South Korea: The New Nationalism in an Era of Strength and Prosperity

By | March 28, 2013 | No Comments


The events may have done nothing to help diffuse tensions on the peninsula, but North Korea’s third nuclear test and the US decision to send two B-52s streaking north have succeeded in emphasizing a burgeoning cultural phenomenon in South Korea: the development of an new strand of nationalism.

Many South Koreans are now coming to terms with the fact that they are indeed citizens of a “strong and prosperous country.” It’s a slogan more commonly depicted in bold type on North Korean propaganda banners or proclaimed in speeches by Kim Jong-il as gangseong taeguk (강성대국), yet South Korea is also a lover of a development slogan with a nationalistic hue: buguk gangbyeong (부국강병). The translation may be different (“rich nation, strong army,” or indeed “national prosperity and military power”), but the point is the same: building a “strong and prosperous country.”

In keeping with the sloganeering, there is now a palpable shift underway in how South Koreans perceive themselves and their country. Though typical macroeconomic indicators (GDP, trade volume, etc.) speak of no more than sheer economic development, the will of the (conservative) elite and gusts of popular feeling seem to indicate something else: a nascent but burgeoning new nationalism in the era of the strong and prosperous South Korea.

Though the idea is certainly not in any sense “mainstream” at the moment, Mark Hibbs was right to note in a recent article entitled “Will South Korea Go Nuclear?” that there is now a certain degree of pressure from the conservative right to consider either A) re-introducing US tactical nuclear weapons to South Korea (removed in 1991); or B) starting up an indigenous nuclear weapons program (some would perhaps say “restarting”). Given that the US is adamant that South Korea should remain nuclear-free, option B is inching further into the conservative political discourse and onto the pages of some print and digital media.

Indeed, following the most recent North Korean nuclear test, one extreme, but both prominent and popular, conservative pundit and former editor of Chosun Monthly published an article entitled “Why the Nuclear Arming of South Korea is Possible.” In it, he provided 10 reasons why South Korea can and should go nuclear, including some to explain why the US either can’t or won’t stop it from doing so.

That perspective is still an outlier, but the general population, including young South Koreans, do support shifting toward a more assertive nationalism. According to an Asan Institute report on public opinion immediately following the 3rd North Korean nuclear test, “66% of the South Korea public supported a domestic nuclear weapons program” which was a “10pp increase from 2010.” Though only 49% (only 49%!) of the 20s cohort supported the same move (and the figure would be expected to decline during periods of lower inter-Korean tension), the trend amongst young South Koreans, especially regarding issues of national security, ergo national prestige, clearly shows that “the young think like the old.” The Asan Institute report states:

One of the most consistent findings of Asan surveys is that Koreans in their 20s identify themselves as “national security conservatives,” and often correlate very closely with those in their 60s and older on issues related to North Korea. The same seems to have applied in this case, as 72% of those 60 or older reported feeling threatened by the most recent test (the highest), while 64% of those in their 20s reported the same (second highest).

Last year, this author interviewed Karl Friedhoff, one of the co-authors of the report, about the way younger South Koreans feel about their newfound “strong Korea.” Friedhoff had this to say:

A “strong Korea” means an “independent Korea.” While there is a lot of support for the US-ROK alliance, we are seeing across the board stronger support for a more independent Korea. This is especially true for people in their 20s. For this age group, they know no other strong regional power in the way their parents and grandparents did, other than Korea itself. Growing up in the age of Japan’s lost decade, the concept of a strong Japan is lost on them, and China, though certainly an economic power, is not perceived to be as industrially and technologically advanced as Korea. Their perception of what Korea is and represents is much different from that of previous generations. Events like the 2002 World Cup, wherein the Koreans had a strong showing, are some of the earliest memories for younger Koreans. They have this new perception, which … is reshaping the way Koreans view themselves and, as such, is redefining Korean identity. … For the youngest generation in Korea, it is taken for granted that Korea is a strong and prosperous nation.

In other words, the real strong and prosperous nation may be ready to think of itself as such. It will be interesting to see how this assertive new nationalism develops.

Blog by: Steven Denney

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