Modern Korea by Andrew Salmon

Andrew Salmon

Englishman Andrew Salmon, 48, covers the Koreas for Al Jazeera, The Daily Telegraph, Forbes, Nikkei Asia Review and The South China Morning Post. He writes a biweekly column for The Korea Times and presents the weekly show “Bizline” on Arirang TV. His five published books include works on the Korean War, Korean restaurants and U.S. business in Korea. His To the Last Round: The Epic British Stand on the Imjin River, Korea, 1951 (London, 2009) was awarded the “Best Military Book of 2009” prize in the UK and a “Korean Wave” award in South Korea’s National Assembly. Salmon holds a BA in History/Literature from the University of Kent and an MA in Asian Studies from SOAS, University of London. He is also a Council Member of the Royal Asiatic Society’s Korea Branch. Salmon met with the Asia Society’s contributing writer Matthew Fennell to talk about his new book Modern Korea.


You first visited Korea in 1989. What was it about the country that led to your permanent relocation here 9 years later and subsequent commentary on the country?

Believe me, it was not that first trip that drew me to Korea! On the contrary, Korea back then was – at least to this foreigner – a very, very unwelcoming place. Seoul was grey, grim and dreary. The people impressed me with their energy and their fierceness, but not with their kindness or gentility. In those days, if you were walking down the street, it was common to be bumped, buffeted and bashed. There was intense suspicion of foreigners and foreign nations: The national narrative, as far as I could read it, was “Foreigners are out to get us.” And I had some very unpleasant experiences with Korean men, who took considerable exception to the woman (who later become my wife) dating a man of a different race. Whenever resident expats gathered, there was an immediate topic of conversation: Moaning about Korea and Koreans. I had not planned to return to Korea – having completed an MA at SOAS in 1996, I was planning to relocate to Southeast Asia in 1997. This was about the time of the Asian economic crisis, which first hit Southeast Asia, meaning it was not a promising place to move to then. So I decided to come back, perhaps temporarily, to Korea – and through friends and family, I was hearing encouraging things about changes underway over here. Before I left, I asked some finance people in London if the crisis in Southeast Asia would impact Korea and they said, “No, don’t worry, not a chance of that.” I have never trusted anyone in banking since then, as less than three months later, the IMF landed in Seoul. Long story short: I was impressed by what was going on in Korea in 1998-9 and found it stimulating. Many, many positive changes took place – from market opening to mind opening. Now, 16 years later, I find Korea an extremely amenable place to be and have no plans to leave: Almost everything I disliked about Korea back then has evaporated. The kind of night-and-day transformation between my first visit in 1989 and my second in 1998 show the incredible capacity for change that seems embedded in Korea’s DNA.


To dissect modern Korea in only 150 pages must have been a huge challenge. How did you approach this almost impossible task?

In two ways. One was by ruthlessly focusing on what foreigners “need” (or ‘want”) to know about Korea. So the chapter outlines provided basic scaffolding: “Division and Devastation;” “Economic Miracle;” “Political Miracle;” “Social Miracle;” North Korea;” and “Quo Vadis, Korea” which is pretty much a personal editorial rant by yours truly on the challenges still facing Korea. I should point out that this book is not a chronological history of everything that has happened since 1945. But the broader question to me was to answer the question, “What is Korea’s ‘elevator speech?’” – i.e. how would you describe Korea, in the space of a minute, to a stranger you had just met in an elevator? For that, I adopted the rubric “Land of Extremes.” I think that due to internal and external geo-political circumstances in the 20th century, and the extraordinary changes they have undergone, Korea and Koreans have cast aside the old Joseon virtue of moderation, and instead embraced extreme positions and practices. This is not just visible in the most obvious case – i.e. North-South confrontation between two diametrically opposed ideologies - it is equally apparent in South Korean life, be it the highly confrontational nature of politics, the fast-and-furious business culture, the murderously stressful education system - even the madcap nightlife, the hi-tech adoption and the competition to personally beautify. To put it another way: There is a good reason why there are coffee shops here everywhere you look…


In your book you cover everything from the Japanese colonization and Korean War, to the economic realities of the 20th Century and beyond. Do you have a favorite chapter?

Probably the “Social Miracle” chapter, which looks at the transformations in society and culture. I have lived through these changes and they are particularly heartening for someone with a mixed-race teenage daughter. It was very interesting to me to dissect what the drivers behind these changes were, particularly as these are all (IMO) positive changes that have taken place and become entrenched in a very, very short period of time. That research answered some of my own questions, as did some of the research I did into the “economic miracle”- particularly how it was planned, executed and financed. I was surprised to find that the “economic miracle” of the 1960s and the “hi-tech miracle” of the millennium both shared a very similar concept: They were both based around a government-planned infrastructure build. Once that infra was in place, the various sectors, services and products produced by business sprouted.


You have obviously seen a lot of change in "modern Korea" since your first visit 26 years ago. What changes are most striking to you?

How long have you got? Everything from attitudes and aspirations to infrastructure and consumption. The young generation today I find to be far more open-minded and tolerant than the Koreans I met in the late 1980s, especially when it comes to attitudes toward foreign countries, foreign peoples and foreign goods. Consumer life is now far freer than it used to be: It used to be “save, save, save,” then, immediately post-crisis, it went “spend, spend, spend.” (End result: Koreans went from some of the world’s greatest savers to some of its heaviest debtors after 2002. This problem continues to this day.) Leisure has arrived, whereas previously the concept barely existed: Koreans were put on this earth to work, not to enjoy themselves! The five-day workweek hugely boosted the leisure industry and quality of life: When I first came here and you asked a Korean his hobby, he said, “Sleeping!” and meant it. Work hours were relentless, so everyone was exhausted on Sunday - hence there was not much to do anyway. That is no longer the case: There are endless leisure options and Korea is a fun, exciting place to live. The infrastructure – from the mobile network to Incheon International Airport - is better than anything I find in Western Europe. One thing that really stands out is public toilets. When I first came here, entering one of those was like entering Dante’s inferno – I won’t go into details, you would not be able to print this, but it was nightmarish. Today, doing one’s business in a Korean public toilet – which are clean, sweet smelling, and well-equipped - is what it should be: A relief if not a pleasure.


