The New Koreans: The Story of a Nation

The New Koreans: The Story of a Nation

by Michael Breen


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The New Koreans: The Story of a Nation by Michael Breen

Just a few decades ago, the South Koreans were an impoverished, agricultural people. In one generation they moved from the fields to Silicon Valley. They accomplished this through three totally unexpected miracles: economic development, democratization, and the arrival of their culture to global attention.

Who are the Koreans? What are they like? The New Koreans examines how they have been perceived by outsiders, the features that color their “national character,” and how their emergence from backwardness, poverty, and brutality happened. It also looks at why they remain unhappy—with the lowest birth rates and highest suicide rates in the developed world.

In The New Koreans, Michael Breen provides compelling insight into the history and character of this fascinating nation of South Korea, and casts an eye to future developments, as well as across the DMZ into North Korea.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250065056
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 04/04/2017
Pages: 480
Sales rank: 630,950
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

MICHAEL BREEN is a writer and consultant who first went to Korea as a correspondent in 1982. He covered North and South Korea for several newspapers, including the Guardian (UK), the Times (UK), and the Washington Times. He lives in Seoul.

Read an Excerpt

The New Koreans

By Michael Breen

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2017 Michael Breen
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-7156-4



"What's the captain doing?"

In the last minute of consciousness a drowning person, it is said, will have a clear thought that is a mix of acceptance and disbelief. This is how I die. ... But this is ridiculous, I can't leave like this.

So it must have been as the Sewol ferry sank. In the flailing panic, I am drowning. ... But I was supposed to have been on yesterday's ferry.

Most of the dead were teenagers. They had been trusting even as the foul water moved over their cabin floors. But I waited like the man said. ... I have exams. ... Daddy.

Over three hundred died that spring morning in 2014. The last minutes were staggered over two hours, from the moment the overloaded ship tilted to when it rolled over and sank with cruel grace.

Most people were in the cafeteria when that accident happened. Some were on deck, smoking.

Senior crew rushed to the bridge where Third Mate Park had been directing helmsman Cho. She was crying. They called the vessel traffic service and, several times, the ship's owners. For reasons of culture and character nobody knew to take charge. The vessel-traffic serviceman in nearby Jindo Island instructed that passengers be told to put on life jackets and extra clothing. Communications Officer Kang went on the intercom and announced that everyone should remain in their cabins. It would be dangerous to move along the listing bulkheads. If people jumped into the sea the cold and currents would take them.

"Nonsense!" a student shouts when he hears this.

"I want to get off. I mean it," says another. A minute later, the same message. Don't move.

"What? Hurry! Save us!"

"Are we going to die?"

"We're going to make news with this," says a boy, being brave.

"This is going to be a lot of fun if we get it onto our Facebook."

The stay-put announcement comes again.

"Should I call Mom? Mom, this looks like the end of me."

The children, all from the same school, put on life jackets. One gives his to a classmate.

"What about you?"

A boy shouts he doesn't want to die. "I still have lots of animation movies I haven't watched yet."

"What's the captain doing?"

Captain Lee, who has rushed to the bridge in his underpants, asks when the rescue will arrive. The man in Jindo says he has to decide whether they should abandon ship, that a rescue crew will be there in ten minutes. Two crew members drink beer to calm themselves.

The heroes that day are not on the bridge. Passenger Kim Hong-gyeong leads a group of passengers who hoist twenty trapped students to safety with curtains and fire hoses. Cho Dae-seob hands out life jackets to fellow students and helps the girls out first. Five-year-old Kwon Hyeok-gyu puts his life vest on his little sister Ji-yeon and goes to find their parents. A student, Park Ho-jin, sees her crying alone and carries her out of the ship.

English teacher Nam Yun-cheol and some crew stay aboard to help. Their bodies are recovered later by divers. Park Ji-young, twenty-one, says she'll leave when the other passengers are all out; so do Kim Ki-woong and his fiancée, Jung Hyunsun. Cashier Yang Dae-hong texts his wife, "The ship has tilted too much. There is money saved in the Suhyup bank account. Use that for our older kid's college tuition. I have to go save the kids. I can't talk anymore. Bye."

