South Korean Identity: The Return of Ethnic Exclusivism?

By | October 28, 2016 | No Comments

What is the relationship, if any, between demographic change and and variation in national identity? | Image: Ekke/Flickr, Creative Commons 2.0

What is the relationship, if any, between demographic change and and variation in national identity? | Image: Ekke/Flickr, Creative Commons 2.0

More accustomed to the limelight for its “compressed modernization” and attendant economic victories, South Korea and its population have recently become a rich source of data for researchers with a penchant for something other than development economics: the study of putative sub-variants of modern nationalism.

Identity is beholden to a volatile mixture of socio-economic conditions, history, personal proclivities, and the grounds upon which difference is constructed in a given place and time. The constitution of nationalism is thus equally volatile; the idea of “ethnic” and “civic” nationalism is a construct, and the notion that movement between them is linear is a farce. Anyone who thought that enlightened Western polities had somehow managed to transcend nativism and embrace an inclusive worldview would presumably have been disabused of it once and for all by the Brexit vote in the UK and rise of Donald Trump.

Given the complexities involved, then, it is necessary – and interesting – to take regular snapshots of identity. South Korea just did so. The “Korean identity survey” was conducted for the third time in 2015, and the results have now been published as 한국인의 정체성: 변화와 연속, 2005-2015, or South Korean Identity: Change and Continuity, 2005-2015. Steven Denney parses the data. — Christopher Green, Co-editor   

South Korean Identity: The Return of Ethnic Exclusivism?

by Steven Denney

captureSouth Korean Identity: Change and Continuity, 2005-2015 is a volume edited by Korea University professors Lee Nae-young (Department of Politics and Diplomacy) and Yoon In-jin (Sociology) and published by The East Asia Institute (EAI; 동아시아  연구원) and the Asiatic Research Institute at Korea University (ARI;아세아문제연구소). Nine social scientists from EAI, Seoul National University, Yonsei University, and Korea University contribute nine chapters (some co-authored), and these are divided into three sections: “Community and Multicultural Awareness” (Chapters 1-3), “State and Citizen Awareness” (4-6), and “Social Conflict and North Korea, Unification, and International Awareness” (7-9). The book presents data from the third wave (2015) of the “Korean identity survey” (한국인의 정체성 조사), administered cooperatively by EAI, ARI, and the Joongang Ilbo.1)Data from wave one (2005) were published in South Korean National Identity and Korean Politics [한국인의 국가정체성과 한국정치], edited by Kang Won-taek. Data from wave two (2010) were published in Understanding Korean Identity Through the Lends of Opinion Survey [한국인 우리는 누구인가? 여론조사를 통해 본 한국인의 정체성], edited by Kang Won-taek and Lee Nae-young. The survey questionnaire, which is similar and for some questions identical to the cross-national identity survey questionnaires administered by the International Social Survey Programme (ISSP) and the World Values Survey (WVS), seeks to objectively measure South Koreans’ national and ethnic identities, attitudes towards foreigners and minority groups, and views on North Korea and unification, among other things.

With the ongoing demographic shift taking places in Korea and the challenges of social integration and immigration confronting many countries, especially in the West, three chapters in particular will be of interest to Koreanist and comparativist alike: Chapter two, “The prospects of a multi-layered Korean identity and a multicultural state: Who imagines a multicultural country,” by Hwang Cheong-mi; chapter three, “Changes in attitudes toward Korean multiculturalism and minorities: From paternalism to indifference?,” by Yoon In-jin; and chapter eight, “Changes in attitudes towards North Korea and unification: 2005-2015,” by Lee Nae-young. Data and insights from these three chapters are reviewed in this essay. The focus is less on continuity and more on change.

Multiculturalism and Minorities: A New Exclusivism on the Rise? | In chapter two, “The prospects of a multi-layered Korean identity and a multicultural state: Who imagines a multicultural country?” Hwang Cheong-mi, a professor at ARI, presents data on Korean attitudes toward multiculturalism. (pp. 45-69) A relatively new and somewhat ambiguous policy objective, the South Korean state is committed, nominally at least, to accommodating and even promoting the country’s growing cultural diversity, a product of its growing immigrant population. But what do ordinary South Koreans think? A country long defined as ethnically homogenous (something many Koreans pride themselves on), this question is important.

According to the data from the 2015 identity survey, Hwang finds that “more respondents say Korea should be a multicultural or multiethnic country (49.7%) than an ethnically homogenous one (38.9%).” (p. 45) A notable finding, majority support for multiculturalism may come as a surprise. “However,” Hwang adds, “compared to results from survey from five years ago, there has been a considerable decrease in the number of those who agree that South Korea should be a multicultural country. The results from 2010 show 60.6% supported the idea of Korea as a multicultural country, and 37.1% supported the idea of Korea as an ethnically homogenous one.” (emphasis added; pp. 45-46) This downward trend is explored further in the chapter and throughout the rest of the book.

