Yongusil 72: The End of Ethnic Nationalism? A Review

By and | August 10, 2015 | No Comments

For some people, nationalism is a dirty word. “A reactionary philosophy masquerading as progressive,” writes Tony Blair dismissively. However, in scholarly terms nationalism actually describes the cohesive glue of all the national societies that populate the globe in today’s era of nations and nationalism (including the British union, which counts Blair as a supportive member). “A political principle, which holds that the political and the national unit should be congruent,” is how Ernest Gellner defined it many years ago. For better or worse, this is still the way of the world. A violation of Gellner’s principle may arouse anger or profound loss, whereas its fulfillment can lead to feelings of completeness, spurring the writings of national anthems and national histories that reify and reinforce the nation.

But not all nationalisms are the same. There are two predominant types: ethnic and civic, which stake out differing approaches to the question of who is or can be part of the national unit.1)David Brown, in Contemporary Nationalism: Civic, Ethnocultural & Multicultural Politics, offers a concise but sufficient explanation of the origins of both types of nationalism. See, esp., chapters three and four. Ethnic nationalism defines the national community on ethnic lines, emphasizing common lineage, language, religion, and physical appearance. One is born a member, not made. On the other hand, civic nationalism defines the nation by, via David Brown, “the belief that residence in a common territorial homeland, and commitment to its state and civil society institutions, generate a distinctive national character and civic culture, such that all citizens, irrespective of the diverse ancestry, comprise a community in progress with a common destiny.” One can be made a member, and is not necessarily born as one. The two types are not mutually exclusive, and although civic is generally inclusive and ethnic tends toward exclusivity, both types portend to transcend class and gender (whether they actually do this is another matter).

South Korea is a nation defined by ethnicity—the minjok. Henry Em’s “’Minjok’ as a Modern and Democratic Construct: Sin Ch’aeho’s Historiography” and Andre Schmid’s Korea Between Empires are two works, among several, that pinpoint and contextualize the origins of the concept and thus of Korea’s modern, nationalist origin.2)The Wiki “Korean nationalist historiography,” which includes the work of Schmid and Em, is surprisingly good and an excellent bibliographic source. A (modern) nation borne of Japanese imperialism, the notion of a common ancestry uniting the people over time proved quite useful for generating a sense of “Koreaness,” theretofore not a thing. (Were there any “Koreans” in the sense we understand it today in pre-modern Korea?) A concept of common ethnicity helps people unite against non-ethnic “others,” specifically colonial oppressors or neo-colonial occupiers. Indeed, the notion that all Koreans are part of an ancient race, that is, an ancient nation, is the bedrock upon which (re)unification discourse has long been built.3)Shin Gi-wook discusses the relationship between ethnic nationalism and unification in Ethnic Nationalism in Korea: Genealogy, Politics, and Legacy, Ch. 10, “Ethnic Identity and National Unification.” Accordingly, the Korean nation was divided against its will; this is a grave violation of the nationalist principle of congruence and one that must and will be corrected.

No longer, it seems.

In the latest paper to be published on the matter, Emma Campbell argues in Nations and Nationalism (June 2015 edition) that ethnicity no long carries much weight with young Korean adults in determining what it means to be Korean and who can be a part of the national fabric. In “The end of ethnic nationalism? Changing conceptions of national identity and belonging among young South Koreans,” she contends that a new South Korean national identity has emerged. She claims that, as reflected in the attitudes of her subjects (interviews with 150 university students, some in Korean and others in English), young South Koreans feel little to no sense of (national) community with other ethnic Koreans because of a shared ethnicity. Unification no longer enjoys the support it once did among South Korean youth and no longer is the national community restricted to people of Korean ethnic decent; times have changed and South Korean nationalism has evolved. One might immediately think that this represents a shift from ethnic nationalism to a more civic variant. Campbell thinks not; for her, it is neither.

South Korea’s Evolving Nationalism: Towards a New Type? | The answer Campbell offers is a new “type” of nationalism. Though a complex and inherently non-homogenous thing, “one current characteristic of [South Korea’s] evolving nationalism is a globalised cultural element that reflects shared cultural values including modernity, cosmopolitanism and status among the young.” This means taking pride in South Korea’s economic achievements (modernity); placing a premium on sophistication, education, international experience, and the like (cosmopolitanism); and being mindful and respectful of the importance of national standing “as well as [Koreans’] individual and family economic and social status” (status). What this means, more generally, Campbell explains:

The characteristics of South Korean globalised cultural nationalism… reflect the opportunities provided by relatively wealthy and developed nations. Those opportunities include access to education, travel and technology, those same advantages readily available to young people who have grown up in contemporary South Korea.

