Two weeks ago, I happened to pop into a large Korean supermarket just steps from the Palais-Royal in central Paris and was puzzled to find myself in an interminable queue at the checkout, surrounded not by fellow Koreans but by French shoppers patiently waiting to pay for their kimchi and soju.
It may well be another sign that South Korea has become the world’s latest ‘It’ country, commanding the kind of passion that its bigger neighbours China and Japan did in bygone eras (think of the crazes for chinoiserie and japonisme in the 18th and 19th centuries respectively). Korean cultural products are suddenly ubiquitous and in demand. My friends who teach Korean studies at Western educational institutions speak not infrequently of being overwhelmed by the number of students they receive. It’s a confounding reality for Koreans, myself included, who don’t understand why non-Koreans are so enthralled by what our birth country offers. I mean, I personally like Korean things, but what’s their special appeal for outsiders?
That’s why I looked forward to Ramon Pacheco Pardo’s Shrimp to Whale. The author, a professor of international relations at King’s College London, has taken on the formidable task of narrating Korea’s two-thousand-year history in under three hundred pages in order to explain its ‘astonishing transformation’. It’s an