The Korean narrative of exceptionalism is a powerful one. Koreans tell a compelling story: their country is a shrimp among whales, squeezed by great powers, surviving repeated foreign invasions thanks to a tenacious can-do national spirit. The continuing division of the country into warring halves has added to the notion of a peninsula under siege—not only is Korea surrounded by unpredictable foreign powers, but the six-decades-long armed standoff on the peninsula means that Koreans have to fear their brother-enemies as well.

In the south—the Republic of Korea (ROK)—extraordinary economic growth beginning after Park Chung Hee's 1961 coup underpins this narrative. South Korea's growth rate averaged 9 percent from the 1960s through the mid-1990s. Almost alone among countries whose takeoff took place after 1945, the ROK has succeeded in developing significant international brands, such as Samsung and Hyundai.

Yet the authors of this thorough study argue that, when it comes to...

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