The consequence of a globalised cultural nationalism de-linked from ethnicity is, for Campbell, quite clear:

Thus, immigrants from countries of comparable economic status to Korea have the potential to be welcomed into such a nation. For other arrivals to South Korea who have not lived in the same sort of enabling environment – especially those ethnic and non-ethnic Koreans arriving from the North, China or other developing nations – it will be much harder to acquire and demonstrate the manifestations of this emerging South Korean nationalism.

Campbell presents a snippet of her findings based on the 150 interviews she conducted from her fieldwork in South Korea between the years of 2009 and 2014, choosing what she sees as representing the attitudes of her interviewees and, by extension, Korean youth writ large.4) More information on her interviews, including the interview questionnaire and demographic information on some interviewees, can be found in her 2011 PhD thesis, “Uri nara, our nation: Unification, identity and the emergence of a new nationalism amongst South Korean young people.” The article reviewed here is derived from the thesis, written at the Australian National University. This is a problematic assumption (addressed in detail below), but Campbell’s interview findings are nevertheless not to be taken lightly. Change is indeed afoot. Consider the following quotes from the paper:

They can completely become Korean. I live in the countryside where there are many people married to women from the Philippines, Vietnam. (Interview in Korean, Gyeongnam National University, 31 May 2010).

[Joseonjok] are a bit similar to North Koreans. We have the same ancestors but I don’t feel that they are my people. (Interview in Korean, Sookmyung Women’s University, 21 April 2010).

Yes I think that Gyopo [Korean-Americans], Southeast Asians, [and] Westerners can become South Korean if they want to. Except Joseonjok. In my opinion I don’t like the Joseonjok. They have some social problems. Except the Joseonjok, any kind of people who want to be Korean are okay. (Interview in English, Dongguk University, 23 April 2011).

These quotes seem to suggest that, at least for young South Koreans, race is not nearly as important as other characteristics that define national community membership. For Campbell, the hierarchy revealed is one that approximates “hierarchical nationhood” (a concept coined by Seol and Skretny in a 2009 Ethnicities article to explain the racial hierarchy in South Korea) but without the racial associations.5)Seol and Skretny show how, socially and legally, a certain racial hierarchy is maintained, with Korean-Americans at the top and recent ethnic migrants, like North Korean defectors, at the bottom.

For Campbell, this “could just as easily represent the new globalized cultural nationalism. When seen as a league table for acceptance, it correlates strongly with the perceptions of young people about particular ethnic Korean groupings and their similarity to the globalized cultural norms of modernity, cosmopolitanism, and status.” It is a compelling argument and explains why Korean-Americans (who are relatively wealthy, often at least bi-lingual, and from a developed country) might find it easier to be accepted into society over, say, North Korean defectors (who are relatively poor(er), speak Korean with a northern Korea accent, and are from an underdeveloped country).

That ethnicity has been de-linked from national identity is simple enough to uncover, and has been done so by a handful of others already, but explaining how, exactly, globalization has changed the idea of what it means to be “Korean” is a whole other thing. Campbell specifies that she is deliberately avoiding an explanation of “how” for reasons of space. We might expect this task to be taken up in her forthcoming book, South Korea’s New Nationalism: The End of “One Korea”?, where she presumably explores her thesis in greater detail, including a deep dive into the causal mechanism of change: globalization.

Methodology Matters | Overall, Campbell presents a challenging thesis worthy of consideration. There are some eye-catching quotes (such as those above) and an interesting consideration of how globalization can affect nations and nationalism(s). There are, however, a few seemingly rather important methodological concerns and one conceptual thorn in the side left unaddressed.

The first methodological concern relates to representativeness. Campbell claims that because 78 percent of young people in South Korea go to university, interviewing university students represents the median view of 20-something-year-olds. This is problematic for the simple reason that there are a great many young people going to university in South Korea who probably should not be–this is the nature of South Korean higher education, as it is American and British. The variation between universities of various standards (within and without Seoul, “national” universities and private variants, etc.) is so large in some cases as to question the logic of her assumption–which assumes a homogeneity that clearly does not exist–in its entirety. It does not help that the editors of Nations and Nationalism did not oblige Campbell to include an interview table with a breakdown of all her interviewees by school/region, age, etc. We are told that “this paper relies primarily on interviews with 150 students recorded between 2009 and 2014,” but are left entirely in the dark after that (beyond that which we are able to glean from quotes in the main text).

