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Korean ethnic nationalism

Korean ethnic nationalism, or racial nationalism,[1] is a political ideology and a form of ethnic identity that is prevalent in modern 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.[2] 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," and "race-nation". In contrast, the same characters in Chinese mean ethnicity, culture or nationality, not race.

This conception of a racist form of nationalism started to emerge among Korean intellectuals after the Imperial Japanese-imposed "protectorate" of 1905,[3] when Imperial Japanese colonizers were trying to persuade Koreans that both nations were of the same racial stock.[4][5] The notion of the Korean minjok was first made popular by essayist and historian Shin Chaeho in his 1908 book, New Reading of History, a history of Korea from the mythical times of Dangun to the fall of Balhae in 926. 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.[6] During the period of Imperial Japanese colonial rule from 1910 to 1945, this belief in the uniqueness of a Korean minjok gave an impetus for resisting the Imperial Japanese's forced assimilation policies and historical scholarship.[7]

In contrast to Japan and Germany, where such race-based conceptions of the nation were officially discarded after World War II because they were un-flatteringly associated with ultranationalism or Nazism,[8] postwar North and South Korea continued to proclaim the ethnic homogeneity and pure bloodline of the "Great Han race".[4][9] In the 1960s, President Park Chung-hee strengthened this "ideology of racial purity" to legitimize his authoritarian rule,[10] while in North Korea official propaganda has portrayed Koreans as "the cleanest race."[4][5] Contemporary South Korean historians continue to write about the nation's "unique racial and cultural heritage."[11] This shared conception of a racially defined Korea continues to shape Korean politics and foreign relations,[9] gives Koreans an impetus to national pride,[12] and feeds hopes for the reunification of the two Koreas.[13]

Despite statistics showing that South Korea is becoming an increasingly multi-ethnic society,[14][dead link] most of the Korean population continues to identify itself as "one people" (Korean: 단일민족; Hanja: 單一民族, danil minjok) joined by a common "bloodline".[15] A renewed emphasis on the purity of Korean "blood"[16] has caused tensions, leading to renewed debates on multi-ethnicity, racism, and xenophobia both in South Korea and abroad.[14] Ethnic nationalism in modern South Korean culture may partly stem from a reaction against not only the Imperial Japanese's colonization and British-American cultural colonialism, but also a history of Chinese cultural colonialism.


Early usage and origins

Contrary to popular belief in modern Korea, the ideology of an ever-present Korean "purest race" began only in the early twentieth century, when the Imperial Japanese annexed the Korean Peninsula[4] and launched a campaign to persuade Koreans that they were of the same pure racial stock as the Japanese themselves.[5]

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.[9] The policy included changing Korean names into Japanese, exclusive use of Japanese language, school instruction in the Japanese ethical system, and Shinto worship.[9] B.R. 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.[4]


File:Baitou Mountain Tianchi.jpg
Heaven Lake of Baekdu Mountain where Hwan Woong (환웅; 桓雄), Dangun's father, is said to have descended from heaven, serves as a foundation for the myth of "blood purity" commonly believed by Koreans.

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.[17]

Borrowing from the Imperial Japanese theory of nationalism and racism,[17] Shin Chaeho located the martial roots of the Korean in Goguryeo,[17] which he depicted as militarist, expansionist which turned out to inspire pride and confidence in the resistance against the Japanese.[17] 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[18] and asserted that it was an important way to establish Korea’s uniqueness.[17]

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).[9][19]


Throughout Korea, the "pure blood theory" is a widely-accepted as legitimate, and is a commonly-held belief among the populace, often being justified as "defensive nationalism".[20] 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 and challenge the legitimacy of the theory would have been tantamount to being a "race traitor", betraying Koreanness in the face of the challenge of an alien ethnic nation.[9]

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.[20] It was especially true in the dictatorial leaderships by former presidents Syngman Rhee and Park Chung-hee when nationalism was incorporated into anti-Communism.[20]

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.

Contemporary social issues

Xenophobia and racism

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

In South Korea, the notion of "pure blood" often results in discrimination toward people of both "foreign-blood" and "mixed blood".[14] Those with this "mixed blood" or "foreign-blood" are sometimes referred to as Honhyul (혼혈) in South Korea.[21]

According to 2009 statistics published by South Korean Ministry of Health and Welfare, there are 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.[22] Recently it has been argued that South Korean society had already become a multicultural society. 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.[23]

In 2006, American football player Hines Ward, who was born in Seoul to a South Korean mother and an 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.[24] When he travelled to South Korea for the first time, he raised unprecedented attention to the acceptance of "mixed blood" children. He also donated USD 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."[25]

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.[14] 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.[26][27] 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.[28] Others say that the embrace of multi-ethnicism will diminish chances of reunifying the Korean Peninsula.[28]

The South Korean nationality law is based on jus sanguinis[9][28] 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.[9][28]

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.[14]

Racism is heavily prevalent in South Korea and is thus, an ongoing issue in the country, with a great deal of awareness. American football player Hines Ward was granted "honorary" South Korean citizenship.[29] Tasha Reid (also known as Natasha Shanta Reid, Korean name is Yoon Mi-rae (Korean: 윤미래) is a famous mixed-race singer in South Korea.[30] Middle school access has been expanded to children of illegal immigrants.[31]

