Ethnocentrism and the Origins of Korean Nationalism

In the opinion pages of the 2007.09.17 issue of Chosun Ilbo, there is an article which discusses the nationalism (민족주의) of Korea’s “386 generation.” The main point of the article is to dissect and critique the “pro-North leftists” (친북좌파), laud the rise of the new cooler “post-386 generation”, and discuss the alternative visions offered by Korea’s New Right movement (뉴 라이트). The article opens, however, with a nostalgic visit to “Intro to Nationalism 101” and a little bit of history.

Newright The first half of special is written by Shin Ji-ho (신지호), a self-declared former leftist activist who abandoned the revolution, went on to get a PhD in political science from Keio in Tokyo and become the president of what appears to be the institutional embodiment of the New Right’s political wing, the Liberty Union (자유주의의연대), the website of which is cleverly located at the appropriately post-386 internet location of Now, the Liberty Union should not be mixed up with the Korean Freedom League which is a distinctly “Old Right” organization that used to go by the name of the “Korea Anti-Communist League” and before that the “Asian People’s Anti-Communist League” (which should not to be mixed up with its sister organization, the World League for Freedom and Democracy based in Taiwan, which used to be known as the World Anti-Communist League). Indeed, as the English version of its website shows, the Liberty Union simply wants what, apparently, all Korean organizations with websites want: unpolluted skies, green fields, impossibly green trees, beautiful rainbows, blue butterflies, and cute children holding flowers.

Shin’s article is faithful to the stated principles of neo-liberalism of his organization, but he also makes the case for a form of “patriotic globalism” (애국적 세계주의) which is based on a pride in a country which protects freedom and champions republicanism. As he explains it:

진정한 애국은 동일한 혈연, 언어, 문화에서 나오는 선천적, 생래적 감정이 아니라, 개인의 자유와 번영을 보장해주는 국가공동체에 대한 후천적, 인공적 열정에서 비롯된다. 고로 자유공화국만이 진정한 애국의 대상이 될 수 있다. 이것이 바로 ‘공화주의적 애국’이며 ‘민족주의 없는 애국’이다.

There is material to work with here, but the real clash between post-nationalists of different political leanings is not so much on the technical details of what we should call the cosmopolitanism of the future, but how it will address social injustice and whether it will embrace unfettered market liberalism. Not a debate I want to bring up here.

However, it is very interesting to me to see in articles, like these, how easily the “New Right” can expose the hypocrisy and backwardness of the nationalism of Korea’s mainstream left, and champion, with apparent ease, the forces of tolerance, international cooperation, and cosmopolitan identities. There is much in common here between the cosmopolitan conservatives of Korea and those within Taiwan’s (now ironically named) Nationalist party (國民黨).

Now the real reason I wanted to bring up this article was to point out something from Shin’s opening “Intro to Nationalism 101” which goes like this:

‘민족의 유구한 5천년 역사’라는 표현과 달리 민족이라는 말은 19세기까지 우리 선조들의 언어세계에 존재하지 않았다. 이유는 간단하다. 민족은 근대의 산물이기 때문이다. 영한사전에서 nation을 찾아보면 민족, 국민, 국가라는 세 가지 뜻이 나온다. 근대국가 건설은 nation-building이라고 한다. 민족은 서유럽에서 봉건질서를 해체하고 근대국가를 건설하는 과정에서 인위적으로 만들어진 개념이다. 봉건제의 지방분권적 영주-농노관계를 청산하고 다양한 종족(ethnic groups)을 한데 엮어 중앙집권적 국민국가를 건설하기 위해 ‘하나의 문화와 하나의 언어’를 지닌 ‘하나의 민족’이라는 ‘상상(想像)의 공동체’가 필요했던 것이다. 그래서 민족은 곧 국민이 되고 국가가 된다.

그런데 우리의 민족주의는 이와 궤를 달리한다. 한반도 민족주의는 일제 침략에 대한 안티테제로 출발했다. 해서 근대국가 건설이라는 긍정과 창조의 이데올로기가 아니라, 제국주의타도와 민족해방이라는 부정과 파괴의 이데올로기로 기능했다. 단군이 시조로 모셔지고 백두산이 민족의 영산(靈山)이 된 것도 이 시기다. 요컨대 일제 36년은 민족형성의 시대이기도 했다.

한반도 민족주의의 두 번째 특징은 단일민족국가 신화에 있다. 한반도를 제외한 전 세계 모든 국가는 예외 없이 다민족국가다. 뿌리가 다르고 문화가 다른 사람들이 공동의 목표를 위해 국가라는 공동체를 건설, 운영하고 있다. 그러나 한반도는 다르다. 국가는 혈연공동체와 등치되고 있다. 그 결과, 타민족에 대해 배타적인 ‘자민족 중심주의(ethnocentrism)’가 그 어느 곳보다 강하다.

In the opening paragraph Shin offers us a standard anti-primordialist description of the modern origins of the nation-state and its status as an “imagined community.” It does seem that Shin was paying attention in his classes at Keio.

He goes on, however, to suggest that Korean nationalism is different. Two points here for discussion:

1) He suggests that Korean nationalism arose out of a reaction or as the “antithesis” to the Japanese invasion. It wasn’t born out of an ideology of modern nation-building, but as an ideology of anti-imperialism and national liberation.

2) Unlike all the other nations in the world Korea alone is a country of one people (단일민족국가, which those who have studied Japan will recognize when we reveal its hanja: 単一民族国家, as in the topic of one of my favorite books, Oguma Eiji’s 単一民族神話の起源). Because Korea, alone in the world, is a nation of one people or ethnic group, Shin suggests, Korea has an exclusionist ethnocentrism.

