South Korea: The Price of Efficiency and Success, Second Edition

Dr. John Gonzalez and Young Lee

Publisher: John M. Gonzalez Pages: 274 Price: (paperback) $16.99 ISBN: 9781737651321 Reviewed: July, 2024 Author Website: Visit »

John Gonzalez brings an American ex-pat’s insights to this interesting overview of recent history in South Korea.

Gonzalez is a curious American teacher who traveled to South Korea to meditate in Buddhist temples before working at an American high school there from 2012-2017. He wrote (with South Korean-born Young Lee) this highly readable account to honor the country and to share what he learned befriending locals over memorable meals, in cities large and small.

Gonzalez’s anecdotes often illustrate Korean traditions, such as gap and eul, wherein the acknowledged weak, submissive party is expected to defer to the stronger party. He broadly shows how those concepts, as well as cultural values like sacrifice and efficiency, or pali pali (hurry hurry), fueled the country’s industrialization—from post-war poverty in 1953 to its emergence as an economic powerhouse (today, South Korea has the world’s 14th largest economy), exporter of everything from Kias to K-Pop.

With less success, he and Lee make an academic argument. They suggest those traditions now create conditions that result in a disproportionate share of man-made disasters like the 2022 crowd crush during a Seoul Halloween celebration, which killed 159 people. Gonzalez recounts deadly building fires caused by lax codes, workers killed while forced to labor for long hours, and overcrowded vessels sinking, most notably the 2014 Sewol ferry disaster in which 300 people died. But the authors don’t always make the case that South Korea pays a unique price for clinging to traditions by suffering disproportionately more man-made disasters than elsewhere.

Nonetheless, Gonzalez provides a fond, thoughtful introduction to South Korean culture. The numerous citations in this book, published in 2019 and reissued in 2024, are also a goldmine for any reader looking to dig deeper into the topic.

Also available as an ebook.

Author's Current Residence
Sherman Oaks, California