The 20s and 30s are the two age cohorts for whom support for multiculturalism has decreased the most between 2010 and 2015, Hwang notes. The decline in support holds for all educational cohorts as well, even the most highly educated (college and above) – i.e., those most likely to support inclusive notions of national belonging. (p. 61)

Interestingly, data indicate a stronger attachment to the Republic of Korea (대한민국) than the Korean nation (한민족), thus providing further evidence that South Korea is not the “unloved Republic.” (p. 61) Self-identifying conservatives, compared to self-identifying progressives or moderates, identify more strongly with the Republic than the pan-Korean nation. (p. 56)

Looking further into the data, Hwang argues that the relative drop in support for multiculturalism “isn’t because foreigners are looked upon as objects of fear.” Data, she highlights, show no increase in the number of Koreans who think foreigners are stealing jobs from “native” Koreans or are responsible for an increase in crime, but do mark “the beginning of the cultural exclusion of others in society.” (p. 67) There is a fine line between Koreans being increasingly suspicious of foreigners and a growing sense of cultural exclusivity – the latter, one might say, makes the former more likely – but Hwang’s point is indeed supported by the data. However, Hwang notes pessimistically, those who are most readily adopting a culturally exclusive attitude are in their 20s.

Moreover, if the data on the kind of country South Koreans desire is looked at more closely, (p. 60) there is a noticeable jump in the number of respondents who answered “Don’t know” between 2010 and 2015. This trend indicates that Koreans may not exactly want an ethnically homogenous society, but are weary of multiculturalism and unsure what kind of country they wish South Korea to be. Data reported by Hwang from the two identity surveys is reproduced in the tables below.

If concepts like multiculturalism are too nebulous, then readers will find the data analyzed by Yoon In-jin in chapter three, “Changes in attitudes toward Korean multiculturalism and minorities: From paternalism to indifference?,” more meaningful. (pp. 71-99) Yoon examines how South Koreans perceive minority groups in society; specifically: North Korean migrants, migrant workers, marriage migrants, children of international marriages, Chinese-Koreans, and hwagyo.2)As foreign (Chinese) citizens in North Korea, hwagyo are classified as an ethnic minority group from North Korea.

South Korean respondents were asked how they perceive the six minority groups listed above on an ordered scale, ranging from “a Korean national” (한국 국민) to “an other” (남), with variation in between. Between 2010 and 2015 the number of respondents answering “South Korean national” decreased for all minority groups, and the number of those having pessimistic views of these minorities (identifying them as an other, or “close to being an other”) increased. While for every group, except Chinese-Koreans, there was an increase in the response “close to being a South Korean national,” the overall pattern is clear: a greater degree of perceived difference and exclusion. (p. 90)

Perhaps encouragingly, children of international marriages, marriage migrants, and North Korean migrants are seen as least different (i.e., closest to being South Korean). This isn’t exactly surprising and accords with Hwang’s conclusion that South Korea is becoming more culturally exclusive, not more accommodating. These groups are different in many ways from “ordinary” South Koreans, but it stands to reason that they will be viewed as culturally similar.

Attitudes Towards the DPRK: Re-bordering Korea | In chapter eight, “Changes in attitudes towards North Korean and unification: 2005-2015,” Lee Nae-young looks specifically at South Koreans’ attitudes towards the DPRK and unification. (pp. 207-233)

To the question, “How do you typically think of North Korea,” respondents are given the choices “one of us” (우리), “brother” (형제), “neighbor” (이웃), “other” (남), and “enemy” (적). A plurality of respondents (23.4%) answered “one of us,” down from 30.5% in 2005, which also represented a plurality at the time. 21% percent answered neighbor, 20.9% answered brother, 16.1% said enemy, and 13.5% other. (p. 214)

The 16.1% of respondents answering “enemy” represents a two-fold increase since 2005 and the largest percentage change among all possible answers. This is no small development, especially if one considers that the two top groups for this answer are the 20s (19.3%) and 60s+ (19.8%) age cohorts. In 2005, only 7.9% of the 20s age cohort answered this way, and 13% of the 60s+ cohort. It is not surprising that the oldest age cohort in Korean society, which includes many who remember the devastation of the Korean War (a war that North Koreas is officially blamed for starting), would constitute one of the highest scoring groups in this category. But the increase for the 20s age cohort may come as a surprise to those who questioned the claim that South Korean youth are increasingly becoming “national security conservatives.”

