An engaging and timely introduction to the bibulous but enterprising Asian nation that will host this summer's Olympic Games. Journalist Howe (Mata Hari, Weapons, etc.) accords relatively short shrift to the dramatic economic gains achieved by the Republic of South Korea under a series of military strongmen since an armed truce was negotiated with its northern neighbor in mid-1953. Nor does the author dwell on the prospering country's widely reported political unrest, which he astutely characterizes as pro forma rather than substantive. Instead, Howe surveys the arts, business ethics, cuisine, educational regimens, family ties, language, leisure activities, and religious practices that make Koreans an intriguingly unique people. Having set the scene with a brief rundown on the strategically located peninsula's recorded history (marked by Chinese as well as Japanese imperiums), Howe then offers a wealth of anecdotal evidence attesting to the cultural resilience of this caste-conscious, harmony-seeking society. To illustrate, a Confucian heritage makes the homogeneous population generally tolerant of authoritarian governments. In part to preserve the country's identity under the yoke of Mongol rule, however, Korean artisans developed movable type over two centuries before Gutenberg (during whose time King Sejong commissioned what may be the world's most logical alphabet, han-gul). Along similar lines, the author observes that Koreans, who are nominally 70 percent Buddhist and over 15 percent Christian, remain about 90 percent shamanist. Howe offers an absorbing account of how seeming contradictions of this sort and other stunning contrasts are being reconciled with the exigencies of affluence and urbanization. The wide-ranging text has 32 pages of photographs (not seen).