Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Pessimism in Korea

I'm reading a book about Korea by British journalist Michael Breen, who has lived in Seoul for many years. He notes that throughout the great economic expansion of 1962 to 2010, foreign observers regularly predicted that the economic boom was about to end, perhaps in a spectacular collapse. They did not do this, says Breen, because they were removed from Korea or hostile to Asians; it was precisely the people who knew Korea best who were most pessimistic. They acquired their pessimism from their Korean friends:
The reader may wonder if I did not rely too much on foreign experts for my analysis of Korea. The answer is yes, but only at first. Turning to peope who are similar to you is normal in the expatosphere because you have to be able to understand your informants. Once on more solid ground, you naturally turn to local experts. And that brings me to the biggest reason of all to have doubted continued development in Korea. Local sources were the most pessimistic.Their worry that it would all go wrong was the greatest influence on foreign observers. So many of the Koreans we worked with and socialized with were convinced, even in the days 8 percent annual growth, that the government was fiddling the figures and that the country was actually in recession or, if not, that disaster lurked in the next quarter. They had opportunity and cash in their pockets but they were shackled by uncertainty. . . . Thanks to this pessimism the Koreans were the last to wake up to their own arrival in the world. I would say that only now, well over a decade into the twenty-first century, are they they getting it. Before this they didn't believe their own propaganda.
As a friend of mine put it, once you've been traumatized – as the Koreans were by Japanese occupation, World War II, and then the Korean war – you may not be able to escape the sense that something is always looming over your head and about to fall.


Shadow said...

"Turning to people who are similar to you is normal in the expatosphere because you have to be able to understand your informants. "

If that statement is true -- I remain unconvinced -- it has all kinds of ramifications having to do with international relations and diversity.

G. Verloren said...

These are all foreign observers speaking to locals. Might the locals have felt a cultural compunction to say what they thought these foreigners might want to hear?

Alternatively, could there be some cultural performative aspect to things instead? That the locals were speaking to the foreign observers the same way they'd speak to each other, but that they weren't really as pessimistic as they pretended to be? A sort of social pressure to be self effacting or self deprecating - to be reserved and cautious in one's utterances, even if one genuinely feels much more optimistic than one lets on?