Nationalism in an Era of Strength and Prosperity: Politics and People in Post-Developmental South Korea

By | January 16, 2014 | No Comments

Eugène Delacroix's famous "La Liberté Guidant le Peuple," a artistic manifestation of the age of nationalism, depicted where many claim it began: France. | Image: Wikimedia Commons

“La Liberté Guidant le Peuple,” an artistic manifestation of the age of nationalism where many claim it began: France. | Image: Wikimedia Commons

According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “nationalism” describes two distinct phenomena: “The attitude that the members of a nation have when they care about their national identity, and the actions that the members of a nation take when seeking to achieve (or sustain) self-determination.” Thus it is absolutely central to understanding the modern nation-state. Writing for CSIS PacNet Newsletter in the fall of last year, Steven Denney and Karl Friedhoff looked at both phenomena in the economically advanced, materially abundant contemporary South Korea.

Using a military parade that took place in Seoul (yes, Seoul) during October that year as a jumping off point, the two reflect on its significance and contextualize the event using the latest “gusts of popular feeling.” Overall, they find that the latest in public opinion data collected by the Public Opinion Studies Center at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies reveals a shift in the way South Koreans see South Korea vis-à-vis other countries in the region and the way they identify themselves in relation to North Korea. The data indicates a steady increase in confidence and a withering of ethnic-based identity. Most notably, Denney and Freidhoff find the most drastic shifts in opinion amongst the youngest voting-cohort, giving, they claim somewhat prematurely, reason to suspect that a new national identity is taking shape. Were it to be borne out over the longer term, of course, this “new national identity” could have significant implications for unification as much as for South Korean domestic policy. — Christopher Green, Co-Editor

Steven Denney and Karl Freidhoff, “South Korea and a New Nationalism in an Era of Strength and Prosperity,”CSIS PacNet #75, October 7, 2013.*

A New Nationalism on the Horizon | For the first time in nearly a decade, people watched as soldiers, tanks, and missiles rolled through the streets of central Seoul. For many observers, the purpose of the military parade was clear: a show of force meant to deter North Korea from engaging in military provocations. This surface reading is correct, but overlooks an important underlying trend. Beyond the pomp of the parade there is a nation-wide transformation underway. Public opinion data suggests that a “new” nationalism is on the rise in South Korea. This new nationalism is not a passing phase; it is the manifestation of a new national identity and a natural outgrowth of the country’s material development and newborn confidence. As Korea seeks a more prominent role in East Asian affairs, an effort encouraged by a national identity supportive of a more assertive posture, any understanding of the region will require taking into account Korea’s new nationalism.

Many South Koreans are now coming to terms with the fact that they are citizens of a rich country with a powerful army, the twin goals of government policy in Korea’s developmental era. A modernized military, with a strong backbone in the US security guarantee, protects Korea from conventional military threats; and an export-oriented, conglomerate-driven economy currently ensures that Korea stays economically vibrant and affluent. These modern accomplishments are based on a formidable development experience that has fostered a newfound level of confidence across the political spectrum as well as among the elites and ordinary people alike. Koreans have begun to view themselves and their republic in a way that reflects the political, social, and economic realities. Korea’s new nationalism is based less on ethno-nationalism than previous strands of nationalism, views the state with an increasing level of confidence, and presumes that South Korea is on the rise in both East Asia and the world.

The Decline of Ethno-nationalism and the Rise of a New National Identity | One of the first results of this new identity is the decline of ethno-nationalism. That is, South Koreans are increasingly willing to draw a clear line between the Koreans as people and the two states they inhabit. Though Koreans in their 30s and 40s consistently show more positive attitudes toward North Korea, the youngest cohort (those in the 20s) show a new trend, one that reflects the identity of Korea’s new nationalism.

That Koreans have a strong sense of ethno-nationalism has long been understood as the theoretical underpinning to the argument that reunification by choice will eventually take place if reunification by collapse does not, because Koreans of both countries are of the same “nation.” However, recent public opinion surveys provide data that necessitate a rethinking of this long-held view.

