Jeffrey Miller

A Writer's Life

Tag: Books on Korea

The New Koreans: The Story of a Nation

Breen's BookThe New Koreans: The Story of a Nation

By Michael Breen

Hardcover: 480 pages

Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books; 1st edition (April 4, 2017)

When it comes to writing about Korea—its people, culture, and history—there is no one better up to that onerous task than Michael Breen who has devoted most of his life observing and writing about the country. In his latest book, The New Koreans: The Story of a Nation, Breen does what he knows best. Sorry, if I seem a little bias, but I have known Breen since 2000, when I started writing feature articles for the Korea Times. In all those years, there is no else who can come up to his level when it comes to talking and writing about Korea.

However, this is more than just an outsider’s take on Korea. To be sure, Breen with journalistic flair and cultural sensitivity offers an in-depth look at modern Korea that is unrestrained and honest. This is more than a history of modern Korea, though. Breen endeavors throughout this impressive tome to help readers understand who the Koreans really are through anecdotal musings and historical evidence.

Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the opening chapter which talks about the Sewol tragedy when a ferry sank off the southern coast of the peninsula in the spring of 2014. This was a rather bold on the part of Breen to lead off with this tragedy, but this chapter and his delicate, cultural understanding set the tone for the rest of the book when he tries to make sense of why something like the tragedy and its aftermath could happen. I remembered when this tragedy happened and immediately on Facebook, foreigners in Korea started to chime in about “their take” on the accident and the “culture” that allowed it to happen. Breen, though, the acute observer of Korea that he is, can analyze something critically without being shackled by his deep appreciation for the country. In the process, he helps the reader understand the Korean psyche and character without running the risk of being bias.

One of the things that I liked most about the book were all of his personal anecdotes and his loving attention to detail. Even for this old Korean hat who has lived and worked in South since 1990, I learned some new things about my adopted home. Whether it’s talking about why there’s a wastepaper basket next to a toilet in a public restroom or the manner in which Koreans number and name their streets (one of the first things I learned when I came to Korea and took a taxi—in the days before GPS—was always to make sure I could tell the taxi driver a landmark to help with navigations) Breen’s observations and analyses make for some very enjoyable and insightful reading.

Another thing I liked about the book was how he divided the sections and named the chapters, which helps readers develop a better understanding of Korean than by saying this happened, and then this happened because something else happened. We want to know why it took Korea as long as it did to finally rise from the ashes of the Korean War and become the nation that it is today. We want to know why the Chaebol continue to have a stranglehold on the Korean economy and culture. We want to know why men like Park Chung-hee and Kim Dae-jung played pivotal roles in South Korean politics and their legacies that remain until today. We want someone to explain why K-Pop has become an international phenomenon. And yes, we want to know why something like the Sewol incident could happen.

If there was one book that I would recommend to anyone thinking about coming to Korea to work, study, or simply visit, I would recommend Breen’s book hands down. There’s no one writing about Korea these days more knowledgeable and understanding of Korea than Michael Breen.

Book Review: Letters from Joseon

Letters from JoseonKorea in the late nineteenth century was a turbulent time. John Mahelm Berry Sill, the American Minister to Korea from 1894-1897, couldn’t have asked for a more difficult posting. In that time there would be the Sino-Japanese War, the Gabo Reforms, the murder of a Korean queen, and the subsequent refuge of King Gojong in the Russian legation.

In the fascinating and historically rich Letters from Joseon, 19th Century Korea through the Eyes of an American Ambassador’s Wife, Korean historian and freelance writer Robert Neff has given us a unique window on a bygone era in this very readable and enjoyable trip back in time. Relying mainly on the personal letters and correspondences between the Sills in South Korea and their family back in the United States, this period of Korean history comes alive as the letters offer insights into life at the American legation as well as what was happening outside the walls. To be sure, as Neff writes in the book’s preface, “these letters provide a candid view of life in not only the American community in Seoul, but also in the Russian legation, where King Gojong and the crown prince sought refuge following the murder of Queen Min.”