Shin is not a historian, but I wonder what everyone thinks about these two opening points?

My own comments:

1) It is true that Korea is a post-colonial nation and thus, Korean nationalism exhibits some of the classic features that go along with it and its post-liberation history has much in common with other post-colonials. However, that is not the same as saying that Korean nationalism was born as a reaction to Japanese imperialism. This puts us into the historiographical terrain of where to look for the origins of Korean nationalism: Do you point at the 1920s and the rise of mass nationalism at that point? Do you point to the events leading up to 1919 as a founding moment? Or, like Andre Schmid and others, emphasis the late 19th century and early 20th century as a key moment when a lot of the key concepts and themes are fixed?

Regardless, it is not clear to me that, even if we were to accept the anti-imperialist / national liberation point made by Shin that this would made Korea any different – not only from other post-colonial nations, but from many of the classic European cases. I can think of many examples, including Hungarian nationalism, Polish nationalism, Norwegian nationalism, and many others. These nationalisms were born during “dark periods” of domination by a foreign power, and fed upon hatred of the dominating outsider.

2) This is an interesting question: Can we attribute the ethnocentrism of Korea to the lack of ethnic diversity within its borders? It seems tempting. But think about that for a minute. Think of historical examples of ethnocentrism of the most extreme varieties, where and when were they? Both the place and time are key. I’m no expert on the topic of ethnocentrism and ethnic violence, but I have heard it variously argued that the most powerful and extreme examples are to be found in cases where 1) there is considerable ethnic diversity within a society but the groups are relatively segregated or almost the opposite argument: 2) there is considerable ethnic diversity within a society but the groups are going through serious inter-marriage. If either of these are true, the relative ethnic homogeneity of Korea is not a sufficient condition in explaining its ethnocentrism.


  1. Most nationalism is reactive. I don’t see anti-colonial/anti-imperial nationalism as significantly different from any other kind, most of the time.

    I’m something of an iconoclast on nationalism, though, and I tend to see its “roots” much deeper than most people, and don’t find the “modern nationalism” dividing lines all that persuasive. I suppose that would put me in the Andre Schmid category, but I’d probably push it even further back, to the anti-Catholic discourses.

    Nor is ethnocentrism rational enough to bother looking for “real” causes. It happens in relative isolation, it happens in the midst of great diversity, it happens in situations where there is a stable majority but strong minority, etc., ad nauseum. I get very impatient with attempts to overtheorize these things, as though it were a problem we could solve through some kind of social engineering, when deconstruction and education are the only real responses to these abstractions.

    In the specific Korean case, I think the influence of Japanese racial theories and social darwinism is the real root of the matter. The want purity and pride because they’ve been taught that purity and pride are what makes a real nation, and they are the only tools they think will work to make the Japanese think twice.

  2. Kenneth M. Wells in “New God, New Nation” makes a case for the influence of Protestant Christianity upon both North and South Korean nationalism. He argues that most of the reform movements in peninsular history, including Juche and the Saemaul movement, were offshoots of the missionary work Westerners did in the 19th and 20th Century.

  3. Jonathan: It sounds like your views on nationalism are more along lines such as anti-modernists like Anthony Smith who, while conceding that nationalism is a modern mass political movement, that national identity is a deeply rooted phenomenon that is based on non-arbitrary organic features of a community.

    The issue of purity and racial theories is interesting. One of Oguma’s main arguments is that, while it was brought up in debates on race in the Meiji period, the homogeneous nation argument doesn’t became dominant in the discourse until post-1945, with Japan being an example of imperialistic multi-racialism. I wonder if these Meiji period debates on race had an impact on the same group of intellectuals who are debating Korean-ness in the late 19c in Korea.

    I forgot to mention why the late 19c vs. 1920s matters. If the emphasis is placed on the former then it can’t exclusively be anti-Japanese imperialism since scholars were equally concerned about 사대주의(事大主義) towards China on a cultural and intellectual level. It still makes it arguably reactive, but the more dispersed reaction is even more common in the many examples of 19c nationalist movements in Europe.

    Baltimoron: I have heard a lot about Wells’ book but haven’t had a chance to look at it, thanks.

  4. I’ll have to look up Smith, I suppose: that’s not a terrible distinction, but I have serious questions about “non-arbitrary”, “organic” and “community”…. that’s what comes of being a post-modernist instead of an anti-modernist.

    Were Korean discourses about the West at all a factor in identity formation?

  5. Since the homogenity of Korea is so universally accepted, I have to end up questioning it.

    It really wasn’t that long ago, historically speaking, that the current northern provinces of the Korean peninsula were held to be different from the southern half of the peninsula. I don’t remember how long into the Chosun Dynasty it continued, but well into that dynasty, parts or most of what is today North Korea was administered as military districts – not civil – as were the provinces that made up what is today South Korea. There were also different times where the government encouraged migration up north by freeing slaves or granting higher socio-economic status and whatnot. I believe even the founder of Chosun himself was from this northern area and considered to have some Manchurian tribal blood running through his veins….

  6. Koreans are no more nationalistic than any other nationals. Does anyone think that Americans, especially of European descents, aren’t nationalistic? It’s deeply rooted in their Eurocentric and racial superiority complex. They may not show it as overtly as Koreans or other nationals, but, nevetheless, it’s there and manifests in various forms – good, bad, or ugly.

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