Forty minutes after the accident, Captain Lee issues the order to abandon ship. He is one of the first off. He doesn't tell his rescuers who he is.

Of all the images, one of the most searing is of the water lapping at the windows of the last cabins still above the surface. At one in the afternoon, there are two or three flashes of light, reflecting movement behind one of the windows: someone, probably a schoolboy, is attacking it with a chair. But it doesn't break. Such is the impact of the constant coverage of the disaster that millions of Koreans go to bed trying to smash that window, then turn to face the oncoming water, unable to bear what follows.

For the Koreans, this tragedy is a metaphor: Throughout history they had ignored the sea around their peninsula and chose instead to crouch in valleys away from the world. Then the South Koreans defied history and took to the sea as traders and in their rush to make money, cut corners and trampled over one another. The broken ship is our greedy country. It has cost us our innocents.

"As an adult in this society I feel great remorse and responsibility for this accident," the actor Choi Min-soo told an interviewer.

For Kang Min-kyu, the deputy head of the school most of the victims attended, the agony was overwhelming. "Surviving alone is too painful when two hundred lives are unaccounted for," he wrote after being rescued. "I take full responsibility." His body was later found hanging from a tree near the gymnasium on Jindo Island where the families were camped out waiting for news.

Such was the disgust at the familiar corruption and incompetence that oozed out when the surface was scratched — illegal overloading, embezzlement by the family who owned the vessel, failure of regulators, absence of safety training, lack of leadership, cowardice, the botched rescue — that public anger boiled over. Like a matador turning a bull, the presidential office tried to direct it at the crew and criminalize their incompetence. The court obliged and found Captain Lee guilty of gross negligence, equated it with murder, and gave him thirty-six years. Chief Engineer Park Gi-ho was found guilty of murder for leaving an injured mate and given thirty years. Thirteen other crew members were given sentences of between five and twenty years.

The tragedy froze the nation. As they did in old Korea when a king died, artists cancelled performances, officials postponed festivals, and people stopped shopping and eating out. Those in the public eye who wanted to carry on with their lives had to do so carefully. When the teenage son of a candidate in the Seoul mayoral race criticized victims' families for throwing bottles of water at the prime minister — "This nation is uncivilized because the people are uncivilized," he wrote — his father had to come out and apologize.

In early May, Children's Day came and went, followed two days later by Parents' Day, when children typically give their moms and dads red carnations. On the seawall at Jindo's Paengmok Port, which had become a mass of yellow ribbons, two signs read: "Come home, Kang-min. Dad needs you to pin a carnation on his chest" and "I miss you, my son. Your Mom also needs you to pin a carnation on her chest."

Parents came to the lapping shore and tossed flowers into the sea. At that time every teenager in Korea would have queued to give a red carnation to those bereaved parents.

After the tragedy, the Koreans turned on themselves with disdain. The story of their development is not that of a bucolic people who just became hairdressers and bankers. The life left behind was harsh. The old Confucian culture was oppressive and, as it changed, rapid development created its own rough edges. The Koreans are an impatient people and yearn to be as good as they imagine advanced peoples to be. But they are too hard on themselves when their country falls short in their own eyes.

For Korea is a work in progress and her story is not about falling short.



The Koreans began with nothing.

With the opening riff of "Gangnam Style" the club burst into life and the students, still in their first week and getting to know one another, piled into a mass horse dance.

My daughter joined in. A man galloping alongside noticed her mouthing the lyrics.

"You know the words?" he yelled over the noise.

"Yes, I speak some Korean," she yelled back.


"I used to live in Korea."

"Oh, my God! That's amazing!" He passed on this discovery to his friends.

"Actually, I was born in Gangnam."

"No way!"


And for a few minutes she was a celebrity, connecting clubbers in Salisbury — officially a city because it has a cathedral, but really just a humble English town — to the global phenomenon of PSY. He, of course, is the Korean rapper who in the summer of 2012 turned the world on to a new idea: that South Koreans were not the workaholics and swots we had thought them to be. No, they were creative, they were stylish, they were sexy. And they were confident enough to make fun of themselves. Korean was the new cool.

