Korea's ethnic nationalism is a source of both pride and prejudice, according to Gi-Wook Shin
Koreans have developed a sense of nation based on shared blood and ancestry. The Korean nation was "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.
But historically, 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 nation. Koreans thus believe that they all belong to a "unitary nation" (danil minjok), one that is ethnically homogeneous and racially distinctive.
Despite 1,000 years of political, linguistic, and geographic continuity - and contrary to popular belief - this sense of ethnic homogeneity took root only in the early 20th century.
Faced with imperialist encroachments, Koreans developed the notion of a unitary nation to show its autonomy and uniqueness. They stressed the ethnic base, rather than civic elements, in defining the Korean nation.
Shin Chae-ho, a leading nationalist, for instance, presented Korean history as one of the "ethnic nation" (minjoksa) and traced it to the mythical figure Dangun. According to him, the Korean people were descendants of Dangun Joseon, who merged with Buyo of Manchuria to form the Goguryeo people. This original blend, Shin contended, remained the ethnic or racial core 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 even more important under colonial rule, especially as Japan attempted to assimilate Koreans into their empire as "imperial subjects." The Japanese 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 Koreans and inlanders. Colonial assimilation policy included changing Korean names into Japanese, exclusive use of Japanese language, school instruction in the Japanese ethical system, and Shinto worship.
Koreans resisted by asserting their unique and great national heritage. Yi Kwang-su, a key figure during colonial rule, claimed that "hyeoltong" (bloodline), "seonggyeok" (personality), and "munhwa" (culture) are three fundamental elements of a nation and that "Koreans are without a doubt a unitary nation (danil 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. Japanese rule did not erase Koreans' national consciousness but rather reinforced their 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 homogeneity 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 function as a key resource in Korean politics and foreign relations.
Ethnic national identity has been a crucial source of pride and inspiration for people during the turbulent years of Korea's transition to modernity that involved colonialism, territorial division, war, and authoritarian politics. It has also enhanced collective consciousness and internal solidarity against external threats and has served Korea's modernization project as an effective resource.
At the same time, such a blood-based ethnic national identity became a totalitarian force in politics, culture, and society. It came to override other competing identities and led to the poverty of modern thought, including liberalism, conservatism, and radicalism. It has hindered cultural and social diversity and tolerance in Korean society.
Ethnic nationalism will remain an important organizing principle of Korean society. We cannot ignore ethnic national identity or treat it as a mere myth or fantasy. But neither can we remain simply content with its current role.
Instead, it should be recognized that ethnic nationalism has become a considerable force in Korean society and politics and that it can be dangerous and oppressive when fused with racism and other essentialist ideologies. Koreans must thus strive to find ways to use ethnic nationalism constructively and mitigate its potential harmful effects.
In particular, Koreans must seriously consider the establishment of a democratic
institution that can contain the repressive, essentialist elements of nationalism.
The principle of bloodline or "jus sanguinis" still defines the notion of Korean nationhood and citizenship, which are often inseparable in the mind of Koreans. In its formative years Koreans developed the ethnic base of nation without a corresponding
attention to the political notion of citizenship.
After colonial rule, neither state paid adequate attention or made any serious effort to develop a more inclusive notion of citizenship. Social institutions that can address issues of discrimination against ethnic non-Koreans (for example, ethnic Chinese known as "hwagyo" in Korea) have been largely overlooked. The Korean nationality law is still based on jus sanguinis and legitimizes, consciously or unconsciously, ethnic discrimination against foreign migrant workers.
In this context, most Koreans 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 supposedly has "Korean blood" 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.
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 democratic national identity that would allow for more diversity and tolerance among the populace, rather than simply appeal to an ethnic consciousness that tends to encourage false uniformity and enforce 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. It should be an integral part of democratic consolidation processes that Korea is currently undergoing. Otherwise, it would be hard to expect Korea to become "Asia's hub," which will require the accommodation of cultural and ethnic diversity and flexibility.
Discussion of unification is premature and can even be considered dangerous if unification occurs without such change. 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.
Thus, it will be a major challenge for Koreans to develop democratic institutions that can treat people living in Korea as equal citizens of a democratic polity. This task will be all the more important and urgent as Korea becomes more democratic, globalizes, and also prepares for national unification.