[BOOK REVIEW]Distilling the essence of a society

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[BOOK REVIEW]Distilling the essence of a society

The author and cartoonist Won-bok Rhie opens "Korea Unmasked" with a disclaimer: "While reading this book, you will come across certain phrases like 'the world's greatest' or 'the world's best.' Please understand that this does not mean 'the greatest among all countries and all people of the world, but the greatest among only those countries worthy for the purposes of our discussion." That is an important point to keep in mind as Mr. Rhie, with the help of translators Jung Un and Louis Choi, proceeds to bombard the reader with a myriad of facts and figures about his homeland and its people.

Some of the claims seem exaggerated. By Mr. Rhie's own admission they may be, but that's part of the point -- it reflects how Koreans see themselves. For the most part he delivers, taking the reader on an honest, analytical tour of the country.

Especially poignant is his breakdown of the basic differences between China, Korea and Japan. He argues that the values of each society can be summed up in one Chinese character. China, he writes, is best described by the character il, which can mean one or unity. Japanese values are the character hwa, or harmony. Korea's are the ideogram jung, meaning orthodoxy or loyalty. While Mr. Rhie admits that boiling down entire societies to one idea is overly simple, his arguments are convincing. He aptly notes that the emphasis on orthodoxy has a double edge, driving Koreans to "work like crazy" to acquire what they feel they are entitled to, while also creating a black-and-white worldview.

Any complaints? Well, the English translation was sloppily edited in parts and Mr. Rhie propagates the Korean myth that theirs is the only divided nation on earth (did Cyprus fall off the map?). But overall it gives the reader an accessible and humorous view of Korea's peculiar situation and its complex people.

by Dylan Alford

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