That was a far cry from my reception twenty-five years earlier on a trip home from South Korea to the UK. I don't recall it exactly but the dialog went something like this:

"Korea? That's part of Vietnam, isn't it?" a relative asked.

"No, you plonker," an uncle said in that put-down bantering way of the British family. "It's a fucking country."

"Two," another said. "North and South."

They turned to me for confirmation. We had been banished by the women before an extended family reunion lunch and were standing in an awkward circle in a pub, clutching our first pints.

"Yes. The North is communist. The South should be a democracy. But it's not. I guess it's a dictatorship. But it's an ally." They paused to sip their beer. This was a lot of information.

"You're in Seoul, aren't you?"


"Where's that then?" said the cousin who'd started the conversation.

"It's the capital, you twat," the uncle said. "I knew some blokes who were there in the war."

"What war was that then?" said the cousin.

"What war do you think it was? The Korean War!"

"Oh, that's why I thought it was Vietnam. I got mixed up."

"You can say that again."

The level of awareness of my chosen home among the participants in this geopolitical discussion was sobering therapy. I didn't say it out loud but back then I believed the Koreans were already soaring to global center stage. My relatives' ignorance made me wonder whether I was not going over the top and justifying my own flight from a Britain that seemed bound by self-deprecation and moaning. Just because living among Koreans made me feel purposeful — I found myself walking faster in Seoul than I had in London — didn't mean I had happened by chance upon a special providence.

Back in Korea any doubts about my decision to have moved there wore off with the jet lag. The country felt so dynamic and important. It seemed to me as if the people had been stretched back by a giant historical catapult and released. They were hurtling into the future.

Actually, there was nothing fanciful about this perception. When I arrived in Seoul in 1982, the Miracle on the Han, as economic development was termed, had been going for fifteen or so years and was very visible. Foreign visitors who had known the poverty of the recent past or who, as first-timers, had come expecting something bombed out, marveled at the jammed markets and stores, the speed with which orders were met, the fourteen-hour days and six-day workweeks, and the cityscapes filled with cranes. Seoul rattled with jackhammers. Just a few years earlier, people would pray for rain before they traveled out of the capital to avoid a journey wrapped in their own dust devil. Now the roads were being surfaced and the dust brushed off cars every morning was from construction.

That the Koreans were on the move and escaping poverty was undeniable. The odd thing, though, was that few outsiders saw them going any further.

Foreign specialists I called on as a journalist for perspective — diplomats, academics, bankers, security officials, as well as longtimers like missionaries and former Peace Corps volunteers — said growth had maxed. Whatever the planners were embarking on next struck these experts as foolhardy. Economic plans wouldn't work and any idea of democracy was doomed. The more articulate the expert, the more convincing his pessimistic thesis.

I would have liked to argue but lacked the mental infrastructure. With economics especially, my roads were still unsurfaced. Visibility on a lot of issues was zero. Like most journalists I had a slim grip on anything to do with money. Fortunately, though, my fine British schooling included six years of Latin, and that helped me see the bigger picture. "Export," I could confirm, meant carrying out, and Korea had a carrying-out economy. Carrying out was done mainly by ships, which Korean companies had taken to making; small carrying-out stuff was put in containers, which Korean companies were also making. You get the picture? Koreans started by carrying out and then followed it up by making everything that went along with it. They still do. They might not have invented anything, but they quickly took to making parts of things and assembling them on such a scale that they cornered global markets. Carrying in was okay as long as the goods being carried in were useful for the people making stuff to carry out. Of course, no amount of carrying out would work if the merchants couldn't vend — from the Latin vendere — in overseas markets. Success abroad was the key to success at home. If a company was good at vending in alien forums, the centurions in government cleared the home battlefield for them — ordering banks to lend, keeping out pesky competitors, and letting them foist whatever they made onto the populus.

Beyond that understanding, I found myself in largely unexplored territory.

