Korean ethnic nationalism
'Korean ethnic nationalism, or racial nationalism, is a political ideology and a form of ethnic identity that is widely prevalent in modern North and South Korea. It is based on the belief that Koreans form a nation, a "race", and an ethnic group that shares a unified bloodline and a distinct culture. It is centered on the notion of the minjok (Hangul: 민족; hanja: 民族), a term that had been coined in Imperial Japan in the early Meiji period on the basis of Social Darwinian conceptions. Minjok has been translated as "nation", "people", "ethnic group", "race", and "race-nation".
This conception started to emerge among Korean intellectuals after the Japanese-imposed Protectorate of 1905, when the Japanese were trying to persuade Koreans that both nations were of the same racial stock. The notion of the Korean minjok was first made popular by essayist and historian Shin Chaeho in his New Reading of History (1908), a history of Korea from the mythical times of Dangun to the fall of Balhae in 926 CE. Shin portrayed the minjok as a warlike race that had fought bravely to preserve Korean identity, had later declined, and now needed to be reinvigorated. During the period of Japanese rule (1910-1945), this belief in the uniqueness of the Korean minjok gave an impetus for resisting Japanese assimilation policies and historical scholarship.
In contrast to Japan and Germany, where such race-based conceptions of the nation were discredited after the Second World War because they were associated with ultranationalism or Nazism, postwar North and South Korea continued to proclaim the ethnic homogeneity and pure bloodline of the "Great Han" race. In the 1960s, President Park Chung-hee strengthened this "ideology of racial purity" to legitimate his authoritarian rule, while in North Korea official propaganda has portrayed Koreans as "the cleanest race." Contemporary Korean historians continue to write about the nation's "unique racial and cultural heritage." This shared conception of a racially defined Korea continues to shape Korean politics and foreign relations, gives Koreans an impetus to national pride, and feeds hopes for the reunification of the two Koreas.
Despite statistics showing that South Korea is becoming an increasingly multi-ethnic society, most of the South Korean population continues to identify itself as "one people" (Korean: 단일민족; Hanja: 單一民族, danil minjok) joined by a common "bloodline". A renewed emphasis on the purity of Korean "blood" has caused tensions, leading to renewed debates on multi-ethnicity and xenophobia both in Korea and abroad.
Early usage and origins
Contrary to popular belief in Korea, the Korean ideology of purest race began only in the early 20th century when the Japanese annexed Korea and launched a campaign to persuade them that they were of the same pure racial stock as the Japanese themselves.
In the colonial period, the Imperial Japanese's assimilation policy claimed that Koreans and Japanese were of common origin but the former always subordinate. The pure blood theory was used to justify colonialist policies to replace Korean cultural traditions with Japanese ones in order to supposedly get rid of all distinctions and achieve equality between Koreans and inlanders. The policy included changing Korean names into Japanese, exclusive use of Japanese language, school instruction in the Japanese ethical system, and Shinto worship. Brian Reynolds Myers argues that seeing the failure of the pure assimilationist policy, Japanese imperial ideologues changed their policy into creating a Korean ethnic-patriotism on par with the Japanese one. They encouraged Koreans to take pride in their Koreanness, in their history, heritage, culture and "dialect" as a brother nation going back to a common ancestry with the Japanese. Thus, Korean nationalism can be seen as a deliberate and direct creation of the Japanese empire.
Shin Chaeho (1880–1936), the founder of the nationalistic historiography of modern Korea and a Korean independence movement activist, published his influential book of reconstructed history Joseon Sanggosa (The Early History of Joseon) in 1924–25, proclaiming that Koreans are descendants of Dangun, the legendary ancestor of Korean people, who merged with Buyo of Manchuria to form the Goguryeo people.
Borrowing from the Japanese theory of nation, Shin Chaeho located the martial roots of the Korean in Goguryeo, which he depicted as militarist and expansionist which turned out to inspire pride and confidence in the resistance against the Japanese. In order to establish Korean uniqueness, he also replaced the story of Gija Joseon, whose founder (Gija) was the paternal uncle or brother of the Chinese Shang emperor Zhou, with the Dangun legend and asserted that it was an important way to establish Korea’s uniqueness.
After the independence in the late 1940s, despite the split between North and South Korea, neither side disputed the ethnic homogeneity of the Korean nation based on a firm conviction that they are purest descendant of a legendary genitor and half-god figure called Dangun who founded Gojoseon in 2333 BCE based on the description of the Dongguk Tonggam (1485).