On the question of unification, Lee reports numbers on degrees of support. To the question, “How do you feel about unification,” respondents were given four possible answers: “Unification should come quickly;” The speed at which unification is pursued should be conditional;” “There is no need to pursue unification quickly;” and “There is no need for unification.”

In 2015, the data show overall support for national reunification. A combination of answers one and two show that 55.6% of the respondents believe unification should be pursued – actively or under the right conditions. But, much like the prospect of South Korea as a multicultural country, this support has declined. In 2005, the total for answers one and two equaled 72%, a 16.4pp drop over the decade. Significantly, it is the 20s age cohort who are least supportive of unification. For this age cohort, more people favor a wait and see approach (“no need to pursue unification quickly”) or outright oppose it; this is the only age cohort for which this true. (p. 223)

South Korea as the New Global Norm: Concluding Remarks | The data presented in the three chapters reviewed suggest that some form of “ethnic exclusionism” (종족적 배제주의)3)The word translated in this volume as “ethnic” is jongjok (종족). While minjok (민족) is also frequently translated as “ethnic,” jongjok is closer in meaning to “native.” An etymology of the word minjok underscores its ethno-cultural connotations, but the word is sometimes used for “nation.” Promoting ethnic inclusion in contemporary South Korea often means eschewing the term minjok in favor of gukka (국가; meaning state, nation, or country) or gukmin (국민; meaning citizen or national). as Hwang puts it, may be on the rise in South Korea. Interestingly though, this doesn’t mean greater support for unification, lending modest support to the idea that South Korean ethnic and national identity is becoming increasingly South Korean, especially for the country’s youth — the so-called ishipdae (20대; those in their twenties) — the group least supportive of unification. While it is unclear how youth attitudes will change with age, the data suggest that indifference or outright opposition to unification is a reflection of a new generational predisposition.

In other words, citizens of the Republic of Korea are beginning to think of themselves as belonging to both a separate state and nation. And while some see South Korea’s “new” nationalism as civic and inclusive in nature, data in this edited volume suggest otherwise: South Koreans are erecting a wall of difference between themselves and minorities in society, especially those who do not share a similar ethnicity or culture (i.e., those who aren’t North Korean migrants, don’t have a Korean spouse, or aren’t children of an international marriage).

Another way to test the hypothesis that South Korean national identity is becoming more exclusive is to look at how important South Koreans think ethnicity is to being “truly South Korean” (진정한 한국인). Data on this question, which is not analyzed in any of the chapters in this volume but is included in the appendix, (pp. 287-288) show that ethnicity is just as important in 2015 as it was in 2005. Findings by The Asan Institute’s Kim Jiyoon in 2010 and 2013 suggested that ethnicity’s importance was on the decline. Her findings, however, appear to have been exceptional. As the authors in this volume argue, ethno-cultural characteristics are becoming more – not less – important to South Korean identity.

Some readers may interpret the findings and insights from this volume as a confirmation that South Korea is as it has always been – a culturally exclusive national community whose members see traits like ethnicity as the sine qua non of Koreaness. This may be a misreading, however. Data and ethnographic studies suggest that there may have been a window of opportunity at the turn of the century, when globalization seemed to be providing endless opportunities for growth and development and supranational projects like the European Union were challenging the hegemony of the nation-state as the main or most desirable form of political and social organization. However, globalization, especially in its neo-liberal form, has generated greater instability, uncertainty, and social dislocation than its proponents might like to admit. Rather than greater political and social integration, we have governments squabbling over what to do about refugees, the United Kingdom voting itself out of the European Union, and a candidate for a major political party in the United States calling for a ban on Muslims entering the country. In other words, globalization has created the conditions under which ethno-cultural exclusivism and ethnic nationalism flourish. That South Koreans are warier of (ethnic) minority groups in society and less supportive of multiculturalism conforms to global trends; Koreans are not the exception.

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1. Data from wave one (2005) were published in South Korean National Identity and Korean Politics [한국인의 국가정체성과 한국정치], edited by Kang Won-taek. Data from wave two (2010) were published in Understanding Korean Identity Through the Lends of Opinion Survey [한국인 우리는 누구인가? 여론조사를 통해 본 한국인의 정체성], edited by Kang Won-taek and Lee Nae-young.
2. As foreign (Chinese) citizens in North Korea, hwagyo are classified as an ethnic minority group from North Korea.
3. The word translated in this volume as “ethnic” is jongjok (종족). While minjok (민족) is also frequently translated as “ethnic,” jongjok is closer in meaning to “native.” An etymology of the word minjok underscores its ethno-cultural connotations, but the word is sometimes used for “nation.” Promoting ethnic inclusion in contemporary South Korea often means eschewing the term minjok in favor of gukka (국가; meaning state, nation, or country) or gukmin (국민; meaning citizen or national).