One might be willing to forgive this omission if Campbell was a little more forthright with the limitations of her research design. 150 students is not a small amount, but she passes the findings off as representative of South Korean youth writ large. There are, of course, all sorts of limitations to conducting fieldwork: time, energy, finances, etc. Making compromises is simply part of the game. One might only wish that Campbell had addressed this particular concern head on.

The second methodological discomfort stems from the relatively uncritical treatment she gives her interview findings. There is practically no consideration of the impact that Campbell–a white female Australian university scholar (ergo axiomatically cosmopolitan)–has upon her interviewees. There is an inherent power dynamic involved in any interaction, not least when such interactions are between a white foreigner and a status-conscious Korean. This is an uncomfortable fact for many, but one that must at least be acknowledged.

Further, little consideration is given to the structural positions of the young interviewees within South Korean society and how that might be affecting the answers. Consider this quote:

I was amazed when I talk to elementary students today, it doesn’t matter what [the non-Korean national] look[s] like, black or white, if they can communicate with them they see them as a fellow citizen. It doesn’t matter who the person’s mother is. It just matters that it’s the person’s friend. They are more open. So you see some older generations wondering why someone is dating someone who is foreign but that idea is fading away and maturing as the younger generation grows and they will have kids. And by the time teenagers become [adults] . . . the idea of ‘foreigner’ will dissipate a lot more. (Interview in English, Yonsei University, 29 April 2010).

The interviewee’s prognostication about the future of South Korean attitudes towards “foreigners” may very well be true, but the fact that the answer was given in English by a Yonsei University student says as much about the “globalised cultural” attitude of those attending one of the most elite and self-consciously cosmopolitan of all South Korean universities. Indeed, it does not surprise us (accumulatively, the authors have spent well over a decade living, working, and studying in the country, primarily in Seoul) to hear the answer. Not because such an attitude is prevalent among all young adults across the country–quite the opposite–but because it is prevalent at Yonsei University, and among South Korea’s political and economic elite. More honest qualification of the data accrued would have left less space for accusations of overreach.

Lastly, a conceptual quibble. Campbell’s claim is that she has located a new “type” of nationalism. There are a lot of interesting things about this argument. Her culling of the “hierarchical nation” based on ethnicity in favor of a form of globalised nationalism is engaging. However, one might not be ready to accept that “globalised cultural nationalism” is a category in its own right. Is not what Campbell describing simply an exclusive kind of civic nationalism?

Remember, a national community defined by civic nationalism holds “the belief that residence in a common territorial homeland, and commitment to its state and civil society institutions, generate a distinctive national character and civic culture, such that all citizens, irrespective of the diverse ancestry, comprise a community in progress with a common destiny.” This is an ideal, of course, but as a definition it seems to capture the elements of Campbell’s “new” nationalism rather well. Would it not have been better for her to have simply rolled her stipulated values into the developed concept of civic nationalism and then work from there? If it truly is a new type of nationalism that we are seeing develop in South Korea, as Campbell maintains, then there will need to be a much more precise and in-depth discussion of what this means.

Herein there lies an unexplored critique of civic nationalism as being inclusive and relatively open (i.e., it often is not anything of the sort). Perhaps Campbell is right that a new type has emerged. This is possible, but she (or someone else) will have to make that case more forcibly than in this article. Moreover, some may find Campbell’s treatment of shared cultural values (modernity, cosmopolitanism, and status) too abstract or ill defined for comfort. Space may have been a constraint on what Campbell could or could not expound upon, so that much should be taken into consideration. However, the thrust of this article takes us to yet fertile ground, leaving one to wonder whether we should even be there in the first place.

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1. David Brown, in Contemporary Nationalism: Civic, Ethnocultural & Multicultural Politics, offers a concise but sufficient explanation of the origins of both types of nationalism. See, esp., chapters three and four.
2. The Wiki “Korean nationalist historiography,” which includes the work of Schmid and Em, is surprisingly good and an excellent bibliographic source.
3. Shin Gi-wook discusses the relationship between ethnic nationalism and unification in Ethnic Nationalism in Korea: Genealogy, Politics, and Legacy, Ch. 10, “Ethnic Identity and National Unification.”
4. More information on her interviews, including the interview questionnaire and demographic information on some interviewees, can be found in her 2011 PhD thesis, “Uri nara, our nation: Unification, identity and the emergence of a new nationalism amongst South Korean young people.” The article reviewed here is derived from the thesis, written at the Australian National University.
5. Seol and Skretny show how, socially and legally, a certain racial hierarchy is maintained, with Korean-Americans at the top and recent ethnic migrants, like North Korean defectors, at the bottom.