What’s so bad about Meijer’s book?“Do not blame the mirror if your face is ugly.” - Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852), the great Russian satirist.
This was the first thing that popped into my head after reading Pat King’s review of Maarten Meijer’s book “What’s so Good about Korea, Maarten?” I have an M.A. in Korean Studies from Korea University, have lived in Korea for eight years and am fluent in the Korean language. I am writing this because I love the country as much as I love my wife (a Korean national) and our three children, and wish the best for it. I have also read Mr. Meijer’s book and find the attack against it in your newspaper entirely undeserved and bluntly unsubstantiated.
First, the review writer fails to recognize (or admit) that the tone of the book is unmistakably positive. It is a much-needed critical overview of modern Korean society with a strong emphasis on the many good, strong, valuable qualities of Korean people and culture, based on the author’s personal experience and research. At the same time, it is a great example of “sandwich criticism” ― the author takes care not to “shoot from the hip,” always inserting his critical points between positive comments. For example, Mr. Meijer clearly identifies Korea as one of the future world leaders (the book was written long before Ban Ki-moon became the UN secretary-general) and praises its people’s enormous drive to be number one in whatever they do.
At the same time, he points out that personal insecurity among Koreans, their fear of making mistakes and “losing face” in front of foreigners, sometimes makes them look awkward and ineffective in international communication. Moreover, where he is critical he gives constructive suggestions as to how the problems might be resolved. What books on Korea so far have taken issue with that approach?
Second, despite his condescending tone, Mr. King clearly is disturbed by some of the book’s content. He may not agree with Mr. Meijer but that does not justify misrepresenting the author’s intentions and dismissing the entire book as “not worthy of serious consideration.”
Third, to counter Mr. Meijer’s assertion that Koreans generally read little, Mr. King argues that some of his colleagues at work study for advanced degrees at night. This is a garden-variety argument of the type: “Who says that smoking is bad for your health? My neighbor’s friend’s grandfather smoked two packs a day and he lived until 94!” The book identifies social trends and does not claim there are no exceptions.
It seems Mr. King himself has problems with nuance. Concerning his praise of engineers at Samsung and Hyundai: They are not invincible. For example, the Korean carmaker tried to challenge the Japanese on quality. It worked for a while when the exchange rate was high and the company could afford performing extensive quality control inspections. The nuance here is that the Japanese build their quality through kaizen, a philosophy of continuous improvement, which is not dependent on the exchange rate. Those who failed to recognize the subtlety lost about 40 percent of their investment in Hyundai’s stock last year when the shares plummeted together with the company’s global prospects. Mistakes are costly and need to be corrected. Mr. Meijer is not trying to be a Mr. Nice Guy and is not afraid to make “value judgments,” a posture that must be deemed necessary when one writes a social critique of any value.
Kostya Vassiliev, Seoul