Not that this prevented me from writing about the economy and criticizing government policy. No great mystery there. Reporting is a daily journey into ignorance. The skill lies in the ability to identify people in the know, ask the right questions, and go with the ones whose responses you trust.

Which brings me back to my foreign experts. I also relied on them to make sense of the politics. The prevailing view here was that Korea would always be a dictatorship. That's what the Koreans I relied on also felt. I disagreed with all of them. My instincts told me that change was coming. I just wasn't any good at figuring out why, or expressing it.

"I don't know what you've been smoking," a senior Western diplomat (correspondent-code for the American ambassador) said at a lunch with a foreign press group after I'd said I felt democracy was around the corner. He had a point. That weekend, police had put opposition leaders under house arrest and tear-gassed a mass democracy protest. My traitorous colleagues around the table agreed with him. Dictators had been here for five thousand years and weren't going away.

But, I wondered, how come the policemen and students in democracy protests are so similar? They were brothers. So were the politicians. Opposition activists and government people came from the same schools and held the same values. The government folk shared a sense of national embarrassment about the then–military dictator, Chun Doo-hwan. He was there, so you simply did your best to get on with life, and for some who hated the previous dictators that meant joining his party, or joining the tame opposition — the ones we called opposition-by-day-ruling-party-by-night. They'd argue for their own interest but no one believed he should be there. Even religious people thought God must have been watching a baseball game and hadn't seen him sneak in. The Koreans had no serious ideological, religious, or racial differences. Being human they chose some issues to bicker over but these didn't run deep. That was because they weren't even a generation out of the rice paddy, certainly not long enough to build differences the disadvantaged could accept. Everyone's life was improving each year. A few people were getting very rich but their fingers had not yet fastened around the neck of opportunity. The dictator was scheduled to step down. Would he do it? Yes. He'd promised the American president. Seoul was hosting the Summer Olympics a few months after the end of his term. It would not be wrecked. That's how I saw things.

Not that this mattered. For reporters, future forecasts are part of reporting on the present. By the time the future arrives, they're past. No one gets called out on it. But the pessimism about Korea did represent a collective failure of imagination. The explanation is that journalists, diplomats, and businesspeople worked in short time frames and found safe refuge in criticism. The critics around us, Koreans and foreigners, were of two sorts. Strategic critics disapproved of the government in power and therefore everything it did got them going. Others were tactical. As the process of growth was one of responding to problems, backers of the solutions not taken were always handy for a critical quote. When, for example, the government announced another five-year plan or decided that, say, electronics was now a strategic industry, the press, in the name of objectivity, would turn to people who would pooh-pooh the whole thing and throw in human rights, labor rights, corruption, and the rest to prove the point.

It was nigh on impossible to avoid this intellectual trap because the Korean leadership was challenging the accepted wisdom about what was needed for a country to grow.


Excerpted from The New Koreans by Michael Breen. Copyright © 2017 Michael Breen. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Map ix

Time Line xi

A Note about English Spelling of Korean Words xiii

Preface xv


1 The Broken Ship 3

2 Out of Gangnam 7

3 The Defiant Land 19

4 The Case for Hanguk 36

5 The Group as Refuge 52

6 Jesus and Local Messiahs 66

7 Suffering in the Republic of Others 75

8 Nationalism and Other Things 88

9 Love and Learning When Your DNA Isn't Yours 98


10 Beginnings 115

11 The Quest for Purity 128

12 Being Second Class 148

13 Brothers No More 171


14 Desperation 195

15 Economic Warriors 201

16 The Smell of Money 213

11 The Chaebol Problem 223

18 Work, Work, Work 241


19 At Least Pro the Right Kind of Democracy 263

20 Power Shift 285

21 The First Democratic Presidents 306

12 Dissidents in Charge 319

23 Two Steps Back 329


24 The Miracle of Affirmation 339

25 For Wider Acceptance 352

26 A Wealthier Future 363

27 The Future of Democracy 379

28 Time to Unify? 391

Acknowledgments 395

Notes 397

Bibliography 431

Index 445

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