Korean ethnic nationalism

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A South Korean soldier in 2004. Until April 2011, South Korean soldiers swore allegiance to the "Korean race" in their oaths of enlistment.[1][2][3]
The South Korean flag. Until July 2007, the South Korean pledge of allegiance was to the "Korean race", rather than to the country of South Korea.[1][3][4]

Korean ethnic nationalism, or racial nationalism,[5] is a political ideology and a form of ethnic identity that is widely prevalent in modern Korea.[3][6][7][8] It is based on the belief that Koreans form a nation, a "race", and an ethnic group that shares a unified bloodline and a distinct culture.[9] It is centered on the notion of the minjok (Hangul민족; hanja民族), a term that had been coined in Imperial Japan in the early Meiji period on the basis of Social Darwinian conceptions. Minjok has been translated as "nation", "people", "ethnic group", "race", and "race-nation".[2][10][11][12][13][14][15]

This conception of a racist form of nationalism started to emerge among Korean intellectuals after the Imperial Japanese-imposed "protectorate" of 1905,[16] when Imperial Japanese colonizers were trying to persuade Koreans that both nations were of the same racial stock, albeit with the Koreans in a subordinate position.[17][18] The notion of the Korean minjok was first made popular by essayist and historian Shin Chaeho in his 1908 book, New Reading of History, a history of Korea from the mythical times of Dangun to the fall of Balhae in 926. Shin portrayed the minjok as a warlike race that had fought bravely to preserve Korean identity, had later declined, and now needed to be reinvigorated.[19] During the period of Imperial Japanese colonial rule from 1910 to 1945, this belief in the uniqueness of a Korean minjok gave an impetus for resisting the Imperial Japanese's forced assimilation policies and historical scholarship.[20]

In contrast to Japan and Germany, where such race-based conceptions of the nation were officially discarded after World War II because they were un-flatteringly associated with ultranationalism or Nazism,[21] postwar North and South Korea continued to proclaim the ethnic homogeneity and pure bloodline of the "Great Han race".[17][22] In the 1960s, President Park Chung-hee strengthened this "ideology of racial purity" to legitimize his authoritarian rule,[23] while in North Korea official propaganda has portrayed Koreans as "the cleanest race."[17][18][24] Contemporary South Korean historians continue to write about the nation's "unique racial and cultural heritage" in flattering terms.[25] This shared conception of a racially defined Korea continues to shape modern Korean politics and foreign relations,[22] gives Koreans an impetus to nationalistic pride,[26] and feeds hopes for the reunification of the two Koreas.[27]

Despite statistics showing that South Korea is becoming an increasingly multi-ethnic society,[28] most of the South Korean population continues to identify itself as "one people" (Korean: 단일민족; Hanja: 單一民族, danil minjok) joined by a common "bloodline".[29] A renewed emphasis on the purity of Korean "blood"[30] has caused tensions, leading to renewed debates on multi-ethnicity, racism, and xenophobia both in South Korea and abroad.[28] Even the United Nations has expressed concern over the matter.[31]


Early usage and origins

Contrary to popular belief in modern Korea, the ideology of an ever-present Korean "purest race" began only in the early twentieth century, when the Imperial Japanese annexed the Korean Peninsula[17] and launched a campaign to persuade Koreans that they were of the same pure racial stock as the Imperial Japanese themselves.[18]

In the colonial period, the Imperial Japanese's assimilation policy claimed that Koreans and Japanese were of common origin but the former always subordinate. The pure blood 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.[22] The policy included changing Korean names into Japanese, exclusive use of Japanese language, school instruction in the Japanese ethical system, and Shinto worship.[22] Brian Reynolds Myers argues that seeing the failure of the pure assimilationist policy, Japanese imperial ideologues changed their policy into creating a Korean ethnic-patriotism on par with the Japanese one. They encouraged Koreans to take pride in their Koreanness, in their history, heritage, culture and "dialect" as a brother nation going back to a common ancestry with the Japanese. Thus, Korean nationalism can be seen as a deliberate and direct creation of the Japanese empire.[17]


Heaven Lake of Baekdu Mountain where Hwan Woong (환웅; 桓雄), Dangun's father, is said to have descended from heaven, serves as a foundation for the myth of "blood purity" commonly believed by Koreans.

