Interview With Michael Breen, Author of The New Koreans

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Since 1982, Michael Breen has written about the two Koreas, first as a correspondent for The Guardian and The Washington Times, and later as the author of a lengthening shelf of books including The Koreans: Who They Are, What They Want, and Where Their Future Lies, and Kim Jong-il: North Korea’s Dear Leader.

In his newest book, The New Koreans: The Story of a Nation, which hit bookstores earlier this year, Breen again employs his journalistic eye and avuncular storytelling to bring readers up to date on the trials, triumphs, and transformations of contemporary South Korea.


Your first book on Korea has been around for almost 20 years. What made you want to write “The New Koreans”?

I had it in mind when I completed the first book that fifteen or so years later I would writea new one about reunification and how it had changed people’s lives in every way imaginable. I’ll call it The Unified Koreans, I thought.

I have an agent who is very enthusiastic, and in 2014 she suggested I update the first book again (I’d previously updated it in 2004). Korea was “really hot” in the publishing world, she said, but it’s all fiction or North Korea. There’s a gap with non-fiction on South Korea. I wasn’t that keen, but she said all I needed to do was update the references, which are from the 1980’s and 90’s, and add a new chapter. The publisher gave me three months.

I sat in front of my screen all day every Saturday – my writing day – and couldn’t get past the first page. Something was really bugging me. Not only had Korea changed so much that it seemed stupid to just “update” something that was written a whole generation ago – or four generations, when you consider that every five years is a new generation here – but also I now looked at Korea in a different way than I did 20 years earlier. After two months of blockage, I realized I had to do a whole new book. So, they gave me another year.

What is new about the New Koreans?  What makes them so different from the Koreans you wrote about before?

The Koreans I first knew almost all knew poverty, they knew how to duck and weave in an authoritarian political and cultural environment. Most men, and many women, had been beaten by their parents and older brothers. Even their teachers and superiors had been free with their fists. Many had close family in North Korea. They looked at countries hierarchically and believed they were quite a way down the ladder.

The position in the democratic South is: Let’s maintain peace and delay unification til the time is right.

Now they’re middle class, sensitive to their rights, and there’s a generation now that never knew poverty or dictatorship. They have never known life without a family car or a computer. Their teachers don’t beat them anymore. Above all, there is a confidence in their identity as South Koreans that wasn’t there before.

Then there are all the things that nobody – at least, nobody I ever knew – predicted: that the sons of those unfashionable men would become the world’s biggest consumers of male cosmetics, that Samsung, LG and Hyundai would become global brands and that Daewoo would disappear, that kids would no longer dream of being heroes and heroines of reunification or even of working in a chaebol or being a doctor or a lawyer, and dream instead of being actors, models, singers and chefs.

Have some of your own analyses and predictions also changed over the years?

Oh yes. I don’t have a feel for economics so I never really predicted anything there. That was handy because most experts were forever predicting doom and gloom.

In politics, I suffered from the mistake of projecting my hippie liberal fantasies onto Korea. For example, I figured in the first democratic election in 1987 that Kim Dae-jung and Kim Young-sam would agree on a unified candidate for the sake of democracy. They didn’t.

My failure was to assume that national interest is more important to people than their own careers. It seldom is. National interest is a kind of theoretical thing compared to real life and big changes – like democracy – may appear like huge moments when you look back on them, but actually, at the time, for most people they’re just another day’s news.

Kim Dae-jung (left), and Kim Young-sam in 1987.

I predicted Korea would never have an opposition president – but opposition has won three times in four elections so far. I predicted that Korea would never have a woman president. I predicted Korea would have its own version of Woodstock, whereby the middle class young would dramatically drop the values of hard work or obedience that sustained their parents’ generation.

There’s probably a bunch of other fine forecasts I’ve forgotten. Fortunately, these things don’t get held against you because, unless there is serious commitment involved – like predicting which stocks will rise or fall or which employee will work out great – no one pays much attention.

Books in English on Korea these days all seem to be about North Korea. Why is that?

I’d like to believe that this is because the unimaginable suffering of North Koreans under their peculiarly vicious system has prompted the conscience of mankind. We want to know about the plight of our northern brothers and sisters and do something about it. But I think this is a bonus rather than the real reason.

I have wondered if it is because the evil twin of the North is more fascinating than the boring good boy of South Korea. The North Korean material is certainly very compelling – a dictatorship with 60-foot statues of its leader, who is both clown and psychopath, a famine in the middle of booming Northeast Asia, a people so controlled they’ve still not heard of The Beatles, nuclear weapons, and all in stark contrast with the successful Koreans from the South.

In politics, I suffered from the mistake of projecting my hippie liberal fantasies onto Korea. For example, I figured in the first democratic election in 1987 that Kim Dae-jung and Kim Young-sam would agree on a unified candidate for the sake of democracy. They didn’t.

But I think the real reason is that this little country, as an issue, has reached the desk of the American president. This happened mid-way through the Clinton years. Before that, North Korea was handled lower down the chain of power in Washington, and only Korea experts wrote about it, as experts might write about Burma or Peru.

Right now, with North Korea presenting itself as Donald Trump’s number-one foreign policy issue, academics, policy types, and journalists who are ambitious to influence the world’s most powerful government clamor to take it on. Those already involved in Korea can flash their knowledge and wisdom to a broad audience.

 

The blurb describes South Korea as an “overlooked nation.”  Why is that?

For a long time, expatriates who live in South Korea have felt that the country was different, dynamic and somehow important – only to find when they went home or traveled, even around Asia, that nobody knew or cared much about it. Perhaps this is true for many countries. I’ve not thought to ask people who’ve lived, as foreigners, in say Ecuador or Malaysia or Algeria if they have this experience. But for expatriates in Korea, this is a puzzling thing.

