Korea faces challenges of multiethnic society

The year 2007 marks the 20th anniversary of South Korea's June 10 civil uprising of 1987, and the 10th year since the 1997 Asian financial crisis. To commemorate these occasions, the Korea Herald published a series of contributions from prominent foreign scholars to analyze the significant changes that Korea has undergone during the past two decades. Shorenstein APARC Director Gi-Wook Shin wrote the op-ed below, on the problems of Korean nationalism.

When the Virginia Tech massacre shook American society, Koreans and Korean-Americans alike nervously responded with a deep sense of collective guilt. Many first-generation immigrants took it upon themselves to apologize for the actions of gunman Cho Seung-hui on the grounds that they all share the same Korean ethnicity (meaning blood).

South Korea's ambassador to Washington, Lee Tae-shik, went so far as to say that the Korean- American community needed to "repent," suggesting a 32-day fast, one day for each victim, to prove that Koreans were a "worthwhile ethnic minority in America." The South Korean government offered to send an official delegation to the funerals of the victims.

This episode may seem bizarre or perplexing to non-Koreans since most ethnicities (including Americans) don't have that strong sense of collective responsibility. Yet this incident well illustrates Korea's psyche, i.e., deeply rooted ethnic national identity, which remains strong today.

Korea has been democratizing and globalizing for the last two decades but neither force has weakened the power of nationalism. On the contrary, it has only become stronger.

How can we explain this phenomenon of persistent ethnic nationalism in a country at the forefront of globalization? Where does such a tradition of collectivistic, ethnic identity come from? What are the positive and negative aspects of ethnic nationalism in Korea? How can Korea, as it is becoming a multiethnic society, deal with it in a globalizing world?

Origins and History

Historically Koreans have developed a sense of nation based on shared blood and ancestry. The Korean nation was "ethnicized" or "racialized" through a belief in a common prehistoric origin, producing an intense sense of collective oneness.

Ethnicity is generally regarded as a cultural phenomenon based on a common language and history, and race understood as a collectivity defined by innate and immutable phenotypic and genotypic characteristics. However, Koreans have not differentiated between the two. Instead, race served as a marker that strengthened ethnic identity, which in turn was instrumental in defining the notion of nation. Koreans are said to believe that they all belong to a "unitary nation" ("tanil minjok"), one that is ethnically homogeneous and racially distinctive from its neighbors.

This sense of ethnic homogeneity, contrary to the popular "prehistoric origin" belief, took root in the early 20th century. Faced with imperialist encroachments, from both the East (Japan) and West, Koreans developed the notion of a unitary nation to show its autonomy and uniqueness. For Korea, which had a long history of political, linguistic, and geographic continuity, the internal issues of political integration or geographic demarcation were less important than the threat of imperialism. Enhancement of collective consciousness and internal solidarity among Koreans against the external threat was more urgent. As a result, the ethnic base or racial genealogy of the Korean nation was emphasized.

Sin Chae-ho, a leading nationalist of the time, for instance, presented Korean history as one of the "ethnic nation" ("minjoksa") and traced it to the mythical figure Tangun. According to him, the Korean people were descendants of Tangun Chosun, who merged with the Puy of Manchuria to form the Kogury people. This original blend, Sin contended, remained the ethnic or racial core ("chujok") of the Korean nation, a nation preserved through defense and warfare against outside forces. The nation was defined as "an organic body formed out of the spirit of a people descended through a single pure bloodline" that would last even after losing political sovereignty.

The need to assert the distinctiveness and purity of the Korean nation grew more important under colonial rule, especially as Japan attempted to assimilate Koreans into its empire as "imperial subjects." The assimilation policy was based on colonial racism, which claimed that Koreans and Japanese were of common origin but the former always subordinate.

The 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 the two nations. Yet colonial assimilation policy meant changing Korean names into Japanese, exclusive use of Japanese language, school instruction in the Japanese ethical system, and Shinto worship. Koreans resented and resisted the policy by asserting their unique and great national heritage. Yi Kwang-su, a leading figure at the time, claimed that bloodline, personality, and culture are three fundamental elements defining a nation and that "Koreans are without a doubt a unitary nation ("tanil han minjok") in blood and culture." Such a view was widely accepted among Koreans: to impugn the natural and unique character of the Korean ethnic nation during colonial rule would have been tantamount to betraying Koreanness in the face of the imperial challenge of an alien ethnic nation. Ironically, Japanese rule reinforced Koreans' claim to a truly distinct and homogeneous ethnic identity.

After independence in 1945, and despite peninsular division into North and South, the unity of the Korean ethnic nation or race was largely taken for granted. Neither side disputed the ethnic base of the Korean nation, spanning thousands of years, based on a single bloodline of the great Han race. Instead, both sides contested for the sole representation of the ethnically homogeneous Korean nation.

Even today, Koreans maintain a strong sense of ethnic homogeneity based on shared blood and ancestry, and nationalism continues to shape Korean politics and foreign relations. Many ethnic Koreans overseas share this sense of ethnic homogeneity, which can explain the response by the Korean American community to the Virginia Tech massacre.

Prize and Price

Ethnic nationalism has been a crucial source of pride and inspiration for the Korean people during the turbulent years of their nation's transition to modernity that involved colonialism, territorial division, war, and dictatorship. It has enhanced collective consciousness and solidarity against external threats and has served Korea's modernization well. Nationalism is also the underlying principle of guiding the current globalization process in the South.