Shin Chaeho (1880–1936), the founder of the nationalistic historiography of modern Korea and a Korean independence movement activist, published his influential book of reconstructed history Joseon Sanggosa (The Early History of Joseon) in 1924–25, proclaiming that Koreans are descendants of Dangun, the legendary ancestor of Korean people, who merged with Buyo of Manchuria to form the Goguryeo people.[32]

Borrowing from the Imperial Japanese theory of nationalism and racism,[32] Shin Chaeho located the martial roots of the Korean in Goguryeo,[32] which he depicted as militarist, expansionist which turned out to inspire pride and confidence in the resistance against the Japanese.[32] In order to establish Korean uniqueness, he also replaced the story of Gija Joseon, whose founder (Gija) was the paternal uncle or brother of the Chinese Shang emperor Zhou, with the Dangun legend[33] and asserted that it was an important way to establish Korea’s uniqueness.[32]

After the independence in the late 1940s, despite the split between North and South Korea, neither side disputed the ethnic homogeneity of the Korean nation based on a firm conviction that they are purest descendant of a legendary genitor and half-god figure called Dangun who founded Gojoseon in 2333 BCE based on the description of the Dongguk Tonggam (1485).[22][34]


Throughout the Korean Peninsula, the "pure blood theory" is widely accepted as legitimate, and is a commonly held belief among the populace, often being justified as "defensive nationalism".[35] The debates on this topic can be found sporadic in the South, whereas the public opinion in the North is hard to access. In a nationalistic view, to impugn and challenge the legitimacy of the theory would have been tantamount to being a "race traitor", betraying Koreanness in the face of the challenge of an alien ethnic nation.[22]

Some Korean scholars observed that the pure blood theory served as a useful tool for the South Korean government to make its people obedient and easy to govern when the country was embroiled in ideological turmoil.[35] It was especially true in the dictatorial leaderships by former presidents Syngman Rhee and Park Chung-hee when nationalism was incorporated into anti-Communism.[35]

After the North Korean military sank a South Korean naval ship in 2010, there was relatively little outrage over the incident in South Korea.[36] According to Brian Reynolds Myers, a professor at Dongseo University, this was due to the racialized nature of Korean nationalism, which prevented any major uproar over the incident in South Korea due to the concept of racial solidarity with the North Koreans that many South Koreans feel.[36] In a New York Times editorial over the incident, Myers contrasted the racialized nature of South Korean nationalism with the civic nature of American nationalism, stating that South Korea's antipathy over attacks by North Korea was potentially dangerous to the national security of South Korea.[36] He stated that:

South Korean nationalism is something quite different from the patriotism toward the state that Americans feel. Identification with the Korean race is strong, while that with the Republic of Korea is weak.

— Brian Reynolds Myers, "South Korea's Collective Shrug" (27 May 2010)

The ideology also helps to maintain a strongly held conviction amongst many Koreans, which posits that both South and North Koreans are all brothers and sisters of the same blood-family and reunification is the ultimate goal.

Until 2007, the South Korean pledge of allegiance was to the Korean race, rather than to the country of South Korea.[1][3][4][37]

Until 2010, South Korean soldiers swore allegiance to the Korean race in their oaths of enlistment.[1][2][3]

Contemporary social issues

Xenophobia and racism

American football player Hines Ward's visit to South Korea has stirred debate if the country's society should be more accepting of "mixed blood" people.

