this kind of book should exist. If it’s something that should be in this world that doesn’t exist, you think it should, and you have the power to make it exist, then it’s your duty to do it almost. I mean, I can’t cure cancer, but I can write a book on Korea.

What was the inspiration for the title of the book? Why “impossible” to describe Korea?
I interviewed a guy who was an advisor to Park Chung Hee back in the 60s who said, “Korea was the poorest, most impossible country on the planet.” People didn’t even expect Korea to survive as a country then. The fact that it became what it’s become would have seemed impossible at the time. There’s also the pressure and stress that many of my Korean friends experience and how it’s almost impossible to live up to the standards this society sets on people. It describes Korea’s “need-to-succeed” mentality. Frankly, I also chose it to get people talking.

Favorite person to interview
Shin Joon-hyun, the godfather of Korean rock music– not only is he a great musician, he’s just seen a lot. His father died in the war and he was just on his own and playing on the American army bases; playing music for them. He was caught up in this growing music scene. He had this great view of the whole period. I can learn a lot from someone like that.

Yi So-Yeon, the astronaut, was also really good to interview. I think people underestimate her, calling her a “space tourist,” but actually when you talk to her she’s very wise. I’ve got an epilogue in my book called “Where’s the champagne?,” which asks why people in this country aren’t happy when they’ve come this far. What would it take to appreciate what they’ve done? She said, “Koreans aren’t good at being satisfied. Sometimes we just need to sit back and have a glass of champagne.”

What has been the role of technology in Korea’s development? Has tech always played an important role or is technology more of a recent factor in Korea’s growth?
In the very beginning, it wasn’t so much about technology, but about manpower. Then I suppose it was a mixture of manpower and technology. Korea learned very fast. We’ve had and still have  this era of following and now fast following. Now people are saying it’s now time to innovate. I think there has always been innovation in Korea, but it gets overshadowed by fast following. Underneath that there’s a lot of creativity going on. Take for example, Saerom, who invented VoiP phone calls. So five years before Skype, they were doing that. Or Cyworld, for example, leading SNS. I’m not a “tech person,” but I think there’s always been creativity here, it’s just been overshadowed by this impression of following.

The government’s had a big role in helping companies like Samsung and Hyundai grow. They’ve become giants, they’ve outgrown Korea completely and so their products are helping Korea become more known and respected, kind of like Japan in the 80s. Samsung has completely replaced Sony. I think these companies do have a debt to the Korean government and society though, because of the Park era.

To what extent do you agree with the thought that Korean tech companies, especially in the consumer segment, use the “fast follower strategy”? Is there something integral to Korea’s national character/culture that makes Korea especially likely to use this strategy or especially adept in using it?
I interviewed a professor who is an expert in Buddhism who was saying that these big companies are influenced by Buddhism and a concept called Sangha, which refers to a group of people that helps one another improve. Korean and Japanese corporate philosophy is like that, to keep the group together and improve together. Maybe that’s true. Take for example how there isn’t a standout CEO in Korea because it’s more about the team. The culture doesn’t seem to welcome that individualistic kind of character very much. But there is definitely creativity happening here and room for creativity, for example the app Between, which my friend developed, and the arts.

Can you point to any major technological developments in Korea that have helped propel the nation forward?
Koreans kind of have neophilia. If something is new, people jump on it. Stuff like the fastest LTE, 3D TVs, I’m sure people in England have never even heard of stuff like that. There’s always this desire where if there’s something new coming, to just do it and try it. In that sense, Koreans are very open-minded, especially when it comes to technology and innovation.

What’s the one thing you’d want readers to take away from this book?
I just want people to see an updated image of Korea and get away from this “crouching, economic tiger” image and the tragic Korean war and to see Korea as a modern country that is actually a lot of fun. Korea doesn’t really have an image as being fun. I want to show what Korea is like now, both in good and bad ways. I’d also want people to think that I was fair in my portrayal of Korea and at the same time that I love and respect this country.

What’s coming up?
I’m working on another book that’s like a youth culture book that’s a lot lighter. It includes topics like music and pop culture, television, media, that kind of stuff. It’s going to be called A Geek in Korea. There’ll be more photographs. With this current book [Korea: The Impossible Country], I’d want people to feel like they need to read it, whereas with this new book [A Geek in Korea], I’d want people to feel like it’d be a fun book to read.

What thoughts on Korean design can you share for those that may not be familiar?
As Korea changes and focuses more on creativity, there’s interesting design and architecture that you can see. Korea has been very much influenced by American ways even in terms of architecture and music, so I feel that Korea needs to break out from that and find its own voice. Going back in history, things like bojagi, hanboks and hanoks,  though nobody remembers who made them, are still very striking. These are very unique and identifiable designs. People are starting to rediscover them.

How do you see Korea changing over the next 20 years?
It’s hard for me to say, but I think Korea will become more creative. If I think about what I would invest in, I’d invest in things for single people since the number of old people living alone, and singles, are rising. On the negative side, I think Korea could become more individualistic.

People will still invest in technology and there will be more interest in areas like the environment, vegetarianism, animal rights, the acceptance of minorities such as gay people. I think that these will be a big thing. When I first came to Korea, people used to stare at me, but now that rarely happens. When a certain point has been reached, everything becomes acceptable.

I also think people will be more proud of Korea and the re-discovery of hanoks, traditional culture and artistic things are a good sign that people don’t want to just throw things away and start again. I feel eventually people will feel a more genuine sense of pride about their country.

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About the author by Donna Choi

Born and raised in the States, I came to Seoul in 2009 and have loved living and working in such a high-tech and connected city ever since. I enjoy collecting unique, cute gadgets/items (I have a bread-scented smartphone case!) and traveling around Korea. My personal mission while living in Korea: Try every type of Korean food known to exist.

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