Saturday, September 14, 2013

Korea, the Impossible Country by Daniel Tudor (2012)

::The Skinny::

Title:  Korea, the Impossible Country

Written by:  Daniel Tudor

Language:  English

Publication year:  2012.

Pages:  336 pages.

Price:  $16.25 at

In less than 30 words:  Excellent overview of South Korean history and society that hits just the right notes.

Reading List category:  Society, Culture

Keyword(s):  Overview, Contemporary Korean society

Writing style:  Breezy, witty, easy-read

Rating:  5 stars

::The Review::

Note:  I received a review copy of the translated version of this book from Mr. Tudor.

It is clear that Daniel Tudor, formerly with the Economist magazine, loves Korea. In the media interview about this book, Tudor often recounts the electric excitement he felt when he first visited Korea in 2002, in the middle of FIFA World Cup that Korea co-hosted with Japan. What is admirable is that Tudor did not let his love for Korea devolve into wide-eyed orientalism. In Korea, the Impossible Country, Tudor explains Korea like a person in a long-term relationship about her partner. He praises Korea for its unusual achievements, but does not avert his eyes from its unusual problems either. In both cases, his tone is constant and warm, being neither overly excited nor unduly critical.

In Impossible Country, Tudor introduces the contemporary Korean society by arranging a grand tour of Korea, touching upon its modern history, social zeitgeist, pop culture, aesthetics, religions and social mores. Tudor's treatment of these topics is brief, but not cursory. He does a great job of finding granular factoids--many of which are probably not commonly known even among Koreans--that are both interesting and properly representative of the aspect of Korea that he explains. One of the ways in which Tudor achieves this is by actually talking to, and getting the voices of, the Koreans on the ground. (Many books in English about Korea eschews this seemingly obvious step.) In particular, the interview with a mudang [무당], i.e. a shaman, was particularly entertaining.

Impossible Country is also excellent in providing significant counter-currents within the Korean culture, which is essential for the reader to avoid reducing Korea into a series of stereotypes. For example, as the book discusses han [한]--a sorrowful emotion that is widely recognized to form a significant strain in Korean aesthetics--Tudor introduces a novelist who claims that han is a relatively new concept implanted by Imperial Japan in the early 20th century as it was colonizing Korea. Regardless of the strength of this claim, simply introducing this claim does much to refresh the prevalent discussion about han that is often banal in English-language literature about Korea.

This book is not without faults. Although Impossible Country does a good job providing details, certain parts of the book seem a bit too hasty as it moves from Point A to Point B. In many parts, it overly relies on Confucianism to explain away characteristics of Korean society when jumping straight into the facts would have been preferable. But these are nits that need not concern the target audience for this book. 

The Bottom Line:  Read this book if you have no more than basic knowledge about Korea. Even if you consider yourself fairly proficient about Korea, there is enough in this book that may teach you a thing or two.

Reading Korea (


  1. I read Korea, the Impossible Country after having lived in Korea for five years and marrying a Korean woman. I was surprised by how insightful the book was and how unaware I was of many things Korean. My wife and her family were also surprised. A foreigner wrote this? Scary.

    While I don't like the tired phrase, "THIS IS REQUIRED READING!", I would suggest this book to anyone who wants to learn more about Korea. I thought I knew Korea fairly well, but I'm realizing that there is much more I need to learn.

    Until I am able to read Korean at a higher level, books like these are where I get most of my solid information about Korea.

  2. I just purchased this book! Waiting in anticipation for it to arrive :)

  3. I loved this book. I had it out of the library, but it was so good that I will buy it. I have been reading, eating and absorbing Korean culture for several years now, in spite of not knowing anyone Korean, and there is a limit to what yo can learn at a Korean supermarket, through pop music and K-drama. But it provides a kind of cultural immersion without context. Mr. Tudor provides the context, and a lot of what I knew fell into place through his writing.

    His writing style is a pleasure to read. There is no academic pretension, no proselytizing, no defensive posturing. He does his best to give an honest and balanced account of a multitude of topics and to give back-story as to why things are as they are. Since TK has positive things to say about the content, I believed most of what I read.

    The explanation of han [한] and the feeling of joy that permeates Korean culture was especially important to me. Korean poetry, which I can enjoy sadly only in translation, is very important to me, and these terms helped me understand why Korean poetry speaks to me in a way that no other does. but enough about that, since TK has a ban on poetry in this blog!

    Thanks both to Mr. Tudor for writing a delightful book and to TK for bringing it to our attention. I have recommended that my local library purchase it.