Long-time foreign correspondent and historian Andrew Salmon has put together a nifty new book entitled Modern Korea: All That Matters that presents with an understated elegance the most essential points about the history, society, economy, and culture of Korea (north and south). To put it simply, if someone put a gun to your head and told you that you have to learn everything about Korea in one hour, this is the book that will save your life.
Not only does the compact book of 150 short pages cover all the critical points about Korea, it is written in a plucky style that makes it as entertaining as it is valuable. Each concise section has an easy to spot header like “the Korean Wave” or “quiet streets; noisy parliament” that makes it a pleasure to find the section you read yesterday.
Salmon gives the reader a whirlwind tour of South Korea, explaining in a compelling manner how Koreans pulled off the greatest national success story of the 20th century. He lines the path from the ruins of devastation to industrial powerhouse and, subsequently, thriving democracy. Along the way, he provides insights into the workings of this high-tech wonderland, from smartphones to smart cars, and probes into the quirky habits of the Korean salaryman, tiger mom, and idol singer.
He also reveals that challenge that makes Korea a flashpoint peninsula lying at the heart of the world’s most economically vibrant region. Salmon probes why North Korea, an economic and political basket case, has defied historical trends and mutated from communist state into de facto monarchy. He relates how the Kim Jung Eun regime presides over a malnourished populace, an increasingly capitalistic economy - and a nuclear arsenal.
Along the way, he suggests certain cultural similarities between North and South and helps the reader to get it clear in his head exactly how the Korean culture and political economy is distinct from China and Japan.
One of the sweetest parts of the book is final section “100 ideas” which sets out an extremely short, but right on target, list of media to go to for the details about Korea. The list of ten books to read, ten Korean films to watch, and ten Korean foods to sample is perfect for the outsider trying to bone up somewhere between JFK and Incheon about this fascinating country.
I am recommending Salmon’s South Korea: All That Matters to visiting friends, and the response has been overwhelmingly positive. Somehow, by boiling Korea down to the minimum, the quintessence of this fascinating nation has been revealed.