In 2007 the South Korean government passed the Act on Treatment of Foreigners.[32][33][34] 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.[35] It also noted that contrary to popular domestic perception, South Korea was no longer "ethnically homogenous".[36]

Another legislation aimed at improving the integration of ethnic minorities into South Korean society, the Support for Multicultural Families Act, was passed in 2008[37] (and revised in 2011).[38][34]

Existing provisions in South Korean criminal law may be used to punish acts of racist discrimination, but have never been used for that purpose[35] until 2009, when the first case of a South Korean citizen verbally insulting a foreigner have been brought to court.[36]

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.[39] In 2014, North Korea's Korean Central News Agency insulted U.S. President Barack Obama using racist slurs.[40][41][42][43]

See also



  1. ^ Gi-Wook Shin, Ethnic Nationalism in Korea: Genealogy, Politics, and Legacy (Stanford University Press, 2006), p. 223.
  2. ^ Gi-wook Shin, Ethnic Nationalism in Korea: Genealogy, Politics, and Legacy (Stanford University Press, 2006), p. 2.
  3. ^ Andre Schmid, Korea Between Empires, 1895-1919 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), p. 174.
  4. ^ a b c d e B.R.Myers, The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters (Melville House, 2010), ISBN 1-933633-91-3.
  5. ^ a b c North Korea's official propaganda promotes idea of racial purity and moral superiority, UC Berkeley News, 19 February 2010.
  6. ^ Sheila Miyoshi Jager, Narratives of Nation Building in Korea (2003), pp. 15-16; Andre Schmid, "Rediscovering Manchuria" (1997), p. 32.
  7. ^ Pai, Hyung-il (2000). "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. p. 1. 
  8. ^ 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.
  9. ^ 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
  10. ^ Nadia Y. Kim, Imperial Citizens: Koreans and Race from Seoul to L.A. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008), p. 25.
  11. ^ Hyung-il Pai, Constructing "Korean" Origins (2000), p. 6.
  12. ^ Gi-wook Shin, Ethnic Nationalism in Korea: Genealogy, Politics, and Legacy (2006), pp. 1-3.
  13. ^ Gi-wook Shin, Ethnic Nationalism in Korea: Genealogy, Politics, and Legacy, chapter 10: "Ethnic Identity and National Unification" (pp. 185-203).
  14. ^ a b c d e Park, Chung-a (August 14, 2006). "Myth of Pure-Blood Nationalism Blocks Multi-Ethnic Society". The Korea Times. 
  15. ^ 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. 
  16. ^ 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. 
  17. ^ a b c d e The Koguryo Controversy, National Identity, and Sino-Korean Relations Today [1], Peter Hays Gries, Institute for US-China Issues, The University of Oklahoma
  18. ^ 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
  19. ^ Old Choson and the Culture of the Mandolin-shaped Bronze Dagger, Kim Jung-bae
  20. ^ 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," The Korea Times, August 14, 2006.
  21. ^ Lim, Timothy. "Rethinking Belongingness in Korea: Transnational Migration, ‘Migrant Marriages,’ and the Politics of Multiculturalism". 
  22. ^ "2009년 다문화가족 통계현황 (09년 4월현재):네이버 전문정보". Retrieved 7 October 2014. 
  23. ^ "다문화가정 위한 올바른 정책방향". 큰 눈 큰 생각 큰 신문. Retrieved 7 October 2014. 
  24. ^ Chuck Finder (2006-04-09). "Hines Ward scores big for social change". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. 
  25. ^ Associated Press (2006-05-30). "Ward kicks off his new charity". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. 
  26. ^ U.N. Committee Hits Korea's Discrimination, KBS, August 19, 2007
  27. ^ "Koreans Reassess Concept of Blood Purity". The Korea Times. 2007-09-02. 
  28. ^ a b c d Korea: How Much Should One Ethnicity be Emphasized? Global Voices, 2007
  29. ^
  30. ^
  31. ^ "불법체류자 자녀에도 중학교 입학 허용". Naver. Retrieved 7 October 2014. 
  32. ^ "Korean Laws in English - Act on the Treatment of Foreigners in Korea". Retrieved 7 October 2014. 
  33. ^ "Minority Rights Group International : South Korea : South Korea Overview". Retrieved 10 May 2015. 
  34. ^ a b "South Korea; Support for Multicultural Families Act Enacted - ヒューライツ大阪". Retrieved 7 October 2014. 
  35. ^ a b
  36. ^ a b "Race". The New York Times. New York: New York Times Company. 2 November 2009. 
  37. ^ "Korean Laws in English - SUPPORT FOR MULTICULTURAL FAMILIES ACT". Retrieved 7 October 2014. 
  38. ^ "Gov’t extends definition of multicultural families". Retrieved 7 October 2014. 
  39. ^ "BBC NEWS - Asia-Pacific - N Korea 'kills detainees' babies'". Retrieved 7 October 2014. 
  40. ^ "'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. 
  41. ^ "North Korea's screed: Obama is 'a crossbreed' with 'figure of a monkey' - Washington Times". The Washingtion Times. Retrieved 7 October 2014. 
  42. ^ "N. Korea's Racist Attack On Obama -- What's Dennis Rodman Saying?". Forbes. 11 May 2014. Retrieved 7 October 2014. 
  43. ^ "North Korea defends its racist comments about Obama". Washington Post. Retrieved 7 October 2014. 

Further reading

External links