Korean ethnic nationalism

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A BBC poll from 2016 of various countries, asking what the most important factor in self identity was. South Korea has the highest proportion given for 'race or culture - 25%). China is second with 15%, followed by India at 13%, and Pakistan at 11%. Asian countries in general score higher than those from other continents. The first non-Asian country is Germany (10%, tied with Indonesia).[1]

Korean ethnic nationalism, or racial nationalism,[2] is a political ideology and a form of ethnic identity that is widely prevalent in modern North and South Korea.[3][4][5] 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.[6] It is centered on the notion of the minjok (Hangul민족; 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".[7][8][9][10]

This conception started to emerge among Korean intellectuals after the Japanese-imposed Protectorate of 1905,[11] when the Japanese were trying to persuade Koreans that both nations were of the same racial stock.[12][13] 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.[14] 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.[15]

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,[16] postwar North and South Korea continued to proclaim the ethnic homogeneity and pure bloodline of the "Great Han" race.[17][12] In the 1960s, President Park Chung-hee strengthened this "ideology of racial purity" to legitimate his authoritarian rule,[18] while in North Korea official propaganda has portrayed Koreans as "the cleanest race."[12][13] Contemporary Korean historians continue to write about the nation's "unique racial and cultural heritage."[19] This shared conception of a racially defined Korea continues to shape Korean politics and foreign relations,[17] gives Koreans an impetus to national pride,[20] and feeds hopes for the reunification of the two Koreas.[21]

Despite statistics showing that South Korea is becoming an increasingly multi-ethnic society,[22] 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".[23] A renewed emphasis on the purity of Korean "blood"[24] has caused tensions, leading to renewed debates on multi-ethnicity and xenophobia both in Korea and abroad.[22]


Early usage and origins[edit]

Contrary to popular belief in Korea, the Korean ideology of purest race began only in the early 20th century when the Japanese annexed Korea[12] and launched a campaign to persuade them that they were of the same pure racial stock as the Japanese themselves.[13]

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.[17] The policy included changing Korean names into Japanese, exclusive use of Japanese language, school instruction in the Japanese ethical system, and Shinto worship.[17] Brian Reynolds Myers, a professor at Dongseo University, 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.[12][page needed]


Heaven Lake of Baekdu Mountain where Hwanung, Dangun's father, is said to have descended from heaven, constitutes a foundation for the legend of blood purity in Korean

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.[25]

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.[25] 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[26] and asserted that it was an important way to establish Korea’s uniqueness.[25]

After 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).[17][27]


In Korea, pure blood theory had been a common belief.[28] 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.[17]

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.[28] It was especially true in the dictatorial leaderships by former presidents Syngman Rhee and Park Chung-hee when nationalism was incorporated into anti-Communism.[28]

In South Korea, the notion of "pure blood" results in discrimination toward people of both "foreign-blood" and "mixed blood".[22] Those with this "mixed blood" or "foreign blood" are sometimes referred to as Honhyul (Korean: 혼혈) in South Korea.[29]

B.R. Myers argued in a 2010 New York Times editorial that there was relatively little public outrage in South Korea over the sinking of the Cheonan that year, which he attributed partly to a feeling of sympathy towards North Korea resulting from a closer identification with the Korean race than with the South Korean state.[30]

Emma Campbell from the Australian National University argues that the conceptions of South Korean nationalism is evolving among young people and that a new form is emerging that has globalised cultural characteristics.[31] These characteristics challenge the role of ethnicity in South Korean nationalism.[31] According to Campbell’s study for which she interviewed 150 South Koreans in their twenties, the desire for reunification is declining. However, these who are in favor of a Korean unification state reasons different from ethnic nationalism. The respondents stated that they only wanted unification if it would not disrupt the life in the South or if North Korea achieves economic parity with the South. A small number of respondents further mentioned that they support a "unification on the condition that it did not take place in their lifetime."[31] Another reason stated for the wish for unification was the access to North Korea’s natural resources and cheap labor.[31] This notion of evolving nationalism has been further elaborated by the meaning of uri nara (Korean: 우리나라 my country [sic!]) for young South Koreans, which only refers to South Korea for them instead to the whole Korean peninsula.[31] Campbell’s interviews further showed that many young South Koreans have no problems to accepting foreigners as part of uri nara.[31]

The South Korean nationality law is based on jus sanguinis[17][32] 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.[17][32] 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.[22]

According to a 2016 BBC poll of several different countries, South Korea had the highest percentage of people who stated that race was the most important factor of national identity.[1]

Social issues[edit]

American football player Hines Ward's visit to South Korea in 2006 has stirred debate if the country's society should be more accepting of "mixed blood" people.

