The Korea Herald


‘Shrimp to Whale’: Well-told story of S. Korea’s rise to spotlight

International relations scholar gives fuller picture of the country with snapshots of pivotal moments in its history

By Yim Hyun-su

Published : May 26, 2022 - 15:45

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Photo caption: Ramon Pacheco Pardo’s new book “Shrimp to Whale: South Korea from the Forgotten War to K-Pop“ is out now. (Hurst Publishers) Photo caption: Ramon Pacheco Pardo’s new book “Shrimp to Whale: South Korea from the Forgotten War to K-Pop“ is out now. (Hurst Publishers)
From BTS to Squid Game, to its internationally heralded handling of COVID-19, South Korea is enjoying the spotlight on the global stage.

Yet, books on Korea out there often feel stale and outdated. If not tunnel-visioned on the country’s economic success, South Korea is a nation heavily seen through the lens of geopolitics, or a country technically still at war.

In his book “Shrimp to Whale: South Korea from the Forgotten War to K-Pop,” Ramon Pacheco Pardo, a professor of international relations at King’s College London, attempts to give a fuller picture of the country beyond Samsung and North Korea.

At 280 pages, the book delves into various aspects of the nation, ranging from history, politics and culture.

There is a lot of ground to cover if you attempt to tackle one country comprehensively in one book.

But what “Shrimp to Whale” does well is to provide snapshots of some of Korea’s most crucial moments in snappy, digestible paragraphs. These include when King Sejong the Great, the fourth ruler of the Joseon Dynasty of Korea, created Korea’s native alphabet known as Hangeul; the country’s path to democracy that came after Japan’s colonial rule; and the Korean War. He touches upon crucial K-pop moments too, including when soloist BoA first topped the music charts in Japan with her debut album in 2002.

What makes this book a topical read is its focus on the rise of South Korean soft power and how the entertainment industry’s success began when it seemed almost impossible. Hallyu, also known as the Korean Wave, began to sweep across neighboring countries such as China, Japan and Taiwan in the late 1990s. The wave grew strong enough to the point that it saw the country become not just cool, but the coolest in Asia, a “spot long reserved for Japan,” the author argued.

Pardo said he was blown away by “how full of life” South Korea was when he first came to the country in 2003 as a student. Originally from Spain, both countries went through a dictatorship coinciding with a period of economic development before transitioning to democracy. These similarities were what first motivated him to experience living in South Korea.

While Pardo acknowledges North Korea makes for a compelling news story, he goes so far as suggesting that South Korea is the “most interesting of the two Koreas.”

“Over 51 million people inhabit the southern half of the Korean Peninsula. Its economy is the fourth biggest in Asia and tenth in the world by GDP… It is a key foreign policy and security actor in East Asia with a strong decades-old alliance with the US,” he wrote in the preface of the book.

“South Korea is home to the sixth largest music market in the world and second in Asia. It is also the only Asian country with a BTS and a Blackpink: the biggest boyband and girlband in the world as of 2022,” he adds.

South Korea is a “shrimp among whales no more,” having a seat at the table of leading rich and developing nations such as the G-20 and participating in G-7 summits. However, many challenges lie ahead for the country, including raising low birthrates; improving gender equality; and improving treatment of minorities.

But Pardo is hopeful that a “bright future” awaits this country.

The general tone of the book is highly positive. For those seeking a more critical view, it leaves more to be desired. But if “Shrimp to Whale” seeks to tell the underrated story of South Korea’s rise in recent years to a wider audience, it accomplishes that beyond a doubt.

As more people take note of South Korea, whether it be through K-pop, K-dramas or North Korea, the book arrives at the right moment for those eager to learn more about the country.