Daniel Tudor interview and an excerpt from his book

Back in December I did an interview with Daniel Tudor for Haps. He being the author of Korea: The Impossible Country as well a correspondent covering the peninsula for The Economist and Newsweek. The print version of the piece has been out for a month, but have just gotten around to posting it online.

Along with the interview, Haps has an extended (and quite interesting) excerpt on Shamanism in Korea, from the book.

Tudor, who I found to be frank and engaging in his responses, gave some insight into the book’s “impossible” title –which partially grew out of an interview with a former Park Chung-hee aid who said, “Korea was the poorest, most impossible country on the planet.”

“I love living here, but often, I feel thankful that I’m not part of this society’s rat race,” said Tudor, before segueing into the dual meaning of his book’s title. “I think that this society makes life ‘impossible’ for its citizens in some way, by setting up impossible ideals to live up to, and forcing people to accept a very narrow definition of what ‘success’ can be.”

I know he has caught some flak here on The Hole of late, but his book is well worth a read. You can check out the rest of the interview here.

I did like his quote on the drawbacks of being a foreign reporter here:

“On the downside, people don’t like to be so outspoken here, so that often leads to boring interviews. And if you criticize someone, they are liable to go ape on you. There’s a little over-sensitivity, especially where the foreign press is involved.”

The MH comments section would never go ape though, right?

  • Cloudfive

    As for his fluency in the language, he says, “It is about 50 percent. I
    can read a newspaper slowly, but my speaking isn’t so great.”

    Does he bring a translator with him for interviews or does he conduct them in English? Which relates to this quote:

    On the downside, people don’t like to be so outspoken here, so that often leads to boring interviews.

    Maybe Tudor means “critical” and not “outspoken”? Boring interviews reflect on the interviewer more than his subject, in my personal opinion.

  • dlbarch

    I personally think Tudor is a solid and insightful journalist…even more so given his non-traditional journalism or “Area Studies”  background. I would like to know, though, why he thinks 2MB is “the last developmentalist president of Korea.”

    If we know anything about how Korea’s presidency, political administration, and civil bureaucracy are organized, it’s that there is an established, institutionalized developmentalism in Korea that shows no sign of receding. The ties binding government and industry in Korea toward the twin national goals of economic growth and trade competitiveness remain phenomenally strong.

    I suspect that PGH and succeeding governments will continue to be just as developmentalist as anything we’ve seen from the outgoing 2MB administration.


  • pawikirogii 석아

    the blog peice marmot linked the other day was confusing. many of the quotes i thought were mr tudor’s were in fact quotes from the blogger himself. i went to investigate the book mr tudor wrote. the reviews say the man spent quite a bit of time looking at the rise of k pop. the blogger, however, made it seem mr tudor was dismissive of such a phenomena. i stand corrected. i just may buy his book to see what he has to say.

  • http://kuiwon.wordpress.com/ Kuiwon

    “And if you criticize someone, they are liable to go ape on you. There’s a little over-sensitivity, especially where the foreign press is involved.”

    Is he calling Koreans apes? In that case, with my over-sensitivity, I’m offended. 

  • gbnhj

    I know he has caught some slack here on The Hole of late, but his book is well worth a read.

    Did you mean that he’s ‘caught some flack’ or ‘caught some heat’, in that you thought some people were strongly critical of him? Or did you mean that some folks here have ‘cut him some slack’, in that he was not heavily criticized? I’m guessing the former rather than the latter.

  • http://www.globalasianculture.com Liz

    After looking through the Preview on Amazon, this book appears to kind of pick up where Michael Breen’s The Koreans left off. Kind of like a Breen 2.0 primer on Korea.

    This book isn’t really for me. There are some other elements of the book that demonstrate a lack of depth knowledge that wouldn’t hurt to be included in a primer, but I’m guessing — epistemically speaking — the book’s just not quite there.

  • BobbyMcG

    Doh!. “flack” it is! thank you. I have flacked up that slack/flack thing before. I hope it has now been exorcised/exercised.

  • joe

     No, he is not calling Koreans apes, but I am calling you a baby, a whiner looking for a victim card to pull.

  • Cloudfive

    You laugh at jokes 5 minutes after everyone else, amma right?

  • Cloudfive

     I had to google “epistemically”.

  • http://www.sperwerslog.com/ Sperwer

    epistemically?  ROTFLMAO.  What no “orientalist gaze”, Foucauldian “governmentaltiy”, Bourdieun “habitus”?  You’re slacking off.