In Korea, pure blood theory had been a common belief. The debates on this topic can be found sporadic in the South, whereas the public opinion in the North is hard to access. In a nationalistic view, to impugn the theory would have been tantamount to betraying Koreanness in the face of the challenge of an alien ethnic nation.
Some Korean scholars observed that the pure blood theory served as a useful tool for the South Korean government to make its people obedient and easy to govern when the country was embroiled in ideological turmoil. It was especially true in the dictatorial leaderships by former presidents Syngman Rhee and Park Chung-hee when nationalism was incorporated into anti-Communism.
After the North Korean military sank a South Korean naval ship in 2010, there was relatively little outrage over the incident in South Korea. According to Brian Reynolds Myers, a professor at Dongseo University, this was due to the racialized nature of Korean nationalism, which prevented any major uproar over the incident in South Korea due to the concept of racial solidarity with the North Koreans that many South Koreans feel. In a New York Times editorial over the incident, Myers contrasted the racialized nature of South Korean nationalism with the civic nature of American nationalism, stating that South Korea's antipathy over attacks by North Korea was potentially dangerous to the national security of South Korea. He stated that:
South Korean nationalism is something quite different from the patriotism toward the state that Americans feel. Identification with the Korean race is strong, while that with the Republic of Korea is weak.— Brian Reynolds Myers, "South Korea's Collective Shrug" (27 May 2010), The New York Times.
The ideology also helps to maintain a strongly held conviction amongst many Koreans, which posits that both South and North Koreans are all brothers and sisters of the same blood-family and reunification is the ultimate goal.
In 2010, the South Korean government changed the oath of enlistment of Korean soldiers, so that they don not swear allegiance anymore to the Korean race, showing openness to multiculturalism.
In South Korea, the notion of "pure blood" results in discrimination toward people of both "foreign-blood" and "mixed blood". Those with this "mixed blood" or "foreign blood" are sometimes referred to as Honhyul (혼혈) in South Korea.
According to 2009 statistics published by South Korean Ministry of Health and Welfare, there were 144,385 couples of international marriage in South Korea as of May 2008. 88.4% of immigrants were female, and 61.9% were from China. Recently[when?] it has been argued that South Korean society had already become a multicultural society, although foreigners make up for 3.4% of the South Korean population. As of 2011, 10 ministries and agencies of South Korean government are supporting international couples and foreign workers in South Korea toward the cultural plurality.
In 2006, American football player Hines Ward, who was born in Seoul to a South Korean mother and a black American father, became the first South Korean-born American to win the NFL Super Bowl's MVP award. This achievement threw him into the media spotlight in South Korea. When he travelled to South Korea for the first time, he raised unprecedented attention to the acceptance of "mixed-blood" children. He also donated US$1 million to establish the "Hines Ward Helping Hands Foundation", which the media called "a foundation to help mixed-race children like himself in South Korea, where they have suffered discrimination." Hines Ward was granted "honorary" South Korean citizenship.
However, while some South Koreans are fascinated by the bi-racial sportsman, the majority of ordinary mixed-race people and migrant workers face various forms of discrimination and prejudice. In 2007, the "Korean pure blood theory" became an international issue when the U.N. Committee on the International Convention Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination urged better education on the pure blood theory is needed especially for judicial workers such as police officers, lawyers, prosecutors and judges. The suggestion received mixed reception in South Korea in which some raised a concern that foreigners will invade the South Korean culture and challenge national sovereignty. Others say that the embrace of multi-ethnicism will diminish chances of reunifying the Korean Peninsula.
The South Korean nationality law is based on jus sanguinis instead of jus solis, which is a territorial principle that takes into account the place of birth when bestowing nationality. In this context, most South Koreans have stronger attachment to South Koreans residing in foreign countries and foreigners of South Korean descent, than to naturalized South Korean citizens and expatriates residing in South Korea.
In 2005, the opposition Grand National Party suggested a revision of the current South Korean nationality law to allow South Korean nationality to be bestowed to people who are born in South Korea regardless of the nationalities of their parents but it was discarded due to unfavorable public opinion against such a measure.
