The Koreans: Who They Are, What They Want, Where Their Future Lies (Revised Edition)

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KIRKUS REVIEW

If true, it is a highly dangerous game to be playing, let alone being rather presumptuous. Then give us this, that and that other there too. Kim Jong-Un is no fool, and he will wish to extract the maximum concessions from the United States. President Trump is probably not in a position to deliver them, as nuisances such as sanctions need to be lifted by Congress, not the President. To be fair to Kim, he probably also wants to find a way out of this mess.

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If North Korea does manage to find a way to back down and give up weapons, it is probably Kim who should receive any Nobel Peace Prize, not Trump, which would be a supreme irony. However, there are two caveats to this, first, that China tried this several years ago — and it failed at the time, mainly because of the shocks such a move would bring to the Korean system. It was felt such a process would not be smooth and hundreds of thousands of North Koreans would migrate to Northern China. Secondly, its not a Vietnamese model, its a Chinese one.

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This will mean there will be a sharp division of interests, as Kim Jong-Un will be approaching this summit very seriously indeed. On one hand, the motivation is a bright bauble, on the other, regime survival. For us all, global nuclear security. One hopes that at this summit, it is Kim who manages to get the road ahead paved to eventual reunification with global development.

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Trump can be expected to depart two years from now, while the DPRK denuclearization process will take years. As for the Nobel Peace Prize, does America need to feel globally loved right now? No, America is not very much loved right now. What lies ahead?

Millions of Asians are convinced by the arguments in defence of authoritarianism and collective rights made by Asian intellectuals and politicians. They point to western social ills and blame democracy for what they see as western decadence. They say that they need a different type of democracy, one more relevant to their family-based heritage, a democracy with Confucian characteristics. The Koreans are disputing this position by virtue of their example, and demonstrating that democracy is universal. Democracy is. Another reason that Korea will be important is because it has the will to be.

No nation has been great without its own sense of manifest destiny. The south Koreans have been lifted up by a nationalistic self-assurance. In another time and in other circumstances, such sentiments may have led to imperialism or some kind of aggressive expansion.

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But the realities of the global village are likely to make the Koreans graduate into a confident internationalism. This is the paradigm change that Koreans are currently being pressured by the needs of their economy to make.


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If they are successful, as I believe they will be, their nationalistic energy will be transformed into a creative force behind a new generation of entrepreneurs, teachers and artists. The Korean growth of the past decades has been led by small groups of powerful men in politics, business and in the military. The downside of their success has been the stifling of the creativity of the broader population. Many Koreans have emigrated, notably to the United States, where they have excelled in business and in education. The change is now coming that will allow for a flourishing of more individual economic and intellectual creativity within Korea itself.

Once they have our attention, we find there is so much that can be learned from the Koreans. Ironically, they are the last to acknowledge that they have something to teach the world. Although in public they assert a confidence, privately Koreans are extremely critical of themselves. In many of the contradictory aspects of Koreans, I have found the most interesting lessons. They combine great flaming emotion with an extremely fine sense of etiquette. They devote themselves to work and they devote themselves to family. They often appear incompetent and yet they achieve.

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They ascribe to collective values and yet are probably the most individualistic of all east Asians. As Confucianists, they have an instinct for relationships. They can be quite aggressive, but extremely hospitable. They can be very sacrificial, yet realistic about their own needs. They are materialists. They pursue status and titles and yet these often just function as a guide for their behaviour, not as a source of ultimate worth. People of high status can be very sombre and serious and self-important.

Grandmothers hire coaches with their pals and get drunk on outings. They can be puritanical about sexual relations and yet more uninhibited than lap-dancers. They are naturally conservative and yet have an ability to absorb differences. The stereotypical Korean is a materialistic shaman-Confucian-Buddhist-Christian.

The Koreans : who they are, what they want, where their future lies

They are fascinating for an outsider to observe and work alongside for they have telescoped development which took several generations in western countries into the span of a working lifetime. This passionate mix of contradictions can be difficult for the more ordered western mind to handle. As I have suggested, foreigners often find themselves responding in contradictory ways. They criticise Koreans a lot and yet they cannot tear themselves away from them. They might declare there is nothing good in the country, except of course their Korean spouse, who is the most important person in their life.

This contradiction is nicely symbolised for me by the way in which I grew to like Korean cuisine.

The first time I was confronted by a soup in a Korean restaurant, I found it was too salty and too spicy, and full of murky items which for all I knew had been dropped in it by mistake. I was glad my host did not reveal the contents. It came surrounded with small plates on which there were leaves and twigs which we were plainly expected to eat. I picked up a bulging green pepper and bit into it.

It was so hot it almost blew my face off. The proud master of these side dishes was a tight roll of what could have passed for used bandages. So this was kimchi. It was strips of cabbage parts which had been drenched in red pepper juice. The courses kept coming. The side dishes were all shared. Everyone poked at them with their chopsticks. In the end, it was difficult to measure how much you had eaten, especially as half the food was left.

This food was all washed down with beer. But now I have grown to love this food so much and the socialising that goes with it that in Britain I have withdrawal symptoms. This cuisine is not the kind you admire visually. So, too, with the Koreans. They assault you with their fury and nonsense. I reckon if you were stuck on Mount Everest in a prolonged storm, there would be no more reliable and courageous companion than a Korean. The trouble is, he would be a smoker. The Koreans are a very artistic people.

It is a pity that much of their literature is inaccessible internationally because of language.

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