In South Korea, the notion of "pure blood" often results in discrimination toward people of both "foreign-blood" and "mixed blood".[28] Those with this "mixed blood" or "foreign blood" are sometimes referred to as Honhyul (혼혈) in South Korea.[38]

According to 2009 statistics published by South Korean Ministry of Health and Welfare, there were 144,385 couples of international marriage in South Korea as of May 2008. 88.4% of immigrants were female, and 61.9% were from China.[39] Recently[when?] it has been argued that South Korean society had already become a multicultural society. As of 2011, 10 ministries and agencies of South Korean government are supporting international couples and foreign workers in South Korea toward the cultural plurality.[40]

In 2006, American football player Hines Ward, who was born in Seoul to a South Korean mother and a black American father, became the first South Korean-born American to win the NFL Super Bowl's MVP award. This achievement threw him into the media spotlight in South Korea.[41] When he travelled to South Korea for the first time, he raised unprecedented attention to the acceptance of "mixed-blood" children. He also donated US$1 million to establish the "Hines Ward Helping Hands Foundation", which the media called "a foundation to help mixed-race children like himself in South Korea, where they have suffered discrimination."[42]

However, while some South Koreans are fascinated by the bi-racial sportsman, the majority of ordinary mixed-race people and migrant workers face various forms of discrimination and prejudice.[28] In 2007, the "Korean pure blood theory" became an international issue when the U.N. Committee on the International Convention Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination urged better education on the pure blood theory is needed especially for judicial workers such as police officers, lawyers, prosecutors and judges.[43][44] The suggestion received mixed reception in South Korea in which some raised a concern that foreigners will invade the South Korean culture and challenge national sovereignty.[45] Others say that the embrace of polyethnicism will diminish chances of reunifying the Korean Peninsula.[45]

The South Korean nationality law is based on jus sanguinis[22][45] instead of jus solis, which is a territorial principle that takes into account the place of birth when bestowing nationality. In this context, most South Koreans have stronger attachment to South Koreans residing in foreign countries and foreigners of South Korean descent, than to naturalized South Korean citizens and expatriates residing in South Korea.[22][45]

In 2005, the opposition Grand National Party suggested a revision of the current South Korean nationality law to allow South Korean nationality to be bestowed to people who are born in South Korea regardless of the nationalities of their parents but it was discarded due to unfavorable public opinion against such a measure.[28]

Racism is heavily prevalent in South Korea and is thus an ongoing issue in the country, with a great deal of awareness. Hines Ward was granted "honorary" South Korean citizenship.[46] Tasha Reid (also known as Natasha Shanta Reid, Korean name is Yoon Mi-rae (Korean: 윤미래) is a famous mixed-race singer in South Korea.[47] Middle school access has been expanded to children of illegal immigrants.[48]

In 2007 the South Korean government passed the Act on Treatment of Foreigners.[49][50][51] Later in 2007, the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination praised the Act on Treatment of Foreigners, but also expressed a number of concerns. The Committee was concerned "about the persistence of widespread societal discrimination against foreigners, including migrant workers and children born from inter-ethnic unions, in all areas of life, including employment, marriage, housing, education and interpersonal relationships." It also noted that the terminology such as "pure blood" and "mixed blood" used in South Korea, including by the government, is widespread, and may reinforce concepts of racist superiority. The committee recommended improvement in the areas of treatment of migrant workers, abuse of and violence against foreign women married to South Korean citizens, and trafficking of foreign women for the purpose of sexual exploitation or domestic servitude.[52] It also noted that contrary to popular domestic perception, South Korea was no longer "ethnically homogenous".[53]

Another legislation aimed at improving the integration of ethnic minorities into South Korean society, the Support for Multicultural Families Act, was passed in 2008[54] (and revised in 2011).[51][55]

Existing provisions in South Korean criminal law may be used to punish acts of racist discrimination, but were never used for that purpose[52] until 2009, when the first case of a South Korean citizen verbally insulting a foreigner have been brought to court.[53]

North Korea is rumored to have abducted foreign women to marry to American men that defected to North Korea in order to keep these American men from having relationships with North Korean women. North Korea is accused of killing babies born to North Korean mothers and Chinese fathers.[56] In 2014, North Korea's Korean Central News Agency insulted U.S. President Barack Obama by using racist slurs.[24][57][58][59][60]