In 2007 the South Korean government passed the Act on Treatment of Foreigners. Later in 2007, the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination praised the Act on Treatment of Foreigners, but also expressed a number of concerns. The Committee was concerned "about the persistence of widespread societal discrimination against foreigners, including migrant workers and children born from inter-ethnic unions, in all areas of life, including employment, marriage, housing, education and interpersonal relationships." It also noted that the terminology such as "pure blood" and "mixed blood" used in South Korea, including by the government, is widespread, and may reinforce concepts of racist superiority. The committee recommended improvement in the areas of treatment of migrant workers, abuse of and violence against foreign women married to South Korean citizens, and trafficking of foreign women for the purpose of sexual exploitation or domestic servitude. It also noted that contrary to popular domestic perception, South Korea was no longer "ethnically homogenous".
Another legislation aimed at improving the integration of ethnic minorities into South Korean society, the Support for Multicultural Families Act, was passed in 2008 (and revised in 2011).
Existing provisions in South Korean criminal law may be used to punish acts of racial discrimination, but were never used for that purpose until 2009, when the first case of a South Korean citizen verbally insulting a foreigner have been brought to court.
North Korea is rumored to have abducted foreign women to marry to American men that defected to North Korea in order to keep these American men from having relationships with North Korean women. North Korea is accused of killing babies born to North Korean mothers and Chinese fathers. In 2014, North Korea's Korean Central News Agency insulted U.S. President Barack Obama by using racist slurs.
- Gi-Wook Shin, Ethnic Nationalism in Korea: Genealogy, Politics, and Legacy (Stanford University Press, 2006), p. 223.
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South Koreans do ascribe a relatively higher value to race than do other nations.
- Denney, Steven (1 April 2015). "Workers, Immigration, and Racialized Hierarchy". SinoNK. Archived from the original on January 3, 2016.
Racism is as much, if not more, a problem in South Korea as it is in the United States.
- Gi-wook Shin, Ethnic Nationalism in Korea: Genealogy, Politics, and Legacy (Stanford University Press, 2006), p. 2.
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As noted earlier, the word minjok (read as minzoku in Japanese) was a neologism created in Meiji Japan. When Korean (and Chinese and Japanese) nationalists wrote in English in the first half of the twentieth century, the English word they generally utilized for minjok was 'race.'
- Choi, Hee-an (2015). A Postcolonial Self: Korean Immigrant Theology and Church. p. 24.
The word minjok (민족,民族) translates as race.
- Andre Schmid, Korea Between Empires, 1895-1919 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), p. 174.
- B.R.Myers, The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters (Melville House, 2010), ISBN 1933633913.
- North Korea's official propaganda promotes idea of racial purity and moral superiority, UC Berkeley News, 19 February 2010.
- Sheila Miyoshi Jager, Narratives of Nation Building in Korea (2003), pp. 15-16; Andre Schmid, "Rediscovering Manchuria" (1997), p. 32.
- Hyung-il Pai, Constructing "Korean" Origins: A Critical Review of Archaeology, Historiography, and Racial Myth in Korean State-Formation Theories. Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, distributed by Harvard University Press, 2000), p. 1.
- Comparison with Japanese "ultranationalism": Andre Schmid, Korea Between Empires, 1895-1919 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), p. 277. Comparison with Germany and Nazism: Shin Gi-wook, Ethnic Nationalism in Korea: Genealogy, Politics, and Legacy (2006), p. 19.
- Ethnic pride source of prejudice, discrimination, Gi-Wook Shin, Asia-Pacific Research Center of Stanford University, 2 August 2006
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- Hyung-il Pai, Constructing "Korean" Origins (2000), p. 6.
- Gi-wook Shin, Ethnic Nationalism in Korea: Genealogy, Politics, and Legacy (2006), pp. 1-3.
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The idea of racial unity and continuity is embodied in the concept of tanil minjok (pure race), which holds that all Koreans have successfully maintained their "Korean-ness" by fighting off foreign invaders since the formation of the nation in prehistoric times.
- Kim, Nadia Y. (2008). Imperial citizens: Koreans and race from Seoul to LA. Stanford University Press. p. 24. ISBN 0-8047-5887-5.
Koreans' beloved trope of tanil minjok—'the single ethnic nation'— would soon come into its own (see Shin 1998). The centrality of blood has been revived in more current times as well.
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The military has decided to omit the word 'minjok,' which refers to the Korean race, from the oath of enlistment for officers and soldiers, and replace it with 'the citizen.' The measure reflects the growing number of foreigners who gain Korean citizenship and of children from mixed marriages entering military service.
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