Understand South Korea, a success story with a dark side

Author: The Economist 2024-05-19 12:50 15

IN LESS THAN a lifetime South Korea has undergone a huge transformation. In the mid-20th century, when it was poor and ruled by a dictator, it was not so different from its communist northern neighbour (though it was aligned with the United States). It has become a democracy of 52m people and an economic and technological powerhouse. Its music and films entrance hundreds of millions of people who don’t speak a word of Korean. South Korea is justly proud of these achievements, but there are aspects of its society and politics that it is less eager to talk about. Among its worries are one of the world’s lowest birth rates, inequalities of both class and gender and an over-cosy relationship between business and politics. Here are five books and a film to help you understand South Korea’s light and dark sides.

South Korea: The South Korean national flag is seen.(AFP)

The New Koreans. By Michael Breen. Thomas Dunne Books; 480 pages; $28.99. Ebury Publishing; £19.99

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South Korea’s history is a dramatic one. It began with the Korean nation’s birth 5,000 years ago; its founder was the issue of a coupling between the son of the creator god and a bear-become-woman. Devastated by the Korean war of 1950-53, South Korea recovered to become the world’s 13th largest economy. It threw off a military dictatorship in 1987. Plenty of books have told this story, but “The New Koreans” by Michael Breen, who arrived in South Korea in 1982 and worked there as a journalist and in public relations, stands out because of the lively way it weaves together historical narrative and personal recollections. One is of Koreans’ response to the Yangju highway incident in 2002, when an American army vehicle ran down two girls. Koreans were understandably outraged–nuns pinned “Fucking USA” badges to their habits–but the country’s commitment to its alliance with America was undiminished. For Mr Breen the episode showed the importance of emotion in South Korean politics. Though very much worth reading, “The New Koreans”, first published in 2017, is not so new. Readers who want something more recent can supplement it with last year’s “Shrimp to Whale”, by Ramon Pacheco Pardo.

The Housemaid. Written and directed by Kim Ki-young

Long before “Parasite”, which won an Oscar in 2020, there was “The Housemaid”. Kim Ki-young’s thriller tells the story of a middle-class family that, on moving from their cramped traditional house to a larger dwelling, realise that they need to hire some help. When the housemaid seduces the paterfamilias and gets pregnant, the family’s airy domicile becomes a claustrophobic house of horrors. Released in 1960, the film depicts South Korea before glass-and-steel skyscrapers and cookie-cutter apartment blocks came to dominate its city skylines. Establishing shots of undeveloped streets and open sky show how much the country has changed in 64 years, even if the traffic then was just as life-threatening. “The Housemaid” introduces viewers to themes that still preoccupy Korean society: the tension between tradition and modernity; the way women are treated as either caregivers or workers; and the conflict between classes in a society that is still very unequal. “The Housemaid” is an early example of the artistic prowess for which South Korea has become famous. It is perhaps no surprise that Bong Joon-ho, the director of “Parasite”, names Kim as one of his greatest influences.

Samsung Rising. By Geoffrey Cain. Crown Currency; 416 pages; $29. Ebury Publishing; £16.99

No company is more important to South Korea than Samsung, which accounts for around a fifth of the country’s GDP. And no introduction to the firm is better than “Samsung Rising”, a book that draws on more than 400 interviews. The subtitle promises a blow-by-blow report on Samsung’s smartphone wars with Apple, but that is a sideshow. The real draw is Geoffrey Cain’s account of Samsung’s history and corporate culture. He shows how the vegetable seller became a producer of third-rate gadgets (Western consumers called it “Sam-suck”), then a world leader in making semiconductors and stylish consumer electronics. He describes a company that today is caught between slavish adherence to the old ways and the ambition to heed the precept of its second boss, Lee Kun-hee, who urged the company to adopt a “perpetual-crisis” mentality and constantly reinvent itself. Mr Cain, a former contributor to The Economist, writes about Samsung’s many scandals. These often stem from Samsung’s too-close relationship with South Korea’s political establishment, which gives the firm’s executives de facto immunity from prosecution. That lack of accountability extends to many of South Korea’s chaebol , family-run conglomerates that dominate the economy. Reading “Samsung Rising” it is hard not to see the company as a synecdoche for South Korea itself.

