I was in the lobby of an elegant hotel in Seoul in the summer of 2019 when Donald Trump’s security team began to emerge from the building. The US president had suddenly decided to tear up the agenda and protocol for a much-anticipated diplomatic visit to South Korean President Moon Jae-in and head north to the demilitarized zone to meet the North Korean leader. , Kim Jong Un.
It’s hard to think of a greater insult to Moon but, deftly, he followed through. Trump got the headlines he wanted: “The first sitting president to set foot in North Korea.” Moon secured the continuation of the crucial relationship with the United States, an unexpected, perhaps unwanted, meeting with his northern counterpart, and a boosted reputation for making the most of a sometimes unpredictable diplomatic hand.
This is part of what Ramon Pacheco Pardo means by calling South Korea the shrimp among whales. Throughout its millennial history, Korea has had to adapt to great powers – above all, China and Japan, which had designs on its territory and its people, and on the replacement of its culture with their own. , especially during the Japanese era. colonization between 1910 and 1945.
Now, however, Korea — or at least the South — has become a whale itself, he argues. Despite Trump’s flippancy toward the relationship, Seoul remains a key U.S. ally. It has the 10th largest economy in the world, forged by semiconductors, cars, ships, batteries and telephones. Over the past decade, surprising new additions have been its K-pop music industry, with now the most successful boy band BTS in the world, and films such as Parasite who have won world prizes.
This is a book by someone who has loved South Korea since his first trip there as a student. I am for that, as someone who has also fallen in love with the country. But while Pacheco Pardo, professor of international relations at King’s College London, makes some good points, he doesn’t shed enough light on the reasons for the triumphs, or sufficiently acknowledge the problems behind South Korea’s global success.
In a painstaking account of two millennia of history, Pacheco Pardo brings out a central point: that Korea’s history is distinct from that of Japan or China, and that the place’s essential “Koreanness” goes back to its roots. Its food, its language, its customs, its sense of identity have a long history.
He also clarifies that its current economic and cultural success depended on the key decisions of rulers throughout the ages. Most strikingly, almost 600 years ago, an inspired leader, King Sejong, commissioned the Hangul alphabet: he abandoned the pictorial (and harder to learn) characters of Chinese and Japanese in favor of a alphabet based on the shape of your mouth when making the sounds. He supported the accessibility of Korean culture.
To this is added the support of the State for the creation of the chaebol (“wealth clan”) in the 1960s — the business conglomerates, run by wealthy families with close ties to the government, that forged the country’s business success. More recently, studios churning out K-pop stars are an almost unique example of government deciding to grow the creative industries — and succeeding.
But Pacheco Pardo ignores the dark side of this success story, especially the proximity of chaebol to the government. This has fostered corruption allegations and some blame it for the economic downturn.
It doesn’t address the dark side of the music industry – its pressures, which have led to suicides and near-starvation diets. He acknowledges the intensity of university entrance exams but praises the system’s classlessness. It sheds light on the status of women, which is indeed changing, but in a way that excludes them from much of the economy.
In his final paragraph, he says, “As South Korea and South Koreans evolve, one thing is clear: a bright future awaits the country. . . Let’s be clear: South Korea has arrived; South Korea is here to stay. Such boostism underestimates the real difficulties South Korea faces, at home in a complex and changing society, and abroad in what anyone would call a tough neighborhood.
To realize Pacheco Pardo’s wish for its future, South Korea will have to manage to change some of the foundations of its past success, such as the too close and comfortable relationship between business and government. He will have to navigate diplomacy with his ostracized northern neighbor and with the major powers – China, the United States and Japan – who want to shape the region’s destiny.
Not easy – and it doesn’t get any easier than this playful account makes it seem. But Pacheco Pardo grasps the remarkable significance of recent triumphs that give South Korea both agility – as Moon’s diplomacy showed – and the affection of a global audience.
From shrimp to whale: South Korea’s incredible rise from the Forgotten War to K-pop by Ramon Pacheco PardoHurst £25, 280 pages
Bronwen Maddox is director of the think tank Institute for Government
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