See also



  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 "New Pledge of Allegiance to Reflect Growing Multiculturalism". The Chosun Ilbo. South Korea. 18 April 2011. Archived from the original on April 20, 2011. Retrieved 20 April 2011. The military has decided to omit the word 'minjok,' which refers to the Korean race, from the oath of enlistment for officers and soldiers, and replace it with 'the citizen.' The measure reflects the growing number of foreigners who gain Korean citizenship and of children from mixed marriages entering military service.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Doolan, Yuri W. (June 2012). "Being Amerasian in South Korea: Purebloodness, Multiculturalism, and Living Alongside the U.S. Military Empire" (PDF). The Ohio State University. p. 63. Retrieved 3 March 2016.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 Kelly, Robert E. (4 June 2015). "Why South Korea is So Obsessed with Japan". Real Clear Defense.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. 4.0 4.1 Myers, Brian Reynolds (14 September 2010). "South Korea: The Unloved Republic?". Archived from the original on May 19, 2013. Retrieved 19 May 2013. South Korea's political right for decades neglected to instill any sense of pride in the Republic, because there was little to be proud of. Even the pledge of allegiance from 1972 is a pledge made to the homeland and the race, not to the Republic.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Gi-Wook Shin, Ethnic Nationalism in Korea: Genealogy, Politics, and Legacy (Stanford University Press, 2006), p. 223.
  6. Denney, Steven (February 2014). "Political Attitudes and National Identity in an Era of Strength and Prosperity" (PDF). A Primer on a New Nationalism in South Korea. Dominion of Canada: Department of Political Science of the University of Toronto. South Koreans do ascribe a relatively higher value to race than do other nations.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. Denney, Steven (1 April 2015). "Workers, Immigration, and Racialized Hierarchy". SinoNK. Archived from the original on January 3, 2016. Racism is as much, if not more, a problem in South Korea as it is in the United States.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. Kelly, Robert E. (24 May 2010). "Asian Multiculturalism: 5 Masters Theses to be Written". Asian Security Blog: International Relations of Asia. Northeast Asians, Chinese, Koreans, Japanese, strike me as quite nationalistic, and nationalism up here is still tied up in right-Hegelian, 19th century notions of blood and soil. In China, the Han race is the focus of the government's new-found, post-communist nationalism. In Korea, it is only the racial unity of minjeok that has helped keep Korea independent all these centuries. In Japan, the Yamato race is so important that even ethnic Koreans living there for generations can't get citizenship and there's no immigration despite a contracting population.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. Gi-wook Shin, Ethnic Nationalism in Korea: Genealogy, Politics, and Legacy (Stanford University Press, 2006), p. 2.
  10. Lee, Jin-seo (2016). North Korean Prison Camps. Radio Free Asia. p. 26. Retrieved 3 March 2016.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
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  12. Hurt, Michael W. (4 August 2015). "Thoughts on Minjok and the Matrix". Deconstructing Korea. Retrieved 3 March 2016.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. "What is Minjok?". Hojunester. WordPress. Retrieved 3 March 2016.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. Em, Henry H. (2013). The Great Enterprise: Sovereignty and Historiography in Modern Korea, Part 2. p. 77. As noted earlier, the word minjok (read as minzoku in Japanese) was a neologism created in Meiji Japan. When Korean (and Chinese and Japanese) nationalists wrote in English in the first half of the twentieth century, the English word they generally utilized for minjok was 'race.'<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. Choi, Hee-an (2015). A Postcolonial Self: Korean Immigrant Theology and Church. p. 24. The word minjok (민족,民族) translates as race.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  16. Andre Schmid, Korea Between Empires, 1895-1919 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), p. 174.
