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on 11 September 2005
The Koreans is a brilliant book about the character of the Korean people, and how they came to be that way. Korea is a fascinating country, full of contrasts that can delight or infuriate a foreigner. I definitely fall in the former group. I lived in Gumi, north of Daegu, for a year in 2001/2002 working as an ESL teacher. US military personnel aside, probably the majority of foreigners in Korea find themselves in this profession. I didn't read this book until well after I left, and I wish I had read it before I went to Korea in the first place. Anyone who has lived in Korea for any length of time (the author, Michael Breen, has lived in Seoul for many years) will find themselves nodding in agreement with many of Breen's experiences, and his explanation of them. Amongst other things Breen talks about the drinking habits, queue jumping, and the very bad driving that prevails the country, in a humorous and informative manner. He also discusses the conglomerates, the "company life" and the all important concept of saving face, in a country steeped in Confucian values. The love he has for his adopted country shines through the written text.
As well as serving as a social commentary on Korea, The Koreans also acts as a potted history of this turbulent county, which it needs to be to explain the Korean psyche. Korea has risen from a predominantly agricultural society at the time of the Korean War, to a modern day superpower, at the forefront of technological innovation. The Koreans discusses the rise of Korea from the ashes of the war to the bustling powerhouse it is today. It doesn't neglect more ancient history if it relates to a key discussion point - for example, Breen discusses the creation of the Hangul alphabet, a system of writing formed hundreds of years ago by a Korean king, which has ensured that the literacy rates of the general population are well above the world average. It is surprising just how much pride Koreans take in their written language even today. However, it has to be said that "The Koreans" is no substitute for a proper history of the country - try "The Two Koreas" if that is your interest.
First published in 1999, The Koreans has been updated to take into account some of the key developments on the Korean peninsular, particularly the ever so slightly warming of the South Korea/North Korea relationship, with South Korean conglomerates beginning to invest in North Korean ventures (although the more cynical of observers speculate this has more to do with a North Korean need for cash in its cash strapped economy than a genuine desire for reconciliation). The South Korean/North Korean relationship is debated at some length. Another key development since the first edition was of course the joint staging with Japan of the 2002 FIFA Football (Soccer) World Cup. The fervent passion shown by the Koreans, many of whom will have never shown any interest in the sport, helped propel their national team the Red Devils into a World Cup semi-final showdown with Germany, which they sadly lost. The whole month of June 2002, while the tournament absorbed the whole of Korea, is probably my personal highlight of my time in Korea. I recall vividly cheering on Korea in the round of 16 match against Italy amongst several Koreans gathered around a TV setup outside a 24/7 shop whilst eating watermelons that a seller passed around.
If you want to learn anything about Korea, this should be your first port of call. I particularly recommend it to all those seeking jobs in Korea as prospective ESL teachers as it will help your understanding in dealing with the people, but anyone intending to stay a while will get just as much out of it.
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on 2 August 2004
Having recently arrived to live and work in S. Korea, I found Breen's book very helpful in giving me a general overview of the country and its people. Breen has obviously spent a lot of time here and a lot of that mixing with some key people that have made S. Korea what it is today.
But there are several areas which weaken Breen's work. The main weakness of this book lies in the fact that Breen is covering the entire history and makeup of a people in a mere 250 pages. Surely, for 15 years in the country, Breen can do better than that.
As a consequence of this, Breen covers events and culture at a very fast pace. Despite my lack of detailed knowledge of Korea, I got the feeling that there was a risk of some generalisations being made here. If anyone were to rely on this book and, having read it, claim insight into Korea, I would take their claims very lightly indeed.
The style is quite informal - too much so for me at times - and I came away from it yearning for more; more detail, more history, more views of people in the lower echelons of society and more insight into N. Korea, which despite the all-encompassing title, seemed to play second fiddle to the South where modern history was concerned.
So, I'd recommend this as a general introduction but caution readers to treat it merely as a stepping stone to more detailed reading and your own experiences with this fascinating country.
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on 12 March 2012
A good read that gives one journalist's perspective on his experiences in South Korea (generally) over a very long period of time. Has very good sections on Korean history; both modern and ancient.

Word of caution though, this book is slightly out-dated as it only covers Korea till 1999 really, with a tiny section on the 2002 World Cup. The spelling of Korean names is still done in old Western style, and these are opinions of one man.

It is easy to read, and a good travel accompaniment; though be aware that South Korea is a fast changing society and some of the views expressed here in this book don't correspond to the actual way-of-life in Korea in 2012. I would suggest to purchase a recently published book about Korea, to be read in tandem with this one.

Nevertheless, still worth a read.
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