The book is divided into three parts which coincides with the three years that Sill was posted to Korea. In Part One, the Sino-Japanese War is the historical backdrop for the letters and correspondence, which signals the beginning of Japan’s grip on the Korean peninsula; in Part Two, the letters cover a wide range of events inside and outside the legation and ends with the murder of Queen Min; and finally, in Part Three, the letters offer insights into King Gojong’s refuge in the Russian legation and the subsequent period of unrest in Korea.

Neff keeps his commentary to a minimum, though he augments the letters with numerous notes and asides to provide readers with related information to the events and people he describes. Though Sill was not looked upon too favorably for his actions, or lack thereof as minister, Neff lets the letters tell the story and is only there to amplify any historical references.

Although scholars will find this book as an indispensable source of information about the late Joseon period, other readers will enjoy this window on Korea’s past, especially Korea in the late nineteenth century on the eve of the eventual Japanese colonization of the peninsula. Neff has carved out a niche for himself when it comes to the study of this period of Korean history. His knowledge and expertise in this area is commendable. He might not be the only Korean specialist writing about this period, but he certainly has become one of the most prominent.

“I love the smell of tear gas in the morning….”


It smells like a demonstration.

Back in the day, in this case, back in the early 1990s, one sure sign of spring in the air was the smell of tear gas in the air. This photo was taken of riot police wearing their Darth Vader-like helmets at a demonstration in Chongno outside of the Sisa-Yong-o-Sa building (now YBM Sisa) and across from what used to be called Pagoda Park.

Before I came to Korea in 1990, one of the images I had of Korea were all these pro-democracy demonstrations in the late 1980s.

Spring has traditionally been a time of demonstration that dates back to the 1960s with the ouster of Syngman Rhee and Kwangju in 1980.

In 1991, following the death of a Myoung-ji University student, there were demonstrations almost every day. Things really got out of hand with the self-immolation of a couple students in front of Yonsei University that same spring.

In my most recent book, Waking Up in the Land of the Morning Calm, I have two chapters about having survived these demonstrations, including the mother of all demonstrations, the 1996 demonstration at Yonsei when students occupied the university for over a week.

Korean Health Care

As it turns out, after visiting the doctor again today (the third time in less than a week) I am not only suffering from Acute Bronchitis (I’ve never coughed as much in my life as I have this past week; I’ve never coughed so hard that it made my back hurt) but also Chronic Sinusitis.

I only had about two hours to get ready for school (prepare some notes for my lecture) after I had taken my wife Aon and our son, Jeremy Aaron to Incheon International Airport, but with an hour to spare, I thought it would be a good idea to stop in at my doctor’s office and let him know I was still ill.

In Korea, you can walk into any clinic, hand over National Health Insurance card, and wait to see the doctor. Waiting rooms are usually packed after lunch, so when I got to the clinic I have been going to for the past couple of years, I thought it was going to be a long wait. It wasn’t.

I told the doctor I was still suffering from a very bad cough and that for three days I had either a migraine or some sinus-type headache. I was making good time when I saw that I had 45 minutes to get to school for my 2:30 class.

The doctor shook his head and told me he thought there was a more serious problem and wanted me to have some X-rays taken.

Three X-rays later, the doctor told me that I was also suffering from Chronic Sinusitis and that he would put me on four weeks of meds.

And the cost of all this?

Doctor’s visit and X-rays:  9,000 won (about $8.00)

Pharmacy:  13,000 won (about $11.00)

I got to school with 10 minutes to spare.

And now that I’ve got your attention, please head on over to Lulu and check out some of the books I have written, especially my Korean War novel War Remains as well as my short collection of fiction, Damaged Goods.

Kimchi chocolate, anyone?

You can find all kinds of neat stuff at Namdaemun Market in Seoul; even Kimchi Chocolate!

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