My first contact with Koreans was in Vietnam where one of the standard American jokes about winning the war entailed placing South Korean military in the southern Mekong Delta, building a large PX at the northern DMZ, and telling the Koreans that it was all theirs, after clearing out the Communists in between.
The joke was insulting and demeaning, like all ethnic jokes, and yet it was also a grudging acknowledgement of the single-minded determination of Koreans to survive and succeed. That determination is one of the underlying themes of Russell Warren Howe’s very readable new book, “The Koreans.”
Howe, a foreign correspondent who has written widely on Africa, turns here to a country he first visited in 1968. It is clearly a love affair. Koreans and their country have enchanted him, and he tries to convey that enchantment to his readers.
While Americans have focused on China and Japan (re-enacting 18th-Century Europe’s fascination with chinoiserie), the other countries of Asia, especially Korea and Taiwan, have grown up in the shadow of our ignorance. What we have awakened to, however, now appears to be our rival, not our friend. In 1988, the United States ran a $9.8-billion trade deficit with Korea. This rivalry Rep. Richard A. Gephardt tried to make a campaign issue with his claim that a Korean-made Hyundai car would cost $48,000 if all the Korean restrictive tariffs on U.S. goods were applied to it. Sensing American hostility, Koreans, rather than becoming apologetic, have become more nationalistic with the Korean government most recently suggesting that all American troops be withdrawn in the 1990s.
In this atmosphere of increasing bilateral tension on both trade and security issues, Howe’s book is welcome relief for its focus on the history, the land, and the culture of Korea. In Asia, above all, the present is often only a reflection of the past. Trade tensions, for example, are not new. In the mid-19th Century, the first American trade mission to Korea had to be guarded by a Marine squadron and then had to fight its way back aboard ship. Korea is an ancient land--in myth claiming an origin in 2333 BC, becoming known as “Ko-gu-ryo” as a Chinese vassal state in 73 BC. Squeezed in later centuries between China and the emerging Japanese empire, as in the 20th Century, it would be caught between the Soviet Union and the United States, the Koreans evolved their own distinctive society that withstood foreign encroachments and now, with Korea’s economic strength, is undergoing a renaissance, explaining in part current nationalism.
With selective (apparently fictional) vignettes of a day in the life of the average Korean, Howe takes us beyond the political issues that dominate the headlines in the American press to understand how Koreans have integrated their past with modernization. In one case, a young female clerk is described visiting a mudang, or witch, for help in attracting a particular accountant. In another, we see how a family of five can coexist in an apartment the size of an American hotel room. As Howe observes, “Koreans are both rigid and adaptable, cunning and frank, stubborn and sentimental, stoic and soulful.”
It is the hard edges of Koreans that foreigners most easily see. Howe shows us the sentimental side of Koreans, their art, literature, and religion, including the daily rituals that enrich life. Seances are witnessed as well as a wedding and burial service. Howe frequently contrasts Korean behavior to that of Japan and China, and sometimes the West, indicating not only the differences but also the similarities. Korea has, for instance, 18 times more Christians than Japan.
These are useful distinctions not only for the occasional tourist but also for the American businessman who often finds his or her sales territory straddling several Asian lands. This is in effect Howe’s audience and one of the major limitations of his book.
Written obviously with the Olympic Game traveler in mind, “The Koreans” is a cultural guidebook for the well-educated traveler who wants to sample more than a spicy dish of kimch’i or a view of the DMZ. Containing tips on taxis, gratuities, food, and “companionship” for the “lonely male,” “The Koreans” should not be taken for serious study.
It touches only in passing two critical areas: politics and economics. There is minimal discussion of the nation’s political and economic structures. He mentions that “Koreans are obsessed with the future,” but to a major extent, their future will be determined by emerging political institutions and means of production. These are not dealt with at all and are more vital at least to the business traveler than knowing how to thank a Korean for a gift.
Annoyingly, too, there are occasional gratuitous asides that could be interpreted as anti-Israeli. At one point when discussing the brutal interrogation techniques of Korean security forces, he states: “The Israeli contribution seems to have been mainly in the area of sexual torture, which did not exist before.” What does the author mean? Where is his proof to this damning declaration? He offers none, and there is no further discussion of this point. They detract from an appreciation of what is an overall good companion for the first-time traveler to Korea.