North Korea is alleged to have abducted foreign women in the 1970s to marry to foreign men that immigrated to North Korea in order to keep these men from having children with North Korean women.[33] North Korea is accused of killing babies born to North Korean mothers and Chinese fathers.[34]

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.[35] 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."[36] Hines Ward was granted "honorary" South Korean citizenship.[37]

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.[22] 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.[38][39] 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.[32] Others say that the embrace of multi-ethnicism will diminish chances of reunifying the Korean Peninsula.[32]

In 2007 the South Korean government passed the Act on Treatment of Foreigners.[40][41][42] 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.[43] It also noted that contrary to popular domestic perception, South Korea was no longer "ethnically homogenous".[44]

Another legislation aimed at improving the integration of ethnic minorities into South Korean society, the Support for Multicultural Families Act, was passed in 2008[45] (and revised in 2011).[42][46]

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.[47] 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.[48] As of 2011, ten ministries and agencies of South Korean government are supporting international couples and foreign workers in South Korea toward the cultural plurality.[49]

Existing provisions in South Korean criminal law may be used to punish acts of racial discrimination, but were never used for that purpose[43] until 2009, when the first case of a South Korean citizen verbally insulting a foreigner have been brought to court.[44]

In 2010, the South Korean government changed the oath of enlistment of Korean soldiers, so that they do not swear allegiance anymore to the Korean race, stating that this shows openness to multiculturalism.[50][7][3]