I think it comes down to a certain type of culture, especially in business and in the bureaucracy that distorts how Koreans communicate to the outside. I’m reminded of a meeting I once had in a Korean company with a couple of visitors from India. It seemed normal enough to me. But afterwards, one of the Indians, a lady, whispered to me, “Why are they so regimented?”

I realized then that the fact that most people in the room had said nothing during the entire meeting and bowed and shook hands, limply supporting the arm doing the shaking with the other, and that the most senior person present had done all the talking, but been very formal, itself gave an impression that was very disengaged and unattractive.

Until recently expatriates in Korea have exhibited a rather shallow habit of criticizing things that happen here and lumping them under the label, ‘Korean.’

When you look at promotional material, from chaebol or on government websites, it’s as if the writer is ticking a task box and has no sense that he is writing for someone who might actually read it. When the government promotes the Joseon dynasty for western tourists, nobody seems to have asked, “What will they be most interested in?” (The answer would be North Korea, war and the DMZ).

When you read the information at tourist sites, you wonder why the place seems so lifeless and two-dimensional, as if the only thing that happened there in 600 years was the delivery of 3,292 tiles to be used to build the roofs. What I’m saying is that I think, when it comes to presenting itself to the outside, the bureaucrats override the designers, artists and communicators. At least, that’s how it seems to me.

You’ve mentioned that you’ve received some comments by English-speaking Koreans questioning your right to write about Korea. Are you sensitive to the charge of cultural appropriation?

Nobody has said it to my face, but I’ve been told of such reactions and seen one or two online. Like, someone wrote, “Looks like shit to me.” I think this review was on the basis of the cover page information. Fair enough; it’s not what an author wants to hear after a year’s slog, but we all make such judgments every time we go into a shop. I’ve not heard anything about cultural appropriation per se.

Perhaps if the cover was me in a hanbok, I might have. (I wouldn’t buy it myself, then). It’s more the, “How can he write about Korea when he doesn’t have Korean blood?” type of thing. As far as I know, it’s not coming from Koreans seriously questioning a foreigner’s “right” to write a book about them. Obviously, in a free marketplace, such “rights” do not exist to be given out.

If there’s a real point it is that someone might immediately not relate to me as their interpreter of Korea. I get that. Reading a book is like taking a journey with someone, the author, who starts off as a stranger. If you don’t like him for her for whatever reason, the journey is unsatisfactory. I won’t say which one, but there’s one book in English on Korea that I really didn’t like – even though it was well written – because the writer was both bitchy about people he met and couldn’t keep his pants on. I just stopped caring for what he thought about Koreans.

There’s another part of this that occurs to me. Until recently expatriates in Korea have exhibited a rather shallow habit of criticizing things that happen here and lumping them under the label, “Korean.” English-speaking Koreans are not doubt aware of this. They may even participate in it. This habit was very prevalent when I wrote the first book and I consciously wrote in opposition to it, even though I was criticizing things about Korean politics and so on. For this reasons, when I saw that a book entitled The Korean Mind was written by a foreign author, I reacted negatively, because I immediately assumed – rightly or wrongly – that it would be condescending. I guess if I fall victim to the same reaction, I can’t complain.

How do you see relations with North Korea playing out in the future? Are you still sanguine on the prospect of reunification?

I predict it will happen. Given my track record, this probably means it won’t.

Here’s my history of error on this one: Back in 1988, I interpreted the Seoul Olympics as a kind of outward manifestation of the end to the rivalry between the two Koreas. All North Korea’s allies, bar two or three small countries, participated, ending a series of Olympic boycotts. It was, I thought, the moment the world acknowledged the ascendancy of the South. North Korea had lost. You can get on the chopper to Hawaii, Mr. Kim.

The next year European communism collapsed and in 1990, I predicted reunification – or some big power shift and reconciliation – by 1992. That was after going to North Korea. During that trip, a diplomat in Pyongyang told me in hushed tones, “The lid is ready to blow off this place.”

Now, 25 years later, I’m wondering if in fact I’d not been wrong all along and that the North Koreans still actually think they can win this thing, and that the use of nuclear weapons against South Korea, once the Americans are out of the way, is part of their strategy. If that is their thinking, the only solution – bar war now – is massive containment and possibly an arms race on the peninsula until the North crumbles.

Berlin, 1989

The prospect of this continued impasse gives me another thought. The reason for the standoff between the two Koreas is not that one has nuclear weapons or one has American troops or that we need to build trust and all that. These things are all movable. The problem is more fixed. It is that each Korea claims sovereignty over the other, and, it seems, nobody on their respective side believes they shouldn’t.

Some people say they don’t really believe this – that it’s just a posture – but that’s not true. Try telling South Koreans, “Okay, give up the posture, then. Drop your claim over North Korea. Change the Constitution to say that its citizens are no longer South Korean.” What this means is, sacrifice unification for peace. I mean, really sacrifice it. Postponing it is not sacrificing. Develop a vision as a separate country and forget North Korea. Right now, nobody will agree to that. In fact, I’m not aware anyone has even mentioned it as a remote option.

The position in the democratic South is: Let’s maintain peace and delay unification til the time is right. But this posture brings us back to the reality that the vision of unification means the end of the regime on the other side. “The time is right” means when the other side has changed and both now have shared values – preferably, when they are both free-market democracies, like Holland and Belgium.

That may be how it happens, but if we were to sacrifice unification and if the North were to follow suit, we would reduce the chances of bloodshed on the way. As it is, I expect bloodshed. I just hope it is contained within North Korea when its Park Chung-hee launches his coup.

 


Michael Breen will be the featured guest at an Author Panel at HQ Gwangan in Busan on Friday, October 13th. Check event page for details.

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