Rationalizing Identity Change: An Interview with Emma Campbell

By | September 07, 2015 | No Comments

The preconditions for "Koreanness," much like the preconditions for citizenship, are constantly changing. | Image: Steven Denney/Sino-NK

The preconditions for “Koreanness,” much like the preconditions for citizenship, are constantly changing. | Image: Steven Denney/Sino-NK

There is a clear link between the rise of South Korea’s “seven-give-up generation” (7포세대) – a media construct to be sure, but a meaningful one – and changing views of North Korea among the country’s youth. Just as precariously employed young Brits appear reluctant to accept high levels of immigration from Europe and beyond, it is surely no surprise that young South Koreans facing a ruthlessly competitive labor market would lose sight of the imperative for unification. Some have even turned against the very concept itself. Faced with a perceived possibility of 24 million additional job seekers on the peninsula, a large number of Korean youth seem to be saying, “Let’s give it a miss.”

To further explore this quasi-rational change of opinion, managing editor Steven Denney interviewed Dr. Emma Campbell, author of “The end of ethnic nationalism? Changing conceptions of national identity and belonging among young South Koreans” and a forthcoming book from Routledge, South Korea’s New Nationalism: The End of “One Korea”? — Christopher Green, Co-Editor

Rationalizing Identity Change: An Interview with Emma Campbell

by Steven Denney

The social consequences of major structural changes in South Korea over the last two decades – rising wages, thinning profit margins, and labor market deregulations – are showing themselves. Recent social scientific and ethnographic work on South Korean nationalism and national identity points to significant changes and variations. Popular support for unification is dropping, driven by increasingly indifferent attitudes among the country’s young, and ethnocultural nationalism seems to be losing its luster.

Updating and expanding on the quantitative work of Kang Wong-taek and Lee Nae-young in Understanding Korean Identity through the Lens of Opinion Survey1)한국인, 우리는 누구인가? is the title in Korean. The analysis in the book is based on extensive survey work in the 2000s., Kim Jiyoon of the Asan Institute finds that those in their 20s and 30s exhibit significantly different attitudes toward North Korea and unification. The country to the north is perceived to be less like family and more like a pesky neighbor. Unification is a less pressing or important issue for these age groups and their attitudes toward North Korea are significantly more critical than those in their 40s and 50s. In other words, they see North Korea as “just another country.”

Similar efforts find similar results. But why this trend, and why now? The structural changes induced by globalization should, in theory, produce an outcome contrary to the one that is being observed. Indeed, nationalism scholar Shin Gi-wook concluded in his 2006 book Ethnic Nationalism in Korea that the social dislocations and downward pressures of globalization would lead to an uptick in ethnic-nationalist sentiment, because uncertainty and precarity do tend to generate more rigidly exclusive us/them dichotomies. With South Korea’s increasingly diverse demographics, one might expect Koreans to cling more tightly to ethnic sameness in a similar manner to white, blue-collars workers in the United States.

This somewhat puzzling phenomenon is where Emma Campbell comes in. Having recently earned her PhD from Australian National University, where she wrote on the rise of a new nationalism in South Korea, Campbell published an article in vol. 21 no. 3 of the journal Nations and Nationalism (July 2015) under the title, “The end of ethnic nationalism? Changing conceptions of national identity and belonging among young South Koreans.” The article, which was reviewed by Sino-NK as part of the Yongusil series, argues that young South Koreans are indeed letting go of the ethnic component of their national identity in favor of something else–something culturally global, what Campbell describes as a cultural-global nationalism.

Due to space constraints, Campbell was not able to fully expand in the article on the reasons behind the changes she observed. To dig a little deeper, and to better get to know some of those doing work on contemporary Korea, I interviewed the author (selections from the transcript are reproduced below).

In conversation, Campbell describes what is best understood as a rational choice explanation for identity change.2)This argument is explored elsewhere. See, for example, Daniel Posner’s Institutions and Ethnic Politics in Africa. Posner argues that ethnic identities are situational and instrumental. Within institutionally-demarcated parameters, an individual chooses an identity most likely to maximize utility. The implications for understanding ethnic identity in South Korea are clear. Young South Koreans are showing relatively less support for unification and letting go of their ethno-cultural nationalism because it is rational to do so. In the already ultra-competitive society that South Korea is today, why complicate things with unification and pan-Korean nationalism? Or, to quote Christopher Green’s channelling of youth opinion of unification: 24 million additional job seekers? “Let’s give it a miss.”

Steven Denney [SD]: What got you interested South Korean nationalism? Why did you write a dissertation on the subject?

Emma Campbell [EC]: It wasn’t a question of nationalism that took me in the direction of the dissertation. It was more the question of why the youngest generation in South Korea held such different attitudes toward North Korea and unification than the rest of society. Working at the Database for North Korean Human Rights (NKDB) I was quite shocked by how little young South Koreans talked about unification or showed interest in my work on the matter. This experience is what really drove me to do a PhD. When I started to think about the issue a bit more—when I started to interrogate the “problem” more—I came to nationalism and identity.

With that said, I had been in North Korea in 2003 and South Korea in 2008, and between 2002 and 2003 I lived in South Korea. I experienced the aftereffects of the 1997 IMF crisis. In fact, I wrote an MA thesis on the financial crisis at SOAS in 2000, focusing on the causes of the crisis in South Korea. There was an element of the MA thesis that explored ethnic nationalism. My second stint living in South Korea (2002-2003) started right after the World Cup; it was hard to not pay attention issues of nationalism, really.

SD: Can you talk a bit about your experience interviewing young South Koreans? For example, why did you focus your interview efforts on university students?

