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Korean Nationalism

Koreans are said to be the Irish of Asia. This stereotype has been around for at least half a century. What some mean by this is that Koreans are emotional, passionate, outspoken -- and can hold their drink. The allusion is to directness, pugilism, passionate loyalty to their church [Confucianism], a [recent] melancholy history.

It is wrong to label South Korean society as intolerant. Relative ethno-national and linguistic homogeneity has been the norm for a long time," which is hard for Koreans to "peel off." And this phenomenon is also evident in the nation's institutions like the media. A variety of factors are contributing to xenophobia in the country. These include strongly nationalistic politics as well as fears of social exclusion especially amongst the younger generations, among other issues. Discriminatory behaviors often don't draw any legal consequences, given lack of anti-discrimination laws in the country.

It has been believed that Korea is an ethnically homogeneous society where nation and ethnic boundaries are undistinguished. It has been said that Korea has 5000 years of Korean history. The myths of the ethnic/national origins and the implication of pure blood reinforce the belief that Korea has been is and should be like one big family or kinship group which shares language history culture life style.

The peculiar cultural product "han" explains much of "Korean-ness," especially as the source of its emotional component. Sometimes called "won-han" (a deeper han), it is lodged in the deepest recesses of the Korean psyche that shapes, justifies, and explains all that is considered the ``Korean mind."

This han-factor can provide insights and answers for certain somewhat puzzling Korean behavior, both nationally and personally, both historically and immediately, both in international relations and in personal interactions.

Generally speaking, han (or won-han) is the idea that some injustice has been done to oneself. The injustice could be inflicted on the Korean people by a foreign power, on employees by their employer, on citizens by their government, on a daughter-in-law by her mother-in-law, on a wife by her husband, on a poor person by his rich neighbor ? anything that is perpetrated on a person or a group that is permanently imprinted as injustice or unfairness.

Virtually all of Korea's institutions and persons are under the powerful influence of han. Virtually all of Koreans have a deep-seated sense of grief and grievance that they have been wronged by some very powerful agents of injustice. Because of this han, much of the human-social relations in Korea consist of pleading, begging, and lamenting, all to right past Han or to express present han.

The roots of modern nationalist thought emerged during the Japanese occupation (1910-1945). Unlike many colonial relationships, Japan built considerable industrial capability in Korea while attempting to eliminate traditional Korean culture.

Japan ended the 518-year rule of the Choson Dynasty in 1910 when it formally annexed Korea. Korea was occupied by the Japanese for 35 years during which they nearly forgot their identity. This has made them fiercely proud of their national culture today. Japanese colonial administration was characterized by tight control from Tokyo and ruthless efforts to supplant Korean language and culture. Korean nationalism is a hot button for the Korean public psyche. Korean nationalism is a natural reflection of Korea's strong sense of identity and history, and also a reflection of the new pride that Koreans feel in the country's growing stature in the world. The search for a national identity has attracted considerable attention in contemporary Korea.

The colonial period brought forth an entirely new set of Korean political leaders, spawned by both the resistance to and the opportunities of Japanese colonialism. In 1919 mass movements swept many colonial and semicolonial countries, including Korea. Drawing on Woodrow Wilson's promises of self-determination, on March 1, 1919, a group of thirty-three intellectuals petitioned for independence from Japan and touched off nationwide mass protests that continued for months.

These protests were put down fiercely by the Japanese, causing many younger Koreans to become militant opponents of colonial rule. The year was a watershed for imperialism in Korea: the leaders of the movement, predominantly Christian and Western in outlook, were moderate intellectuals and students who sought independence through nonviolent means and support from progressive elements in the West. Their courageous witness and the nationwide demonstrations that they provoked remained a touchstone of Korean nationalism.

The movement succeeded in provoking reforms in Japanese administration, but its failure to realize independence also stimulated radical forms of anticolonial resistance. In the 1930s, new groups of armed resisters, bureaucrats, and -- for the first time -- military leaders emerged.

The Rho Moo Hyun government sought a foreign policy that was less dependent upon the United States. The change of atmosphere was underlined by anti-American outbursts in South Korea. The rise of pan-Korean nationalism in South Korea was problematic. Motivated by the desire of South Korea's younger generation to seek reconciliation rather than confrontation with North Korea, it led to severe strains in US-South Korean relations as both Washington and Seoul attempt to resolve the ongoing North Korean nuclear crisis.

By 1945 Korea accounted for approximately a quarter of the Japanese industrial base. This history of a foreign power simultaneously delivering oppression and opportunity resulted in mixed feelings toward foreign powers that still colors the South Korean perceptions of the US.