  • ChuckRamone

    No one here would go ape shit. But quite possibly batshit crazy. 

  • ChuckRamone

     IMUS, is that you?

  • ig5959292ee

     well said mate

  • Mourning Calm
  • Mourning Calm

    Maybe not an impossible country but exasperating for sure.

  • http://twitter.com/NielsFootman Niels Footman

    Pedants’ corner: In this context, “flack” should be “flak”. (Sorry.)

    Regarding Daniel Tudor, I haven’t yet read the book but having known him a bit when I was in Korea, I’d say he was definitely among the more insightful and well-informed foreign observers of the country. He was also, despite the criticism he has received here, considerably less jaded about Korea than many other hacks, with (I think) a genuine affection for the country.

  • yuna_at_marmotshole

    May I suggest “두 손 두 발 다 들게 한 나라” as a Korean Title for the book.

  • PortaJohn

    When I was in Korea it was the 11th largest economy. What happened?

  • yuna_at_marmotshole

    However, I never quite understood the charge often made by the Westerners of Koreans being similar to Chinese.

    I came across the following chart when I was visiting the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico.

    Taiwan, and a lot countries in South East Asia with a sizeable Chinese population still manage to retain their unique culture, but to accuse Korea, the country which defensively kept out the Chinese for so long? This same charge I’ve also read in that Misuda girl Vera Hohsomebody’ book in German.
    She was saying how the Koreans hate the Chinese of being dirty etc. but how they are actually very much like the Chinese i.e. they spit in the streets etc.
    Therefore, I understand Liz’s criticism on the other thread of “orientalism” because of this point. It starts off from the Ansatz that Western culture is superior to Oriental, namely the Chinese culture.

  • yuna_at_marmotshole

    With respect to Cultural similarity Korea also owes a lot in its modernization to Japan. I would say, it is a mixture of China and Japan, but with its own fiercely independent larger-than-life identity.

  • wangkon936

    Mexico and Russia surpassed it due to oil wealth.  India grew like crazy during the business outsourcing days.  It isn’t that Korea shrank.  It’s that primarily those three countries just grew faster due to their greater amount of natural resources and/or bigger populations.  Korea will likely swap with Spain (currently # 13) and maybe surpass Mexico (#14) when oil prices stabilize.

  • wangkon936

    A superficial knowledge of Korea would make one think that Koreans are similar to the Chinese.  Greater knowledge would indicate that Koreans and Chinese are as different as two peoples can be.  There is initial familiarity and comfort due to the same base Confucian and Sinosphere culture, however.

    A good comparison are the Europeans.  The Germans are really nothing like their French or Polish neighbors, but superficially they would look similar (when viewed from afar) given that they have similar social norms, clothing, architecture, religion, etc.  However, no serious European expert would say that overall, that Germany is “similar” to Poland or France in all but the most basic aspects of culture.

    Going back to my earlier point, if you are to say broadly that Koreans and Chinese are “similar” then you would be making the same mistake as to say that Germans are similar with Poles. You can only get away with that opinion if you are just viewing those cultures from afar.

  • wangkon936

    Please remember that both China and Japan are also their own steaming piles of heterogeneous entities as well.  China, a nation for most of its history had dozens of mutually unintelligible languages and significant pool of northern altaic genes (the main reason why northern and southern China have a lot of distinguishable linguistic and genetic variation) and Japan, a mix of Jomon islander people and Yayoi (i.e. Asian and Siberian mainland and Korean peninsular) people.  This is even something that the Japanese themselves acknowledge.



  • YangachiBastardo

    Spain GDP is fiction not even an inflated euro can justify…i can’t tell for sure but even a superficial look and feel ofthose 2 counties would find absolutely impossible that Spain is ahead on a per capita and absolute basis.

    I’m not totally convinced of the PPP methoology but in this case i would say it is way more than justified.

    Also when half of your GDP is Government expenditures, you can truly put everything there to inflate the numbers

  • YangachiBastardo

    Don’t the Japanese have significant Austronesian admixture too ? 

  • wangkon936

    Yes.  Included with the Jomon.

  • YangachiBastardo

    Oh Thanks, actually i thought the Jomon were, albeit it’s not 100% sure, the ancestors of the Ainu and genetically a Northern Asian population, despite their vaguely Europoid appearance, not too distant from the Tungusic and Kithan people

  • wangkon936

    Well, the Jomon people were a mix of those that came from Siberia (Ainu) and the other Pacific islands (Austronesian).  You know, there is evidence that the Ainu came to the American continent before the more Mongoloid Siberians crossed over the land bridge. 