EC: For me, because I don’t have the quantitative skills to work in depth with numbers—my skills are in meeting people and getting to know them at a substantive level—this means I spent a long time getting to know the groups of students I met with and comparing the differences and variations in opinions and viewpoints. It’s especially interesting to consider how very different young people’s ideas are from their older peers. I spent a lot of time considering these differences.

With regards to approaching people, I spent long periods of time in the company of people with whom I wanted to connect and spend time. For practical reasons, I picked a group of people who would be relatively easy to access and engage. In this case, it was young university students. I found that the young South Koreans were quite direct and open—this was both refreshing and a little unexpected. Many of my interviewees were extraordinarily frank.

I was also keen to interact with my interviewees at a deeper level. I didn’t simply interview them and then escape to my desk. I engaged them. I taught some English classes and volunteered my time to help them with schoolwork (e.g. English) or professional development. This helped build more substantive and trustworthy relationships.

Most important from a policy and future-oriented perspective are the implications that my findings have for our understanding of unification and the implications of unification and the challenges that young South Koreans face in their everyday lives—these are some of my most fundamental concerns. There’s nothing inherently wrong in rejecting unification; there’s simply a bit of reluctance among young people, and this is due to the challenges and competition they face every single day. 

Data shows the diverging perceptions of North Korea among South Korea's different age groups. | Image: Asan Institute for Policy Studies

Data shows the diverging perceptions of North Korea among South Korea’s different age groups. | Image: Asan Institute for Policy Studies

SD: In your work on South Korean nationalism, you point to the rise of a new “type” of nationalism—a “global-cultural” nationalism3)A short summary of global-cultural nationalism from the Sino-NK review: “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).”—and the decline of ethnic nationalism, specifically among young South Koreans (those in their 20s). Why did you see the need to introduce a new type, rather than building on existing ones—for example, civic or multicultural nationalism?

EC: It’s a bit of an untidy description of what I found. Globalized-cultural nationalism is kind of title I’ve been trying to improve on since I started the PhD. In some ways it’s not a “new” nationalism that’s important here, but the change observed, why this change is happening now and how—that is, to be specific, the decline of ethnic nationalism and the rise of something else.

I don’t think my main contribution is introducing a new type nationalism. I just can’t think of any other example that describes what is happening among young people in South Korea. It is so specific to their generation, that is, limited to a relatively small portion of the population. And it is related, more specifically, to the international and global experiences that they’ve had: the impact of neoliberalism and the extreme competition in their economic and social lives. I have lived in many other countries both before and after doing the PhD, but I have never seen anything like what I observed living and working with South Koreans. It is a truly globalized, neoliberal lifestyle. It’s something that is hard to categorize using the existing kinds or types of nationalism.

Perhaps a similar phenomenon is taking place elsewhere, but because the change is so rapid in South Korea, and the differences vis-à-vis other generations so striking, it is hard to find a comparable case elsewhere. In other countries, the process has been much more gradual and started earlier in world-historical time.

Another thing to take note of is the interaction between globalization and nationalism in South Korea. These two forces–globalization and nationalism–are often seen as conflicting, incompatible processes: “Globalization is making a post-nationalism world;” “globalization is erasing territorial borders;” “nationalism is giving way to world-homogenizing forces;” and so on. This is clearly not happening in South Korea. Globalization is not erasing national identity; it is recreating it. This is a contentious and, for some, a contradictory claim.

On the contrary, scholars like Anthony Smith have argued that globalization can heighten ethnic nationalism—but this isn’t happening in South Korea, either. Globalization isn’t reinforcing ethnic nationalism nor is it eroding nationalism.

SD: Shin Gi-wook argued in his 2005 book Ethnic Nationalism in Korea that globalization had led to a doubling down on ethnic nationalism. Why is Shin, and Smith for that matter, wrong? 

EC: Young South Koreans are consciously choosing to move away from an ethnicized understanding of nationhood. It may be the case in some countries that precarity and the social and economic conditions created by neoliberalism means a reinforcing of ethnic national identity, but this is not happening in South Korea. In the South ethnic nationalism means embracing things like unification and North Korea. These are, for many reasons, undesirable positions for many South Koreans. There’s been a conscious, instrumentalist decision to grab onto a South Korean notion of identity, success, and cosmopolitanism as a protection against globalization, contrary to expectation.

SD: How does the new cultural-global nationalism interact with or reflect the “hierarchical nationhood” explored by Dong-Hoon Seol and John Skrentny?

EC: The particular link that global-cultural nationalism has to class and socioeconomic situations of people from various ethnic backgrounds is quite interesting. It is also important to the defining of a South Korean national identity. Those at the top might be Korean-Americans. These people have access to educational and travel opportunities that people from, say, North Korea, don’t. Or, rather, those coming from North Korean don’t have the same kind of travel opportunities that others do; their journeys are often extraordinary, but trekking across China and hiking through Vietnam and Cambodia is not as valued by ordinary South Koreans as going abroad to study at a US institution. Such is the perception in the globalized, neoliberal South Korean society of today. Under these conditions, those from certain classes and socioeconomic backgrounds are more likely to be welcomed into the nation, while others from different backgrounds are not. 

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1. 한국인, 우리는 누구인가? is the title in Korean. The analysis in the book is based on extensive survey work in the 2000s.
2. This argument is explored elsewhere. See, for example, Daniel Posner’s Institutions and Ethnic Politics in Africa. Posner argues that ethnic identities are situational and instrumental. Within institutionally-demarcated parameters, an individual chooses an identity most likely to maximize utility. The implications for understanding ethnic identity in South Korea are clear.
3. A short summary of global-cultural nationalism from the Sino-NK review: “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).”

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