  17. 17.0 17.1 17.2 17.3 17.4 B.R. Myers, The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters (Melville House, 2010), ISBN 1-933633-91-3.
  18. 18.0 18.1 18.2 North Korea's official propaganda promotes idea of racial purity and moral superiority, UC Berkeley News, 19 February 2010.
  19. Sheila Miyoshi Jager, Narratives of Nation Building in Korea (2003), pp. 15-16; Andre Schmid, "Rediscovering Manchuria" (1997), p. 32.
  20. Pai, Hyung-il (2000). "Constructing "Korean" Origins: A Critical Review of Archaeology, Historiography, and Racial Myth in Korean State-Formation Theories". Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, distributed by Harvard University Press. p. 1. Missing or empty |url= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  21. Comparison with Japanese "ultranationalism": Andre Schmid, Korea Between Empires, 1895-1919 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), p. 277. Comparison with Germany and Nazism: Shin Gi-wook, Ethnic Nationalism in Korea: Genealogy, Politics, and Legacy (2006), p. 19.
  22. 22.0 22.1 22.2 22.3 22.4 22.5 22.6 22.7 Ethnic pride source of prejudice, discrimination, Gi-Wook Shin, Asia-Pacific Research Center of Stanford University, 2 August 2006
  23. Nadia Y. Kim, Imperial Citizens: Koreans and Race from Seoul to L.A. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008), p. 25.
  24. 24.0 24.1 Kirby, Michael Donald; Biserko, Sonja; Darusman, Marzuki (7 February 2014). "Report of the detailed findings of the commission of inquiry on human rights in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea - A/HRC/25/CRP.1". United Nations Human Rights Council. Archived from the original on Feb 27, 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  25. Hyung-il Pai, Constructing "Korean" Origins (2000), p. 6.
  26. Gi-wook Shin, Ethnic Nationalism in Korea: Genealogy, Politics, and Legacy (2006), pp. 1-3.
  27. Gi-wook Shin, Ethnic Nationalism in Korea: Genealogy, Politics, and Legacy, chapter 10: "Ethnic Identity and National Unification" (pp. 185-203).
  28. 28.0 28.1 28.2 28.3 28.4 Park, Chung-a (August 14, 2006). "Myth of Pure-Blood Nationalism Blocks Multi-Ethnic Society". The Korea Times. Archived from the original on July 25, 2011. Retrieved July 25, 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  29. Pai, Hyung Il (2000). Constructing "Korean" origins: a critical review of archaeology, historiography, and racial myth in Korean state-formation theories. Harvard University Asia Center. p. 256. ISBN 0-674-00244-X. The idea of racial unity and continuity is embodied in the concept of tanil minjok (pure race), which holds that all Koreans have successfully maintained their "Korean-ness" by fighting off foreign invaders since the formation of the nation in prehistoric times.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  30. Kim, Nadia Y. (2008). Imperial citizens: Koreans and race from Seoul to LA. Stanford University Press. p. 24. ISBN 0-8047-5887-5. Koreans' beloved trope of tanil minjok—'the single ethnic nation'— would soon come into its own (see Shin 1998). The centrality of blood has been revived in more current times as well.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  31. "UN panel faults Korean emphasis on homogeneity". Joongang Daily.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  32. 32.0 32.1 32.2 32.3 32.4 The Koguryo Controversy, National Identity, and Sino-Korean Relations Today [1], Peter Hays Gries, Institute for US-China Issues, The University of Oklahoma
  33. Andre Schmid, "Rediscovering Manchuria: Som Cj’aeho and the Politics of Territorial History in Korea," in The Journal of Asian Studies, 56, no. 1 February 1997
  34. Old Choson and the Culture of the Mandolin-shaped Bronze Dagger, Kim Jung-bae
  35. 35.0 35.1 35.2 Kim Sok-soo, professor at Kyungpook National University, cited in Park Chung-a, "Myth of Pure-Blood Nationalism Blocks Multi-Ethnic Society," The Korea Times, August 14, 2006.
  36. 36.0 36.1 36.2 36.3 Myers, Brian Reynolds (27 May 2010). "South Korea's Collective Shrug". The New York Times. New York: The New York Times Company. Archived from the original on April 19, 2015. Retrieved April 19, 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
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Further reading

External links

  • Hazzan, Dave (February 11, 2014). "Korea's Black Racism Epidemic". Groove Korea. Retrieved June 7, 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>