By Nicholas Ganghyun Kim
Sophomore (Grade 10) at Seoul Foreign High School, located in Seoul, South Korea
I was balancing myself on the subway, right hand clutching a phone, left hand holding onto an overhead handle, when I heard two boys around my age speaking in English, standing just a few meters away from my right. Sitting in front of them was an elderly lady, obscurely observing the two foreign language-speaking boys (although she probably did not understand what they were saying) with an aura of discontent. Then the lady asked one of the boys whether he was Korean and whether he spoke the language. He stuttered “yes” and answered her in such an uncomfortable tone that it surely revealed he was not of native tongue. At that point, what caused me to turn my head was the lady making a remark that went something like:
“shouldn’t a Korean be able to speak Korean?”
Fortunately, I had to get off the next station, and that prevented me from making my own remarks back to the lady. Of course, it was natural for me, as an international student, to be disgusted by such a narrow-minded statement. Yet, after some time, I realized that while the English-speaking boys and I were probably used to foreign languages and a mix of culture and identity, the lady was assumingly not, noting from her reaction. Perhaps Koreans, who grew up accustomed to only the culture of Korea, especially of the senior population, had different views on the ideas of being a Korean. What exactly contributed to the national identity?
According to a BBC poll conducted in 2016, 52% of the total voters around the world stated that the most important defining criteria of self identity of a nation is national citizenship. Being a world citizen comes second, as responded by 17% of the participants. Involved in the local community came third with 11%, religious tradition fourth with 9%, and race of culture last with 8% of the total votes. Interestingly, 41% of South Korean voters picked national citizenship. In contrast, 17% believed it was about local community, and up to 23% of the voters expressed that it is about race and culture over all else. These statistics show that Koreans, compared to the rest of the world, put a strong emphasis on one’s race, culture, and community when considering one as a national citizen. Therefore, most Koreans would consider ‘Korea’ from such a standpoint rather than from political borders and physical landmarks. In the same way, Korean nationalism would contain values of sharing race, cultures, and a sense of community with others.
Now, this kind of belief has caused the previously mentioned lady to think in such an outmoded way, totally unfit for a globalized society where individuals are constantly moving back and forth across borders and cultures are exchanged at an increasingly rapid pace. In this sense, nationalism ultimately poses as a hindrance to Korea, a rapidly developing and globalizing nation, through forms of exclusions and limits on who is a Korean and who is not. It is no wonder then that Korea, albeit its position as one of the most developed nations in the world, is not as progressive when it comes to social issues. Racism abounds and xenophobia remains the norm. At the same time, Korea remains in existence today mostly due to its fervent nationalism.
The Korean culture and society is an interesting one. Any individual who has lived in Korea and mingled with the people for quite some time is aware of the strong mentality the Koreans possess. Koreans have a strong belief in solidarity, defined as the “unity” of a group of people with “shared interests, objectives, and standards” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). It is this belief in the unification of one ethnicity or of one minjok [Korean: 민족], meaning ‘people’, that has assisted the Koreans in battling through the many hardships and invasions the peninsula faced in the entirety of Korean history. One prominent example is during the period of Japanese colonial rule of the Korean peninsula. The whole nation of Korea was united as one against the invaders, not losing grip of the hope of a freed country for thirty-five years of occupation. The Koreans had lost their land, but Korea still continued to exist. Most Koreans were entrapped within Korea, but rebels dispersed across the world, including Manchuria, Russia, and America, and did not cease to lose hope of returning back to a free Korean land. The Korean identity persisted even though Japan systematically attempted to wipe out Korean culture through Japanese education and name changes. While in today’s world the old lady’s narrow view of race in defining nationality seems backwards, it is also the same reason that national borders did not matter as much to Koreans during these times of great despair. Koreans all across the world shared an idea of Korea that fueled the rebellion for years and years.
This belief is also one of the leading incentives for the unification of Korea. In history, the peninsula of Korea has been unified under one nation from the early 10th century to the northern and southern division in 1945, excluding one change of dynasty, and some of that feat can be credited to the belief the people had that the nation must be one in order to be strong.
“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, and lifestyle” (Globalsecurity).
Due to such a belief, South Koreans, despite the differences and distances the North and South Koreans now have between them, still consider their Northern brothers as Koreans, raising hopes of a future unification.
We know how nationalism assisted Korea in the past. How about the present? Today, all Koreans born to any parent with a Korean citizenship receives Korean citizenship, whether they can speak Korean and have lived in Korea or not. This can be seen as a remaining belief of the Korea decades prior, which believed in a united Korean community regardless of changes in borders and politics. South Korea is a globalized nation. Being the home of massive tech and digital products industries as well as modern arts and entertainment, there are plenty of visitors, tourists, and residents from the rest of the world. Meanwhile, Korean nationalism still exists barefaced in this fast-paced, globalized, developed nation. As Korean history has proven to us, Korean nationalism is an indispensable part of ‘Korea’. Not of the Korea that has split into two, not of the Korea that is currently struggling with a corrupt presidency and an incapable government, but the ethnic, cultural, communal Korea where the pride of the Korean people is directed to. In the present state, this is the reasoning towards the fact that the Koreans identify with the Korean ethnicity so strongly “while that with the Republic of Korea is weak” (The New York Times, Brian Reynolds Myers).
Having lived in this nation for practically all my life, all of these beliefs make sense to me. At the same time, I have been exposed to international issues and ideas at school and during my travels, and of American values that differ from the Korean values I have learnt from experience. From this, the one thing I can say with absolute certainty is that Korean nationalism is quite odd. It is an ethnic nationalism [Korean: 민족주의] unlike that of America, where nationalism pertains to the political nation. From this, I see no problem. It is true that some of the Koreans, mainly of the older generations, have a strong sense of xenophobia, and we must understand. After all, they are the ones who have suffered through all the wars, invasions, and colonialism. Yet, legal foreigners are not mistreated, globalization is apparent, and the people of Korea have become more and more open to modern ideals by the generation. Is this not evidence of a coexistence of nationalism and globalization?
In the end, there is something that we ought to take from the example of Korean nationalism. Nationalism can indeed exist along with globalization, without causing a hindrance. Yet nationalism is a complex term that we must carefully deal with. Differences kinds of nations will inevitably have different results to the effects of nationalism. Nevertheless, the fact that Korea has existed and still exists, with the apparent force of nationalism, is proof that we can still be optimistic about a future world with ideals of nationalism.
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