Figure 1 shows South Koreans that view North Korea as “one of us” by age cohort from 2011 to 2013. The most obvious observation is from 2012, the most positive towards North Korea for the data, approximately one-third of all South Koreans viewed the North as “one of us.” This is hardly a high enough percentage of the population to support the claim that reunification by choice is inevitable. Moreover, in 2012, South Koreans were just as likely to identify North Korea as a neighbor, and 19% defined it as an enemy. Further to this, the data from 2013 makes it clear that the South Korean public judges North Korea on its actions, with public opinion turning sharply against the North following the tensions in early 2013. Of course, if North Korea can become a responsible neighbor, attitudes would certainly improve. The question is if the North can achieve this before the youngest South Koreans decide that they, and their country, are simply better off as seeing the Republic of Korea as a completely separate political and national entity. In 2012, while 11% of those in their 60s expressed no interest in reunification, 23% of those in their 20s stated the same. Notably, it was those in their 20s (60%) who were most in favor of reunification on South Koreans terms, indicating a less accepting and less tolerant attitude towards the North. (Those in their 60s were the next highest at 49%.)

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

Figure 1 | Image: Asan Institute for Policy Studies

Perhaps the most important point to make is how sharply South Koreans in their 20s have broken in their views of North Korea with those in their 30s and 40s. In 2011 and 2012, those in their 20s were the least likely to identify the North Korea as “one of us.” Indeed, in 2012 this cohort was more likely to define the North as an enemy (24%). Following the heightened inter-Korean tensions in the first quarter of 2013, the response “one of us” decreased by 9pp.

This data helps to highlight a larger trend—in regards to issues of national security the young think like the old. Asan surveys have consistently found that Koreans in their 20s identify as “security conservative” and usually find themselves in agreement with those in their 60s and older on issues related to North Korea. Even so, these age cohorts likely agree for fundamentally different reasons. While those in their 60s still show an interest in reunification, the youngest Koreans see South Korea as a strong and prosperous country and are far less interested in reunification with North Korea.

The national identity gap between generations may be explained by a difference in experience and expectation. The youngest South Koreans know no other Korea than an affluent one. Japan has been in decline so long that those in their 20s only know rumors of its former economic might. Unlike in the days of their parents and grandparents, there is no regional hegemon. China is certainly a growing power with plenty of potential, but it is not thought to be as advanced as Korea. Thus, Korea is entering into a vacuum of sorts, and the youngest Koreans see Korea as assuming its rightful place in the hierarchy of countries. This has precipitated a fundamental shift in national identity and expectations for how Korea ought to behave. 

In Korea We Believe | Korea is a country that has depended upon others for the security of its territorial borders for a better part of its pre-modern and modern history. Although still true to some extent, South Koreans no longer see themselves, or their country, as a “shrimp among whales.” The era of development has been definitively closed. Even if Koreans continue to debate whether they have become an advanced country, there is little debate about South Korea being a powerful and influential actor in the international community.

Based on Figure 2, which measures perceptions about influence on global affairs both now and in the future (measured in 2013), the immediate observation is that South Koreans expect the influence of the United States to wane in the next ten years as China’s influence grows, with China eventually becoming the most influential among the countries included in the survey. But the more interesting finding is just how confident South Koreans are in the Republic of Korea. While Koreans rank their country as the least influential among the countries currently, in ten years time they expect South Korea’s influence to surpass that of Japan and even to rival that of Russia.[1]

Figure 1 | Image: Asan Institute for Policy Studies

Figure 2 | Image: Asan Institute for Policy Studies

Some observers will scoff at this finding and dismiss as wishful thinking or overconfidence the idea that South Korea could ever grow to be as influential as Russia. But doing so misses the point. The question of influence on global affairs is not aimed at garnering an expert opinion on the true prospects for growing South Korean influence in the world. Instead, it is aimed at measuring the general population’s level of confidence in their country. The growing confidence among Koreans should be carefully watched, because as the confidence of the general population grows, the South Korean government will carry out policies that act on this confidence. The people will expect as much.

With increasing confidence comes increasing willingness to express that confidence. Koreans see the next ten years bringing a fundamental reorganization of East Asia, and they expect such a reorganization to give Korea a more prominent role. The Korean government will increasingly act on that expectation; the recent military parade is just one of many ways the government will fulfill the expectations of a confident citizenry. A strong and prosperous South Korea is starting to think and act as such. The rest of the region will have to deal with it.


* This essay has been modified to meet the style and formatting standards outlined in the Sino-NK Style Guide. No substantive changes have been made.

[1] Aside from the data provided in the table, see also: Kim, Jiyoon and Karl Friedhoff. “South Korea in a Changing World: Foreign Affairs,” The Asan Institute for Policy Studies, 2013.

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