Yongusil 86: AKS Colloquium and Sources of Identity Change in South Korea

By | August 25, 2016 | No Comments

growing number of studies are devoted to the changing demographic makeup of South Korea and its impact on understandings of Korean nationhood and belonging. Starting in the early 1990s and picking up pace at the turn of the century, a growing number of immigrants are settling down in South Korea, or at least choosing to take gainful employment here. Such is the change that by 2030 nearly 10 percent of residents will be immigrants and those not ethnically Korean. Despite long being understood as an ethnically homogenous nation, “few observers can now state with much conviction or cogency that contemporary south Korea is a monocultural and monoethnic society,” writes John Lie, in the introduction to the edited volume Multicultural Korea? (2014).

But how has this social transformation actually affected opinion on what it means to be truly Korean? What, in other words, is the relationship between broader structural changes and national identity? More importantly, how can we study this relationship?

Those who focus on the variation in opinion between youth and older age cohorts on what it means to be Korean today (see the graph below) confront a high methodological hurdle. How can we know that the opinion of youth today is reflective of the conditions under which they come of age and not, say, simply reflective of youth opinion (something that will change over the course of the life-cycle)? It’s a difficult hurdle to overcome, but the answer may be to look to a group of Koreans living in South Korea for whom age (the variable associated with experience) is not perfectly correlated with experience. In other words, a group whose exposure to the conditions of a new multicultural and multiethnic society can be measured: North Koreans who now reside in South Korea.

Data from a 2013 Asan Institute public opinion poll on national identity. | Image: Steven Denney/Sino-NK

Data from a 2013 Asan Institute public opinion poll on national identity. | Image: Steven Denney/Sino-NK

To conclude a 2016 Academy of Korean Studies Pre-Doctoral Fellowship, I will deliver a working paper that presents preliminary research findings from a survey conducted over the course of summer 2016 on the national identity of resettled North Korean migrants in South Korea, focusing on the salience of ethnicity.1)This research is part of the collaborative project, “Reproducing Contested Identities and Social Structures on the Korean Peninsula,” with Adam Cathcart and Christopher Green. Using the same questionnaire as the one used to measure the national identity of the South Korean population — the International Social Survey Programme’s “national identity” questionnaire — this research considers competing hypotheses of national identity change among this sub-group of ethnic Koreans living in the South.

The presentation, part of a colloquium for overseas scholars studying Korea, will take place at the Academy of Korean Studies on Friday August 26 at 3pm in room 220 of the Munhyungkwan (문형관).

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1. This research is part of the collaborative project, “Reproducing Contested Identities and Social Structures on the Korean Peninsula,” with Adam Cathcart and Christopher Green.