In the North, ethnic national consciousness offered the grounds for the formation of a belief that Koreans are a chosen people, a position that became the epistemological basis for the juche ideology and the recent "theory of the Korean nation as number one." Ethnic nationalism could also play an integrative role in a unification process, as this self-ascribed identity of homogeneity can serve as the basis for the initial impetus toward unification, if not as the stable foundation of a unified Korea.

At the same time, such a blood-based ethnic national identity became a totalitarian force in politics, culture, and society. Individuals were considered only part of an abstract whole, and citizens were asked to sacrifice individual freedom and civil rights for the collectivity.

Nation was also used as a trump card to override other competing identities as well as to justify violations of human and civic rights in both Koreas in the name of the "nation." The power of nationalism has thus hindered cultural and social diversity and tolerance in Korean society.

The dominance of collectivistic, ethnic nationalism constrained space for liberalism in the public sphere. In its formative years of nation building, nationalism developed in opposition to liberalism and these two ideologies were mistakenly positioned against each other. This historical legacy led to the poverty of modern thought in Korea, including liberalism, conservatism, and radicalism. A lack of a liberal base, for instance, made Korean conservatism highly vulnerable to manipulation by authoritarian leaders.

Ironically, the very belief in ethnic unity has also produced tension and conflict between the two Koreas over the last half-century. The prevailing sense of unity in the face of territorial partition has provoked contention over who truly represents the Korean ethnic nation versus who is at fault for undermining that Korean unity. This battle for true national representation helps to explain highly charged inter-Korea conflict, including the Korean War that killed millions of fellows in the name of "national liberation."

Challenges and Future Tasks

Ethnic nationalism will remain an important organizing principle of Korean society. Neither democratization nor globalization has been able to uproot the power of nationalism. It would thus be wrong and dangerous to ignore or underestimate its power, treating it as a mere myth or something to pass away in due course. At the same time, we can't remain simply content with its current role, either.

Instead, it should be recognized that ethnic nationalism has become a dominant force in Korean society and politics and that it can be oppressive and dangerous when fused with racism and other essentialist ideologies. Koreans must strive to find ways to mitigate its potential harmful effects and use it in constructive manner. In particular, Koreans must promote cultural diversity and tolerance, and establish democratic institutions that can contain the repressive, essentialist elements of ethnic nationalism.

This important task is urgent because Korea, on the contrary to popular perception, is becoming a multiethnic society. Today about a half-million migrant labor workers, with the majority coming from China and Southeast Asia, live in the South. Only a decade ago, the number was less than one hundred thousand. Similarly more than one out of 10 marriages is "international," meaning that the spouse is nonethnic Korean (reaching 13.6 percent in 2005). Considering that the figure was only 1.7 percent in 1994, Korea is fast becoming a multiethnic society.

Despite new realities, however, perception and institutions are slow to change. Most Koreans still have stronger attachment to "ethnic Koreans living in foreign countries" than to "ethnic non-Koreans living in Korea." It is also much easier for a Korean-American who to "recover" Korean citizenship than for an Indonesian migrant worker living in Korea to obtain Korean citizenship. This is true even if the Indonesian worker might be more culturally and linguistically Korean than a Korean-American.

The principle of "bloodline" or jus sanguinis still defines the notions of Korean nationhood and citizenship, which are often inseparable in the minds of Koreans. In its formative years, Koreans stressed the ethnic base of nation without a corresponding attention to its civic dimension, i.e. citizenship. After colonial rule, neither state (North or South) paid adequate attention or made serious effort to cultivate a more inclusive notion of citizenship.

Social institutions that can address issues of discrimination against ethnic non-Koreans (e.g., ethnic Chinese known as "hwagyo") have been overlooked and underdeveloped. The Korean nationality law based on jus sanguinis legitimizes consciously or unconsciously discrimination against foreign migrant workers by explicitly favoring ethnic Koreans.

Korea needs to institutionalize a legal system that mitigates unfair practices and discrimination against those who do not supposedly share the Korean blood. Koreans need an institutional framework to promote a national identity that would allow recognition of ethnic diversity and cultural tolerance among the populace, rather than appeal to an ethnic consciousness that tends to encourage a false uniformity and then enforcing conformity to it.

They should envision a society in which they can live together, not simply as fellow ethnic Koreans but as equal citizens of a democratic polity. In fact, it is only a matter of time before Koreans will face serious challenges living in a multiethnic society (e.g., children of ethnically mixed couples, civic rights of migrant labor workers) that it is unprepared to resolve. Preparing for such challenges through public education and legal institutions won't be an easy task and should be an integral part of democratic consolidation processes that are currently under way.

Discussion of unification is premature and problematic if unification occurs without such adjustments. As the German unification experience shows, a shared ethnic identity alone will not be able to prevent North Koreans from becoming "second-class citizens" in a unified Korea. Even worse, because of higher expectations resulting from a shared sense of ethnic unity, a gap between identity (ethnic homogeneity) and practice (second-class citizens) will add more confusion and tension to the unification process.

All said, Koreans should strive to promote ethnic diversity and cultural tolerance, and develop proper legal institution so that all can live together in a multiethnic or unified Korea as equal citizens of a democratic polity. This task will be all the more important and urgent as Korea consolidates democracy, globalizes its economy, and prepares for national unification.