SOUTH KOREA HOLDS its presidential elections today, and given North Korea’s brinkmanship last Wednesday when it launched a surveillance satellite—widely seen as a step toward greater nuclear capability—Americans would be wise to watch.
Though North Korea has reneged on most hopes of reconciliation, the right-of-center frontrunner, Park Geun-hye—the stern daughter of the country’s former strongman dictator, Park Chung-hee—has promised to moderate the current president’s stance toward the North. Park Geun-hye has put forward a foreign policy doctrine that she calls trustpolitik, a plan that will open the door to greater engagement with the North while retaining a degree of toughness. She has said that “unconditional aid”—that is, aid without the stringent conditions usually required by the South—“is fake peace.” With this practical but strict mindset, she may just be able to stitch up relations with the North. Another somewhat hopeful note: she dined with Kim Jong-il in as part of a diplomatic meeting in 2002. A fellow child of politics, Kim Jong-il told her that both of them had to live up to the goals of their great fathers. The left, meanwhile, has thrown its weight behind human rights lawyer Moon Jae-in, a relative political newcomer who was imprisoned in the mid-’70s for his activism against the elder Park. The race is close, and there is much antagonism on either side.
The eccentric meeting of candidates, split between the old right and the scions of the student protest movement, sums up the dramatic and rapid evolution of this 25-year-old democracy. This former anti-communist fiefdom was once poorer on a per-capita basis than Liberia and Zimbabwe; now it is one of the world’s most high-tech and cacophonous democracies. Forty years ago, the opposition candidates would have been sued, jailed, or kidnapped while abroad (as happened to Nobel Peace Prize winner Kim Dae-jung in 1973). It is a nation, writes the British journalist Daniel Tudor in Korea: The Impossible Country, where antiquity and history have outlasted the economic development of today: where shamans meet Samsung, an American-modeled presidential system collides with paternalistic Confucian hierarchies, and a capitalist focal point sits just south of one of the world’s most isolated military regimes.
Readers might assume that Tudor should have labeled the country’s northern neighbor the “impossible” country. (Coincidentally, Victor Cha, a former Bush administration official, recently published a book called The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future.) But Tudor seems to deploy “impossible” as a stand-in for “incredibly unlikely.” South Korea, he writes, has shown the most “impressive story of nation building of the last century.” The “impossible” of the title also has direct bearing on South Koreans’ lives: “This is a country that puts too much pressure on its citizens to conform to impossible standards of education, reputation, physical appearance, and career progress.” He opens the book by pointing out that the “economic miracle” is both a blessing and a curse; while the economic growth led the resource-barren country out of poverty, “genuine contentment largely eludes the people of South Korea, despite all their material success and stability.”
Democracy can come about quickly and with little foresight, Korea: The Impossible Country shows. Throughout most of its history, South Korea was not democratic, even though it has always possessed a fiery tradition of protest against repressive rulers. From 1910 to 1945, the entire peninsula was brutally colonized by Japan; after World War II, leading up to one of the bloodiest civil wars of the twentieth century, it was divided into Soviet and American-backed sectors. In the South, Washington lent its support to a Princeton-educated, autocratic Anglophile named Syngman Rhee. He fled the country in 1960 following protests over a rigged election. A frail parliamentary republic wobbled along for a brief time, until General Park Chung-hee (Park Geun-hye’s father) launched a coup d’etat and set the country on a draconian path toward development. He held sole power until 1979, when he was assassinated by his intelligence chief. A democratic protest movement gained momentum under his military successor, Chun Doo-hwan, and culminated with the first elections held in 1987.
The book also demonstrates that development, like democracy, can take root in a very short period if the entire state is behind it. The South Korea that we know today is the result of a constant self-improving impulse that has dominated the country even amid political turmoil. There is a good chance your television, smart phone, or computer monitor came from South Korea—because, starting in the 1960s, South Korean companies spent decades copying, tinkering with, and improving other countries’ goods. Conglomerates like Samsung benefited from close relationships with the government, allowing them access to easy loans that pushed them into expansion. Samsung has made its mark with the Galaxy, but your Apple iPhone and iPad probably contain a Samsung chipset—the network of chips that makes your device function. Japan is now old news as far as gadgets go; in the mid-2000s, Samsung Electronics overtook Sony in both yearly sales and brand popularity, as measured by the company InterBrand.
Tudor does not shy away from the more oppressive effects of all this forward motion. This culturally ingrained ambition—which he calls a value of striving toward self-perfection—means that pressures run high. Students cram into the night to gain admittance to one of the country’s three elite universities in Seoul (or, as a more prestigious option, get into the Ivy League); The Economist even reports that the South Korean people are the most cosmetically enhanced group in the world. With standards like these, it is understandable why they also have the highest suicide rate of any developed country.
Despite the compelling story of democratic transformation and extraordinarily fast economic development, most Americans are generally oblivious to the general shape and character of the country. Compare that to the global profile Japan earned during its development boom, marked overseas by the prominence of Nintendo, Sony, and anime shows throughout the 1980s and ’90s. Open any newspaper, and it is South Korea’s neighbors that get nearly all the coverage, with the typical taglines: an ascendant China, a pugnacious North Korea, and a culturally stylish but economically stagnant Japan.
But South Korea has enormous strategic importance: some 28,000 American servicemen are stationed there, holding off the North Korean military threat and a rising Chinese one. This year, Seoul slid into the news when a rapper’s music video went viral. But despite a few wrong-headed attempts to find cultural commentary in “Gangnam Style,” illumination of the fascinating country was limited. Tudor has demonstrated that South Korea has far more going on that is worth exploring.
Geoffrey Cain, a freelance writer, formerly covered South Korea for Time. Follow: @geoffrey_cain