In 2014, North Korea's Korean Central News Agency insulted U.S. President Barack Obama by using racist slurs.[33][51][52][53][54]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ a b "Global Citizenship a growing sentiment among citizens of emerging economies: Global Poll" (PDF). GlobeScan. 2016-04-27. Retrieved 2016-10-20. 
  2. ^ Gi-Wook Shin, Ethnic Nationalism in Korea: Genealogy, Politics, and Legacy (Stanford University Press, 2006), p. 223.
  3. ^ a b Kelly, Robert E. (4 June 2015). "Why South Korea is So Obsessed with Japan". Real Clear Defense. 
  4. ^ Denney, Steven (February 2014). "Political Attitudes and National Identity in an Era of Strength and Prosperity" (PDF). A Primer on a New Nationalism in South Korea. Dominion of Canada: Department of Political Science of the University of Toronto. South Koreans do ascribe a relatively higher value to race than do other nations. 
  5. ^ 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. 
  6. ^ Gi-wook Shin, Ethnic Nationalism in Korea: Genealogy, Politics, and Legacy (Stanford University Press, 2006), p. 2.
  7. ^ a b Doolan, Yuri W. (June 2012). "Being Amerasian in South Korea: Purebloodness, Multiculturalism, and Living Alongside the U.S. Military Empire" (PDF). The Ohio State University. p. 63. Retrieved 3 March 2016. 
  8. ^ Lee, Jin-seo (2016). North Korean Prison Camps. Radio Free Asia. p. 26. Retrieved 3 March 2016. 
  9. ^ Em, Henry H. (2013). The Great Enterprise: Sovereignty and Historiography in Modern Korea, Part 2. p. 77. 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.' 
  10. ^ Choi, Hee-an (2015). A Postcolonial Self: Korean Immigrant Theology and Church. p. 24. The word minjok (민족,民族) translates as race. 
  11. ^ Andre Schmid, Korea Between Empires, 1895-1919 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), p. 174.
  12. ^ a b c d e B.R.Myers, The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters (Melville House, 2010), ISBN 1933633913.
  13. ^ a b c North Korea's official propaganda promotes idea of racial purity and moral superiority, UC Berkeley News, 19 February 2010.
  14. ^ Sheila Miyoshi Jager, Narratives of Nation Building in Korea (2003), pp. 15-16; Andre Schmid, "Rediscovering Manchuria" (1997), p. 32.
  15. ^ 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.
  16. ^ 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.
  17. ^ a b c d e f g h Ethnic pride source of prejudice, discrimination, Gi-Wook Shin, Asia-Pacific Research Center of Stanford University, 2 August 2006
  18. ^ Nadia Y. Kim, Imperial Citizens: Koreans and Race from Seoul to L.A. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008), p. 25.
  19. ^ Hyung-il Pai, Constructing "Korean" Origins (2000), p. 6.
  20. ^ Gi-wook Shin, Ethnic Nationalism in Korea: Genealogy, Politics, and Legacy (2006), pp. 1-3.
  21. ^ Gi-wook Shin, Ethnic Nationalism in Korea: Genealogy, Politics, and Legacy, chapter 10: "Ethnic Identity and National Unification" (pp. 185-203).
  22. ^ a b c d e Park, Chung-a (August 14, 2006). "Myth of Pure-Blood Nationalism Blocks Multi-Ethnic Society". The Korea Times. Archived from the original on July 25, 2011. Retrieved July 25, 2011. 
  23. ^ Pai, Hyung Il (2000). Constructing "Korean" origins: a critical review of archaeology, historiography, and racial myth in Korean state-formation theories. Harvard University Asia Center. p. 256. ISBN 0-674-00244-X. 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. 
  24. ^ 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. 
  25. ^ a b c The Koguryo Controversy, National Identity, and Sino-Korean Relations Today [1], Peter Hays Gries, Institute for US-China Issues, The University of Oklahoma
  26. ^ Andre Schmid, "Rediscovering Manchuria: Som Cj’aeho and the Politics of Territorial History in Korea," in The Journal of Asian Studies, 56, no. 1 February 1997
  27. ^ Old Choson and the Culture of the Mandolin-shaped Bronze Dagger, Kim Jung-bae
  28. ^ a b c Kim Sok-soo, professor at Kyungpook National University, cited in Park Chung-a, "Myth of Pure-Blood Nationalism Blocks Multi-Ethnic Society Archived 2011-07-25 at the Wayback Machine.," The Korea Times, August 14, 2006.
  29. ^ Lim, Timothy. "Rethinking Belongingness in Korea: Transnational Migration, ‘Migrant Marriages,’ and the Politics of Multiculturalism". 
  30. ^ Myers, Brian Reynolds (27 May 2010). "South Korea's Collective Shrug". The New York Times. New York: The New York Times Company. Archived from the original on April 19, 2015. Retrieved April 19, 2015. 
  31. ^ a b c d e f Campbell, Emma (22 June 2015). "The end of ethnic nationalism? Changing conceptions of national identity and belonging among young South Koreans". Nations and Nationalism. 21 (3): 483–502. doi:10.1111/nana.12120. Retrieved 18 December 2016. 
  32. ^ a b c d Korea: How Much Should One Ethnicity be Emphasized? Global Voices, 2007
  33. ^ a b Kirby, Michael Donald; Biserko, Sonja; Darusman, Marzuki (7 February 2014). "Report of the detailed findings of the commission of inquiry on human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea - A/HRC/25/CRP.1". United Nations Human Rights Council. Archived from the original on February 27, 2014. 
  34. ^ "BBC NEWS - Asia-Pacific - N Korea 'kills detainees' babies'". Retrieved 7 October 2014. 
  35. ^ Chuck Finder (2006-04-09). "Hines Ward scores big for social change". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. 
  36. ^ Associated Press (2006-05-30). "Ward kicks off his new charity". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. 
  37. ^ http://english.ohmynews.com/articleview/article_view.asp?no=283952&rel_no=1
  38. ^ U.N. Committee Hits Korea's Discrimination, KBS, August 19, 2007
  39. ^ "Koreans Reassess Concept of Blood Purity". The Korea Times. 2007-09-02. 
  40. ^ "Korean Laws in English - Act on the Treatment of Foreigners in Korea". Retrieved 7 October 2014. 
  41. ^ "Minority Rights Group International : South Korea : South Korea Overview". Retrieved 10 May 2015. 
  42. ^ a b "South Korea; Support for Multicultural Families Act Enacted - ヒューライツ大阪". Retrieved 7 October 2014. 
  43. ^ a b http://www.refworld.org/pdfid/473424062.pdf
  44. ^ a b "Race". The New York Times. New York: New York Times Company. 2 November 2009. 
  45. ^ "Korean Laws in English - SUPPORT FOR MULTICULTURAL FAMILIES ACT". Retrieved 7 October 2014. 
  46. ^ "Gov’t extends definition of multicultural families". Retrieved 7 October 2014. 
  47. ^ "2009년 다문화가족 통계현황 (09년 4월현재):네이버 전문정보". Retrieved 7 October 2014. 
  48. ^ Sung-won, Eum. "Number of foreign residents in S. Korea triples over ten years". The Hankyoreh. The Hankyoreh. Retrieved 13 July 2016. 
  49. ^ "다문화가정 위한 올바른 정책방향". 큰 눈 큰 생각 큰 신문. Retrieved 7 October 2014. 
  50. ^ "New Pledge of Allegiance to Reflect Growing Multiculturalism". The Chosun Ilbo. South Korea. 18 April 2011. Archived from the original on April 20, 2011. Retrieved 20 April 2011. 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. 
  51. ^ "'Wicked black monkey': White House furious over North Korea's racist Obama slur in inexplicable rant from rogue state's mouthpiece". Mail Online. Retrieved 7 October 2014. 
  52. ^ "North Korea's screed: Obama is 'a crossbreed' with 'figure of a monkey' - Washington Times". The Washingtion Times. Retrieved 7 October 2014. 
  53. ^ "N. Korea's Racist Attack On Obama -- What's Dennis Rodman Saying?". Forbes. 11 May 2014. Retrieved 7 October 2014. 
  54. ^ "North Korea defends its racist comments about Obama". Washington Post. Retrieved 7 October 2014. 

Further reading[edit]