중앙데일리

Insights of a long-time outsider

Feb 26,2007
Michael Breen
Michael Breen has lived in South Korea for exactly 8,705 days “minus a few vacations” and has spent every one of them puzzling over the Korean way of life. A Scottish expatriate, Mr. Breen first came to Korea as a foreign correspondent in 1982 and is well known for his book “The Koreans ― Who They Are, What They Want, Where Their Future Lies,” published in 1999. Describing Korea as a particularly “mystical” country, Mr. Breen has built a career on trying to understand Koreans and sharing his findings with foreigners.
Last Thursday night, Mr. Breen, who is now the President of Insight Communications Consultants, addressed an international audience as part of the Korea Wiseman’s Club and Invest Korea’s monthly “Get to Know Korea” education program. He provided valuable insights into Korean life, which he has collected over the past two decades.
He focused on giving four “shortcuts” to understanding complex Korean society to over 100 guests from embassies and foreign companies.
Mr. Breen said that the most important thing to understand about Korea is that it is a racially homogeneous country, where nationality is directly linked to ethnicity. “Forget about being an insider,” he told the audience, “You will always be a foreigner, you will always be an outsider.” The language barrier reinforces this distinction and Mr. Breen admitted that even after 24 years, he is not completely fluent in Korean. He said that the equal emphasis on syllables makes it difficult to isolate words and phrases; the audience agreed.
Before his presentation, Mr. Breen said that Korea had changed considerably since he first arrived and is now more exposed to foreigners. “Ten years ago, foreigners were viewed with suspicion,” he said, “But now Koreans are becoming more accustomed to foreign investment and many work for foreign employers.” Many Koreans have also had the opportunity to study and travel overseas and this has also challenged their typically inward-looking nature.
But Mr. Breen was quick to point out that despite these changes, Korea still remains an incredibly mystifying country to foreigners, regardless of how long they have lived here. “There is no tradition of rational discourse,” he said. “Koreans have a particular genius for doing things that puzzle foreigners and are unable to explain them. Like why are cars parked on the pavement and people walk on the road? There are all of these funny contradictions that they cannot explain.”
Funny contradictions aside, the absence of rational discourse poses a threat to foreign investment. Noting that his presentation was followed by Sin An County’s Investment Attraction Seminar, he said that foreign investment in Korea still faces several challenges. “There are still regulatory issues, where a lot of change happens without consultation,” he said, “and that makes it risky for investors.”
According to Mr. Breen, foreigners trying to live and do business in Korea need to be aware of the clash between Eastern and Western value systems. He pointed out that Western societies are influenced by Protestant Christianity, which is highly individualistic and governed by law, whereas East Asian societies are more oriented toward loyalty and familial ties. He used Korea’s problem with corruption as an example of this fundamental clash of virtues, saying its occurrence is the result of Koreans valuing loyalty more than the Western ideal of honesty. “The law has traditionally been used as a weapon of the powerful,” he said, speaking of Korea’s political history, “so it makes sense that the law is not always respected.”
Mr. Breen was careful not to offer any definitive answers on Koreans but instead suggested that living in Korea is a continual process of figuring out why the society is the way it is. His popularity among foreigners can be attributed to this attitude and his accessibility in both his writing and presentations. Mr. Breen successfully combines personal experience and analysis with a genuine admiration and respect for Korean culture in his work.
“I had an immediate liking for Koreans. I like their character and their expressiveness,” he said, “I’ve spent a great deal of time trying to figure Korea out, writing and speaking about it because I want to help others do the same.”


By Sonya Gee Contributing Writer [sgee6454@usyd.edu.au]


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