The Koreans: Who They Are, What They Want, Where Their Future Lies
By Michael Breen
Thomas Dunne Books, 2004; 286 pages
When I was writing book reviews and feature articles for The Korea Times a few years ago, I had the chance to read many fine books on Korea. Of all the books I did read, one book—Michael Breen’s The Koreans: Who They Are, What They Want, Where Their Future Lies—stood out from the rest with its insightful commentary and analysis.
To be sure, if you were looking to choose one book on Korea that best explains its history, culture, and people you would need to look no further than this one. Originally published in 1999 (and revised and updated two years ago to keep abreast of the latest winds of change on the peninsula), the book has been one of the better commentaries on Korea filled with an illuminating treasure trove of genuine insights on everything Korean.
With his snappy style of writing that makes this book a real treat to read, there’s probably no better qualified Western observer of Korea than Breen who has been writing about the two Koreas ever since he first arrived here in 1982. With a keen sense for detail with just enough objectivity and sensitivity thrown in, he has a knack for getting to the bottom of what makes Korea so Korean in this straightforward analysis.
Nothing it seems is off the author’s radar screen as he tackles a gamut of topics in the book that exposes not only the nature and values of Koreans, but also how these values have underpinned their national development. He looks at Korea’s long and difficult history, as well as some of the nation’s more painful moments in the 20th century including the Japanese occupation period and the division of the two Koreas. Finally, he examines how Korea rebounded from these events and how the “miracles of change” brought Korea to where it is at today and what the future holds for both Koreas.
That’s a lot to cover, but Breen is definitely up to the task with his book. Moreover, what makes this book thoroughly enjoyable to read on a number of levels is that the author knows Korea and its people. As someone who has been here for as long as he has and either wrote about Korea or had dealings with Koreans on a daily basis as a consultant, his personal insights are a valid assessment of the historical, political and cultural landscape. Although he writes passionately about Korea in this book, this does not color his perceptions in any way. Indeed, it’s an honest assessment that is just as thoughtful as it is enlightening.
While it may not always be easy for Western observers or even expats living in Korea to fully understand this unique society, Breen excels with clearing up some of the ambiguity that might often cloud one’s perception of Korean society and the values that have shaped their national character. On the other hand, he often comes across as a voice of reason with his personal commentary on Korea that articulates perhaps what many people who have lived in Korea have felt one time or another.
As Korea continues to be the focus of much international attention, the need to become more familiar with and appreciate this extraordinary country becomes all that more apparent and this book is a good place to start. Whether you are an old hand to Korea or immersing yourself in the land of the morning calm for the first time, Breen’s book is a must read.