Languages of Security in the Asia-Pacific

College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University

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South Korean – Minjok

May 27th, 2011 · No Comments · Korean (South), Nation

민족    (民族)


Relates to nation

The concept of ‘nation’ (민족 (民族) minjok) is new in Korean. The term was first used only around 1905 and is a loanword from the Japanese word ‘minzoku’.

However, the Korean perception of the term is somewhat different from the understanding of the English ‘nation’. In the case of Korea, a special emphasis is given to the perceived racial qualities of the nation. This partially reflects the fact that the term was borrowed from Japan in the colonial era when all kinds of racial thinking were much in vogue as a consequence of European (especially German) influence. Yi Kwang-su (1892-1951), probably the most prominent Korean intellectual of the colonial period, once claimed that ‘hyǒlt’ong” (혈통 / 血統 bloodline)’, ‘sŏnggyŏk’ (성격 / 性格 character), and ‘munhwa’ (문화 / 文化 culture) are the three major elements of the nation. He said, “Koreans are without doubt a unitary nation (tanil han minjok) in blood and culture.” (cited by Shin Ki-wook, Korean Herald, 2 August 2006). Similar views were expressed by Yi Kwang-su’s opponents, many of whom eventually played major roles in founding the South Korea state in the late 1940s.

The emphasis on racial unity survived until recently. For example, textbooks on ‘ethics’, a high school subject related to social studies, explicitly refer to “bloodline” as a major property of a nation, and the same idea is emphasized by the officially approved materials for teachers. Numerous books not only stress that Koreans share the same “bloodline”, but also emphasize that this bloodline is ‘pure’ (순수 / 純粹). Korea is routinely described as a mono-ethnic state, ‘tanil minjok (단일민족 / 單一民族)’, with clearly positive connotations of homogeneity and national purity. Such propaganda was an important part of indoctrination at the time of independence in 1945, and its traces still can be found in the school textbooks and everyday discourse. As a Korean journalist wrote, “we have been told since childhood that ours is a proud country which successfully preserved the purity of the nation’s bloodlines for 5000 years, and that we are different from other countries populated by people of different bloodlines who do not even know their origins”. (Kyǒnghyang sinmun, 15 September 1996)

From the mid-1990s, however, there has been an increasing unease about the association between the Korean ‘nation’ (minjok) and the Korean ‘race’ (injong). During this period there was much concern about the purity of ‘race’ (injong), with some people (especially younger people on the left) began to question the link between ‘minjok’ and race. Today there is greater unease driven by the explosive growth of mixed marriages in recent decade, as well as by the arrival of foreign workers who nowadays number 700,000. The campaign against the racialized understanding of ‘nation’ continues to be actively waged by the Korean Left, and the need for change is widely acknowledged in the intellectual community across a broad political spectrum. A consequence of the changing concept of the ‘nation’ is the new perception of North Korea. The close identification of ‘nation’ and ‘race’ makes it difficult to conceptualise a separate North Korean state; nonetheless, the practical reality of the existence of such a state is increasingly recognized by the South Korean authorities and people. South Korea conducts relations with the North as if it is a separate state, and this approach is almost universally shared by Koreans, though some linguistic gymnastics are still required to stress that North Korea is not quite a state like any other.

Since the word ‘minjok’ has had such strong racial connotations, few people in Korea would doubt that the populations of both Korean states could ultimately be identified with a single nation (minjok). For this reason it is difficult to argue against unification as a supreme political goal. This observation is strengthened by the fact that a similar race-based approach to the definition of ‘nation’, but in more aggressive and blatant from, exists in North Korea as well.

In considering the idea of ‘nation’ it should be noted that the term used for the South Korean nation differs from the term applied to North Korea. In South Korea, the term is ‘Hanguk minjok’, which began to be used as the official name for Korea in the late 19th century, but was not recognised by the Japanese colonial rulers. The Japanese used an earlier term ‘chosun’, which has the literal meaning ‘country of morning calm’. The North Koreans continue to use ‘Chosun’. When the whole of Korea is referred to – and there is a desire to sound neutral – both North and South Koreans use the English term, ‘Ko-ri-a’. When Southerners use the term ‘Hanguk’ for their country, this implies a sense of superiority, that South Korea represents the independent heartland of the true Korean nation, and the suggestion that North Korea is just a part of Korea occupied by anti-government cliques. That is to say, South Korea is implied to be not merely superior but the only Korea.

In the South, it should be stressed, the North Korean state is not officially recognised as existing. It is seen as a part of the Republic of Korea (대한민국 taehan min guk) and tends to be portrayed as being a group of anti-government people, which happen to have assumed power. There is a similarity here to the way China views Taiwan, or North Vietnam once viewed the South. In terms of the territorial definition of South Korea, or ‘han min guk’, the map image that is influential in the South includes the entire Korean peninsula.

Having made these points about the conceptual denigration of North Korea, however, it should be stressed that for a relatively small group in the South – largely young or middle-aged, well-educated nationalists – North Korea is seen as the embodiment of a pure national spirit. It attracts respect as a country, which does not bow to anybody and has kept itself pure or unspoilt with respect to foreign influences. In certain circumstances, it is possible to imagine this Southern group having significant influence.

One consequence of the long-held race-based understanding of ‘minjok’ concerns the overseas Koreans – the Korean diaspora. These overseas Koreans, including the large community in the United States, are certainly considered to be a part of the Korean nation.  Also, the concern for all people of Korean blood – in a sense, as members of the minjok – means that an attack by a foreign power on North Korea would cause great anxiety in the South. Similarly, in the debates between South Korea and Japan over the Tokdo/Takeshima islands, the South Koreans receive much support from the North.

U ri min jok’ or ‘u ri na ra’ means ‘my nation’ – sometimes ‘u ri’ is used alone to imply ‘Korean’. In vending machines a type of tea might be advertised as ‘u ri cha’ –  meaning ‘my tea’ – and thus local, Korean tea. The term ‘u ri’ alludes more to ‘nation’ than ‘race’ and is used in a way that does not extend beyond the demilitarised zone to encompass the North. Although a map of the entire Korean peninsula is imprinted on the South Koreans’ brain, when asking a person where they come from it becomes clear that they believe Korea refers to only the South. There is no way to articulate ‘my nation’ without revealing one’s political affiliation to the South. This reflects the increasing perception of South Korea as the only Korea that matters and the North as an external threat.

Korean nationalism is essentially ethnic nationalism. On one level everyone with Korean blood is a Korean person and there is a concern for the security of all blood Koreans, even those that lives outside North and South Korea. For instance, the term ‘교포 (kyop’o)’, which means  ‘Korean’, but a Korean who is born and raised abroad; this implies that once someone is Korean they are always Korean due to their Korean blood. It is expected that if a person has Korean blood, they should have loyalty to the South Korean state, and when South Koreans discover instances when this is not the case, it is considered an outrage. The term, ‘kyop’o’ reflects an effort to be more inclusive when defining the Korean people. Although the main focus remains the Korean unit in South Korea, ‘kyop’o’ reaches out like ‘tentacles’ to North Koreans and the Korean diaspora due to their Korean blood. When South Koreans talk about security, they tend to have in mind the security of ‘Hanguk’ (South Korea). But an attack on North Korea would certainly be viewed with much anxiety – even if carried out by South Korea’s ally, the United States.



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