Posted by: rbbadger | May 24, 2010

The concept of Minjok

If you visit Korea, especially around the time of one of the major national holidays, you may come away with the impression of Korea as a very nationalist place.  The people are very proud of their country.  The flag is aways flown on national holidays, especially ones which commemorate national independence.  However, as Professor Andrei Lankov shows, the idea of Korea as a nation is very new.  Even the word for race, namely minjok (民族), is of fairly recent provenance, dating back no earlier than the late 19th century. 

You can read his post here.

At the same time, I would hasten to point out that the idea of Italy or Germany as unified countries is likewise very new.  At the time when Martin Luther was causing controversy in Eastern Germany, scholars simply did not write in their vernacular languages.  The language of scholarship was Latin.  It would take a great deal of time for German and Italian, for that matter, to become respected as languages in their own right and ones fully capable of expressing scholarly work.  Italy unified in 1870.  Germany united as an empire in 1871.



  1. I think the concept of ‘nation’ in European countries was formed in a different context from that of Korea. The powerful European countries had necessity to promote the ideology of ‘nation’ in its attempt to competitively expand commercial and diplomatic interests and influence in the world. And Japan was a very good student in imitating it.

    Korean nationalism was formed rather defensively and reactively than aggressively and proactively. And I think, even far before the European concept of ‘nation’ was introduced into Korea, Koreans, most of the time, identify themselves as Koreans who are different from other neighbor countries such as China and Japan. Koreans always considered themselves as people of different entity of language, culture and ethnicity, even though Confucian scholars preferred to use Chinese characters in their writing. For example, Kings and ministers worshiped ‘Dangun’ as their forefather even during the strict Confucian Chosun dynasty.

    The “Korean identity”, whether it was represented in the concept of ‘nation’, ‘tribe’, or other forms, had provided great resilience and perseverance in defending Korea from invasion of neighbor countries. I abominate, however, the kind of chauvinistic nationalism of the North Korean regime and progressive politics in South Korea.

    The consciousness of shared Korean identity, one might call it ‘minjok’ or other terms, has made contribution to overcome many difficulties and challenges in Korean history and still retain its value, I think, in this multicultural society. I expect it will last until any threatening to sovereignty or safety of Korea completely disappears in the mind of majority of Koreans.

    And I consider the shared consciousness of Korean identity valuable as long as it does not lead to aggression and discrimination toward other people, as seen in Germany, Italy, Japan, or even in Korean society. Has the most un-national ideology promoted peace in this world? No. Russian communism, which is theoretically supporting cosmopolitan global community, has done horrible violence against humanity. I do not believe the eclipse of nation will resolve the problem of discrimination and violence and bring peace and prosperity in the world.

  2. And I’d like to ask what happened to the politically most un-national USSR and economically the most un-national European Union.

    I think American society has, in general, healthy independent national identity on the basis of respect to cultural diversity.

  3. Peter,

    I do think that Koreans have long had the concept of themselves as different from neighbouring China. And perhaps Professor Lankov is looking at Korea through too much of a western lens.

    Patriotism and nationalism need to be distinguished. I would say that everyone ought to be patriotic. Even if I were to find myself in a situation where I had to adopt a new citizenship, I would remain forever attached to the country of my birth and forever grateful to her. Nationalism sort of takes these very positive virtues and twists them into something else, often negative.

    The Japanese sought to co-opt Korean national identity, especially through the 내선일체 campaigns. They wanted to instill in the Koreans this ideal of belong to an inherently pure and virtuous race with the Japanese. For a while, they encouraged Koreans to have pride in their regional flag and “dialect”. It was later on that they forbade the speaking of Korean in schools and forced people to change their names. Some of the Koreans who propagandized on behalf of Japan and who promoted these concepts ended up doing the same in North Korea, though they kicked the Japanese out of the pure race and kept it all for themselves. Interestingly enough, these former Japanese collaborators did not have to go through anything like the “de-Nazification process” that former collabators with the Hitler regime in Germany had to do. Kim Il-sung basically welcomed them with open arms. They, in turn, did everything to glorify him.

    Interestingly enough, North Korea has kept quite a few of the Japanese nationalistic motifs around. Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il are often depicted riding on white horses, something which the Showa Emperor (Hirohito) was often depicted as doing.

    Actually, the places in Korea where I have seen the ugliest manifestations of nationalism are in the Jeolla Provinces. I used to live in Gwangju. My high school students once told me that marriage between Koreans and non-Koreans ought to be punishable by imprisonment. And it was there that I heard the most about “Korean blood”. It is not surprising, then, that Gwangju is a veritable haven for lefitst politics. Of course, Hitler’s Nazis and Mussolini’s fascists were hardly right-wingers. They pursued leftist goals. If you read progressivist publications in America from the 1920s, you will note a great deal of enthusiasm for Mussolini on the part of these progressivists. This is something that their descendants, the so-called “liberals” have never come to terms with, much less admitted.

  4. Thanks for your comment. And I feel so bad you seemed to have a hard time in Gwangju. It was a quite recent years when the “blood purism” (순혈주의, 純血主義) began to be more widely recognized as a social problem in Korea. The presence of foreigners in Korea hit one million not long ago. And interracial marriages has increased exponentially. It is a situation that Koreans have not expected before and, as a result, not been well prepared for, while Americans has a so long history of immigration and racial issues and they well know how to handle this problem.

    I noticed Korean journalism and media have been adressing the problem of blood purism and Korean government seems to try hard to overcome it. And I do believe blood purism is a bad ideology that should be corrected. Most of all, it is not Christian.

    One hope is that South Korea has a great potential to change so rapidly. I cannot believe how often South Koreans switch cell phones following the trends and designs. Even though I am a native Korean, it was quite stressful to keep updated with the swift social changes in Korea.

    Koreans need to learn how to maintain their cultural heritage and identity and at the same time how to live harmoniously with people from different cultures and ethnicities. I believe Americans can be the best teachers because they have grown up in a society mature enough to respect and share the diversity in unity.

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