Chapter 6 of your book looks to the future and asks "what's next?” What are the biggest challenges you see Korea facing in the future?

There are diverse challenges, buy most of them come down to this idea of “Land of Extremes.” For one, Korea faces an enormous social problem: Their society has become overly competitive. I think this stems from traditional village culture with its “economics of envy” – i.e., “if Kim has something new, Park wants it too” - magnified a thousand-fold by surging economic growth and urbanization, and magnified further by government and corporate messaging urging people onward, ever onward. Now people have not only bought into it, they are trapped in it. For example many mums hate the education stresses, but still feel compelled to shove their children headfirst into the sausage grinder, as they have to “keep up with the Kims.” 

Then there is the demographic plunge – which is part driven by the first problem, as couples don’t want to have children, it is simply too expensive to educate them. This factor has all kinds of economic and even ethnic consequences.

Nationalism remains problematic. I experienced, somewhat bemusedly, the anti-Americanism of the early 2000s; now it has shifted to anti-Japaneseism. An even-handed reappraisal of 1910-1945 is long overdue; from what I read, there are many, many inaccuracies and exaggerations that have mutated into the conventional wisdom. Certainly, colonialism was exploitative, but I have actually sat and listened as a sitting Korean president equated Japan’s colonial rule of the peninsula with the Nazi genocide of the Jews and the Slavs. Sir Max Hastings wrote that it is “the duty of the historian to deploy relativity.” That is not being done here.

Then you have reunification. People here are starting to talk up the long-term benefits of it, while overlooking the immense short-term costs and tremendous risk. And there is no policy in place to achieve this, no process at all. My sense is that Beijing, Pyongyang and even many ordinary South Koreans hope the status quo will continue forever. It may do - but there again, Korean has a record of surprising (and shocking) the world, so it may not. We need better thinking on North Korea from all players, particularly those in the diplomatic and political spheres. We need to encourage the positive, market-centric changes that North Koreans themselves are enacting, and we need to future-proof our thinking and our systems.


The Korean version of your 2011 book, "Scorched Earth, Black Snow", will be released this year. Was this always the plan or is this translation in response to a demand here in Korea?

I am very proud of this book. It contains a huge number of personal anecdotes which I have tried to weave into a narrative which tells the story, at ground zero level, of one of the 20th century’s greatest and most terrible tragedies: The North Korean invasion of South Korea; the UN counter-invasion of North Korea; and the awesome catastrophe that ensued. I was discouraged that no South Korean publisher picked this up. Firstly, my first Korean war translation, “To the Last Round:” sold its entire print run. Secondly, it is such an important, if traumatic, thread in the Korean national fabric, but now the old generation is now dying out, taking their remarkable stories - tragic stories, horror stories, moving stories and sometime inspirational stories - with them. Alas, the Korean War is not a trendy subject among publishers, but late last year a specialist military history publisher here approached me, which is gratifying. The translation will come out in June - so if anyone has a venue and wants a presentation around that time, I will be happy to come and speechify! Some interviewees relieved their traumas when they spoke to me, and many readers have told me they were shocked by what they read: They had been un-appraised of the scale, of the brutality and of the shear drama of those early, whirlwind months of the Korean War. Hollywood, from which so many people form their impressions, has not done it justice. There again, a tragedy of the magnitude of the Korean War probably demands an opera rather than a movie.


Do you have plans for further books on Korea? What would you like to focus on next?

My next project will be something I am very interested in – partly to answer my own questions! – and quite passionate about: A history of my hometown for the last 15 years, Seoul. History here tends to be taught here in order to pass exams, or as a vehicle to inculcate “correct history” – i.e. nationalism. I am intensely frustrated by the historical signage you see around town which includes names, dates, dimensions and inevitably a Japanese atrocity, but which introduces no characters, tells no stories and delivers no analyses. To be brutally frank, tourist guides are little better: They relate a sanitized, textbook version of history and in my experience, are unable to answer even basic questions. So I think there is a market for a punchy, “warts and all,” “blood ‘n guts” history of Seoul – spiced up, perhaps, with a touch of travelogue. Seoul is a fascinating city, but largely in a modern way. Even “historic” buildings here tend to be brand, spanking new. So many layers of history in this city are concreted over, under-represented or forgotten, and some of these processes are very deliberate. I intend to uncover some of these hidden layers. And it will not be simply for English language readers. The popularity of costume dramas on TV indicate the appetite here for historical fodder, but of course, these dramas offer little accuracy in terms of attitudes and events, of costumes and interiors. Perhaps a history of Seoul, populated by characters and written in a flowing narrative that tells stories - i.e. a popular, rather than an academic history - would satisfy Koreans as much as foreigners. After all, “The past is a different country,” but my experience is that Koreans are taught to see a long thread of determinism linking them with the days of yore, but I suspect that seen up-close, even late-Joseon era life would be extraordinarily alien to modern Koreans, they underestimated that changes that have taken place in terms of not just their surrounding hardware, but their own cultural software. I have two potential offers from publishers; we will see what happens.