The anti-US protests over the accidental deaths of two girls in 2002, hit by a US military vehicle, reflected this oppression-opportunity conflict. The political manipulation of the event was steeped in colonial terms. This seemed to resonate well with adults and in the traditional media. Editorials of the day noted, however, that students would rail against the apparent U.S. disregard for Korean life and then meet at McDonald's and share American pop music.

South Korean students today have almost no personal relationship to Japanese oppression, the Korean War, or even the Cold War. Students today often participate in US-related protests due to deliberate societal attempts to link nationalism and victimization. The students are now less likely than previous generations to incorporate victimization into their self-identity. Nationalism defined by the old dual oppression-opportunity dynamic simply lost the sting of oppression.

With the new millenium came the emergence of "Korean Beauty", a cosmetic surgery/fashion trend which seemed to incorporates a 'white' aesthetic into an idealized representation of Korean national corporeality. "Korean Beauty" had been commercialized over Korea and Asia through popular culture exports such as television dramas, films, beauty products, and more heavy-handed phenomenon like cosmetic surgery tourism. The popularization of "Korean Beauty" generated desire forvarious "whitening" cosmetic procedures, clothing lines, dietary and dating regimes. But the celebration of "Korean Beauty" remained firmly embedded in the discursive confines of a staunch post-colonial nationalism that interpreted the globalization and popularization of Korean cultural representations/products as an indicator of successful national competition and developmental progress.

"Korean Beauty" made claims to a regionalist politics, to unite an imagined 'Asia' through cultural representations alternative to the United States and Europe. "Korean Beauty" not only represented 'the Korean people' as 'new and improved' in Korea's own reflexive national gaze, but presumed to function as a cultural authority and model of emulation for 'the rest' of Asia in contradistinction to the 'West'.

On 17 August 2007, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD), a UN-affiliated organization noted with concern the emphasis placed on the ethnic homogeneity of the Republic of Korea. It stated that this "... might represent an obstacle to the promotion of understanding, tolerance and friendship among the different ethnic and national groups living on its territory. In that regard, while appreciating the explanation that references to concepts such as "pure blood" and "mixed-bloods" in the report were intended as a mere description of a terminology still in use in the country, the Committee was nonetheless concerned that such terminology, and the idea of racial superiority that it might entail, continued to be widespread in Korean society."

The Committee remained "concerned about the persistence of widespread societal discrimination against foreigners in the Republic of Korea, including migrant workers and children born from inter-ethnic unions, in all areas of life, including employment, marriage, housing, education and inter-personal relationships."

Issues of Korean nationalism such as changing the spelling of Korea back to its original "Corea" form and changing the name of Sea of Japan to the East Sea, seem to have increased ethnic bonding between the two Koreas. The implication is that South Korea and especially a unified Korea will no longer tolerate a lesser status in its relationship with China.

Historically, the sea areas around the Korean Peninsula have been referred to by various names. The Yellow Sea and the Sea of Japan are also known in Korea as the West Sea and the East Sea, respectively. It was not until the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) that the term "Sea of Japan" gained wider acceptance. The active promotion by Japan and its enhanced political stature in the world scene during the first half of the 20th century led to the gradual replacement of such names as "Sea of Korea", "East Sea", or "Oriental Sea" with the term "Sea of Japan." Pending a final agreement on a common name for the sea in question, the Republic of Korea is of the view that, as an interim measure, both "East Sea" and "Sea of Japan" should be used simultaneously.

Korean efforts to restore the name East Sea have begun to bear fruit. The world's prominent mapmakers are paying attention to the facts and evidence. For example, Rand McNally, one of the largest mapmakers in the United States, adopted in 197 a policy of concurrent use of both names, East Sea and Sea of Japan. This practice was followed by "Microsoft Encarta 97 World Atlas," the ninth edition of "Regions 2000 Geography: Realms, Regions and Concepts," as well as maps published by the National Geographic Society. A wide range of publications and media organizations in many countries uses either the East Sea, exclusively, or concurrently with the Sea of Japan including the "Lonely Plannet," "The Times," "Atlas of the World," "Enclyclopedia Britannica," "Financial Times," "The Economist," "Le Figaro," "Les Echos," and "Liberation."

The United States Board on Geographic Names (BGN) is the component of the United States Government that develops policies, principles, and procedures governing the spelling, use, and application of geographic names-domestic, foreign, Antarctic, and undersea. Its decisions enable all departments and agencies of the US Government to have access to uniform names of geographic features. The position of the BGN is that the name Sea of Japan be used in official US Government maps and publications.

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Page last modified: 24-02-2016 20:04:14 ZULU