  • pawikirogii 석아

    i just wonder why nobody ever writes that japan has a similar culture to korea. why don’t we ever hear that when it, for the most part, is true?  

  • pawikirogii 석아

    the chart that yuna linked was interesting because it connected koreans to tibetans and japanese. have you folks ever heard tibetan? the first time i heard it i was shocked because the way they pronounce their words is very similar to korean. i wondered if there were some connection…

  • Mr Yu

     Actually, this should be spelled “flak” as it derives from the German term for airburst anti-aircraft shells.

  • http://kuiwon.wordpress.com/ Kuiwon

    As a Korean, I’ve joked that Koreans have been better at being Chinese than the Chinese — at least historically and in certain respects. They certainly took Confucianism to a level beyond that of the Chinese. Also, after the fall of the Ming and during the Qing, many Koreans thought that they were the remnants of Chinese civilization — this is perhaps the basis of Korean nationalism —  and that the Manchu Qing were barbarians. This belief can be seen in Korean language today, with words such as 호빵 (Steamed buns) and 호떡 (Chinese pancakes), both of which refer to foods with Chinese origin. The Hanja  for 호 in these words is 胡, one of the many characters meaning “Barbarian.” 

    I agree there are certainly many differences and I for one do not want to be pigeon holed with them, but I think this downplaying of the similarities shows a sense of insecurity (e.g., using “pure” Korean words to name children, when it’s quite easy to tell who’s Chinese and who’s Korean when looking at Hanja names), rather than some vague and ill-defined quest for identity. Koreans today should come to terms with this, especially given the fact that our ancestors less than a few decades had no problem with this while being even more fiercely nationalist and proud of our heritage and patrimony.

  • ChuckRamone

    Some people say the terms “Jomon” and “Yayoi” are historical fictions used to obscure the exact origins of the Japanese people. These terms are not like “Gauls” or “Saxons,” which refer to distinct groups of ancient humans. There were no historical groups of people called Jomon and Yayoi. The more correct corresponding terms would be Ainu/Ryukyuan and mainland Asiatic. But Japanese history is kind of messed up like that.

  • Bob Boibbs

    Apes? Actually, that’s what Koreans call foreigners in Korea.

  • ChuckRamone

    All East Asians have genetic overlap, obviously. But the nationalists, racists, what-have-you, like to ignore that fact. It’s impossible that Chinese, Koreans and Japanese are three completely unrelated groups of people that just happen to live in the same part of the world and look pretty similar.

  • Cm

    I don’t put too much emphasis on genetic stocks, since they can change over time. With the influx of various Asian immigration into South Korea currently, I would guess that picture will look completely different in about 50 years.

  • YangachiBastardo

    The fact they adopted writing really late in their history doesn’t help

    And to my poorly observant eye Japan and Korea don’t look that similar, other than the common presence of a few retailers, those 2 cultures look markedly different. Actually when i landed in Korea for the first time in 2009 i honestly expected it to be Japan 2.0 and i was (pleasantly) surprised by how everything seemed different, including the appearance of people

  • Cm

     What’s the size of the underground economy of Spain?  With South Korea having one of the most biggest underground economy in the world, where people use cash to avoid taxation (anything from construction, to service, to prostitution), the actual size of the South Korean economy maybe much bigger – as big as 30% more (this is the estimated size of South Korea’s black economy), than the actual size of the economy.  

    Also, WK, South Korea’s undervalued currency that underwent two financial panic crisis leading to cuts to the value of the Won, had a lot to do with the less than overwhelming growth of the Korean GDP.    Just think where would the Korean GDP be today, if 1997 currency devaluation didn’t happen, and the Won was still valued at 850 Won per US dollar, instead of 1050 Won per US dollar today.   Korean economy should have been much bigger than it is today, but for various reasons, it’s failed to live up to its full potential.

  • http://kuiwon.wordpress.com/ Kuiwon

    I would also like to point out the Korean flag, the Taegukgi itself, as another evidence of the similarity between the two cultures. I’ve heard a few Koreans (whom I would label as having some insecurities as explained in the previous post) tried to explain that the Taeguk in the center is of a different and separate origin than the Yin-Yang found in Chinese philosophy, but they struggle to explain the four symbols around the Taeguk.

  • wangkon936


    Read what I wrote about the Economic Crisis in Korea:


    You’ll see why Korea had to go through it… and in a sense why it deserved to go through it.