Top-Down Democracy in South Korea. By Erik Mobrand. University of Washington Press; 216 pages; $35 and £29.99

Most histories of modern South Korea say little about the political system, which features fierce competition among parties but does less well at fostering collaboration—either between parties or between the political elite and the people. “Top-down Democracy in South Korea” describes how political forces that existed under the dictatorship managed the transition to democracy, and how they perpetuated a system of centralised parties and restrictive electoral laws. South Korean politics, writes Erik Mobrand, remains dominated by a distant elite, which sees elections as inconveniences to be managed, rather than opportunities for popular participation. Yet he also celebrates the democratic spirit of the South Korean people. Their protests in 1987 brought down Chun Doo-hwan, the country’s most recent dictator, and, nearly 30 years later, toppled Park Geun-hye, a corrupt president. South Korea’s democracy, Mr Mobrand shows, remains a work in progress.

Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982. By Cho Nam-joo. Translated by Jamie Chang. Liveright; 176 pages; $14.95. Scribner; £9.99

It is not easy to be a woman in South Korea. At home women look after children–though fewer than they once did–and, too often, child-like husbands. Their circumstances at work are so poor that South Korea has come bottom of The Economist’s glass-ceiling index for 12 years in a row. These indignities, and the fight against them, are well recounted in “Flower of Fire”, a work of nonfiction. But novelists can penetrate where reporters cannot. The heroine of “Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982” is sexually abused by her teachers. Though she works harder than her male colleagues, her pay is lower. After she marries, the first suggestion of child-bearing comes when her husband casually suggests that they take the plunge just to stop his parents’ nagging. After she gives birth and leaves her job, strangers in a park mock her as “mum-roach”, assuming that she lives parasitically off her husband. “My routine, my career, my dreams, my entire life, my self–I gave it all up to raise our child. And I’ve become vermin. What do I do now?” Jiyoung laments at the novel’s climax. Readers will not simply understand the plight of South Korean women; they will feel it.

BTS on the Road. By Hong Seok-kyeong. SNU Press; 200 pages; $47.95

Love it or hate it, K-pop is a global phenomenon. Half of the top ten bestselling albums in the world in 2023 were from South Korea. And BTS (short for the Bulletproof Boy Scouts, who are pictured in the posters above) are the most popular South Korean boyband ever. As “BTS on the Road” explains, this is no accident. Some other South Korean pop artists, like Psy, were merely lucky to become world famous, writes Hong Seok-kyeong. (Though it seems a bit churlish to belittle the 5bn views on YouTube racked up by Psy’s “Gangnam Style”.) BTS’s appeal goes deeper, Dr Hong argues. To explain, she compares them to the greats of Western pop music. Like David Bowie, BTS sing about the struggles, hopes and dreams that characterise the zeitgeist. Like the tracks on “Lemonade”, an album by Beyoncé, each BTS single conveys a deep, seemingly personal message that pulls fans into its own little universe. But megastars like Beyoncé and Bowie are divas. The seven young members of BTS, by contrast, are “friend-like” idols to their fans, who call themselves ARMY. They are more accessible than any pop stars have ever been, writes Dr Hong. And their non-threatening, slightly androgynous “new masculinity” appeals to women and men. In 2022 the group took a break as members began their military service, still required of most South Korean men. But BTS’s popularity looks bulletproof in the meantime. If you’re a parent perplexed by your ARMY offspring, this book is for you.

Also try

Our Banyan columnist argues that Western concepts of political “left” and “right” do not apply to South Korea and that the country’s ban on praising North Korea is ridiculous. A former foreign minister writes that South Korea has earned the right to be more assertive on the world stage. We explain why South Korea has soft power and North Korea does not. Our Schumpeter column warns Samsung against complacency.

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Title:Understand South Korea, a success story with a dark side