    If the won’s valuation increased by 20% and other currencies stayed stable vs. the USD, then Korea would (on a nominal basis) be only the 14th largest economy in the world.  So, just one rung over the ladder.  

    Other than putting the export oriented chaebols in a bind, I don’t know what else a 20% revalued won would do to benefit Korea.

  • wangkon936


    Perhaps you should listen to Taejo Wang Geon and his fourth injunction:

    “In the past we have always had a deep attachment for the ways of China and all of our institutions have been modeled upon those of Tang.  But our country occupies a different geographical location and our people’s character is different from that of the Chinese.“

  • http://kuiwon.wordpress.com/ Kuiwon

    I don’t disagree with that as stated above, but I think this reaction against things similar to Chinese culture in Korean culture shows insecurity. There’s nothing abhorrent with similarity; there are plenty of other differences between the two peoples. 

  • wangkon936

    Well, at the same time it must be realized that cultural markers that originated in China have become defused into the rest of Asia and have become East Asian cultural identifiers rather than just Chinese.

  • YangachiBastardo

    CM: pretty big but actually, according to a W. Buiter note he wrote for Citi in the OECD area Korea actually displayed the highest percentage of under the table GDP (at 40% vs a 25-30% in S. Europe).

    I think WK (many thanks for the Jomon explanation) has a point, still i think Korean economy cannot rely forever on a cheap currency, neither can the rest of Asia which show an astonishing difference between nominal and PPP GDP. 

    A strong currency is a double edge sword and the export deterioration risk is indeed real (i.e. Japan), still no country has ever claimed fully developed status with a shitty currency. A strong, stable, fully convertible currency backed by liquid, internationalised capital markets has many advantages too. One of ’em would be a much lower risk to see the banking system cutoff from (short-term) international funding a la fall of 2008

  • silver surfer

    Where do you get 30% from Cm? The figure I’ve found is 17% of GDP for South Korea as of 2011 and probably less now as it’s supposed to be getting progessively smaller. For comparison, the UK’s black economy is estimated at 10.5% of GDP as of now; and Spain’s underground economy is estimated at 22% of GDP as of August 2012. 

    Re growth: Korea, China and Japan have now insured themselves against any re-run of the Asian financial crisis by building up huge currency reserves in dollars, so that the IMF is no longer able to put the squeeze on by demanding immediate repayment of debts at a time when the national currency is plummeting. In theory, then, South Korean companies could once again go on a borrowing/expanding binge generating high growth. Couldn’t they?

    As for Daniel Tudor’s book, I’d be interested in reading it, but it’s a little unfair to expect any book written by someone who’s been here for 5 years – or even 20 – to be ‘epistemically’ complete. What single individual can encapsulate a country, even their own?

  • http://www.bcarr.com/ Brendon Carr

    This is because American schools suck these days. We should give them more money! More, moar, MOAR.

  • http://www.bcarr.com/ Brendon Carr

    Epistemically speaking, it was the ennui from your departure that brought us down. Foucault would say, “Please come back.”

  • wangkon936

    You know what the teachers unions are saying? To invest in students invest in teachers! What a load of crap.

  • http://www.bcarr.com/ Brendon Carr

    Yes, I know what the teachers’ unions are saying . In part, they are correct. But America isn’t getting as much bang for the buck as it used to because of all the administrators we have to hire along with the teachers.

  • YangachiBastardo

    There was a Willem Buiter research note for Citi circa 2010 (you should find it on Scribd) who provided that kind of numbers.

    You are partially correct about the currency reserves role as a safety lock for Asian countries, still if the banking sector gets temporarily locked out of the money markets (and that’s a danger for Korea, where short term foreign debt is not negligible, see Fall 2008), it isn’t exactly easy for the Central Bank to mobilise those Treasuries to cover the local banks dollar funding gap.

    Same old story: if you immediate liquidity pressures, even if your balance sheet says you’re overall filthy rich, you can end up in a crappy spot. 

    Let’s give credit where credit is due: Uncle Ben decision to flood the system with emergency dollar liquidity tools (i.e. the cross-currency swaps he entered with other central banks including Korea) was a turning pint in curbing the hemorrhage of the banking crisis. 

  • Cm

     Silver Surfer, here’s one article about the Korea’s underground economy that the new President would like to address (hint: sources for new tax dollars)


  • Cm

     Yangachi, South Korea to its credit has sharply reduced its short term debt, while boosting the foreign exchange reserves to $326 billion, since 2008.


    They’re in a much better position to defend the currency, than 2008, and it’s another reason why South Korea saw its  credit rating increased.