Urban planning and life in Korea and France / l\’Urbanisme et la vie en Corée et France

Nationalism in Korea

Posted by urbanara on January 10, 2006

The following comment was posted by Travolta in response to an article “Dokdo is Korean territory” – Japanese language calendar issued by SK government” in a blog called Occidentalism. The question at the end of his comment was sincere and I have wanted to write on the subject some day, I tried to elaborate my thought at this chance.

Travolta Said:January 10, 2006 at 12:04 am

The Korean propaganda has certainly worked on the Korean population. When I asked one of my ADULT (probably 45 years old) students about his views on Dokdo he openly said “I’d gladly give my life for the defence of Dokdo. It’s very important”. Of course I was amazed that even a well educated (Seoul National University) person like he should have such an irational point of view. This man was ready to die, leaving a wife and two children for Dokdo.

That said, he also thought Japan had annexed Korea in 1905 at which point I corrected him, telling him it was 1910. (I know most say that Japan pretty much controlled Korea by 1905 but the official annexation occured in 1910 – correct me if im wrong PLEASE) I think the government and the media has slipped in 5 extra years of Japanese occupation through speaches like the one the unification minister sent to the newspaper (someone please link it if u can find it) and people now have 1905 in their heads rather than 1910. An extra 5 years reason to hate Japan ^^

One question for anyone who can give me some insight; What benefit does blind nationalism give to a country? I assume it keeps the people in the country, allows the government to get away with more things and allows the government to assume it’s people will fight if need be. Are there any other reasons? Are there economic reasons? I wish I had studied this kind of stuff in uni!


>The origin of Korean nationalism>

Historians say primitive form of Korean nationalism was created during Seven-Year War (1592-1598) with Japan which devastated Korea. Anti Japanese sentiment also saw its light in this period. The nationalism may have strengthend with another big war with Qing Dynasty of China shortly after.

>Modern nationalism>

 The modern nationalism began to form with the import of European nationalism in the 19th century. Korea was in peril to be colonized by one of world powers and Korean elites began to voice out their ways of nationalism to save the nation from the great danger. As you may know, they failed to save the nation and it was annexed by Japan in 1910. Nationalism became the most appreciated value amongst independentists and other populace who were seeking independence of Korea. Nationalism was a great motor for this movement and it became almost a national moto (though not officially) for the governments of both Koreas because independentist leaders took the regime in two countries after the liberation from Japan (1945). It explains why old-fashioned nationalism still persists in Korea. While Japan saw the disastrous outcome of blinded nationalism through the defeat of the WWII, Koreans didn’t see much reason to stop the old ideology. “It helped us to remain as Koreans under the assimilation policy (內鮮一體) of late colonial era.” was what they thought. They saw no disastrous outcome yet, either.

Not only the circumstance of the 19th century but also traditional Confucianism was a factor for the rapid surge of Korean nationalism. Confucianism commands being devoted to your parents and ultimately to your lord which can be the nation. Nationalism was not foreign in this regard. My mother used to tell me to be loyal to your nation. It’s not nationalism for her; it’s one of many confucian values which are embedded in her mind.


>The Roles of Nationalism>

Nationalism had both positive and negative roles. Firstly, it was the belief and justfication for Koreans to seek independence from Japan. Nationalism is deeply related with the very existence of the Korean government since 1948.

It also had a role in the economic developement after Korean War (1950-1953). Pride of the nation and sacrifice for such a proud nation was a value to be summoned by every citizen (국민 國民 (nationals): This word was rightly adopted from the Japanese nationalism by the militaristic governments of South Korea). Korea could make a leap in terms of economic developement effectively shutting up gruntled population who was forced to sacrifice. Brain drain was not a big problem for Korea because patriotic elites studying overseas chose to return to the ‘dear’ nation abandoning better job and living conditions in the West.

For militaristic regimes of Korea, nationalism secured their regime (I know you want democracy, but sacrifice more until the day comes!) and could motivate people for the building of the nation. Even under the democratic regimes, the surge of nationalistic sentiment whenever provoked by surrounding nations, notably Japan, is a good opportunity to make people forget other difficulties.


>Nationalistic propaganda>

I saw a lot of nationalistic propaganda when I was very young living under the military dictatorship of Chun Du-hwan. Of course, I didn’t realize it was propaganda. Like everybody else, I was too naive then. I clearly remember some lyrics of a song sponsored by the government which was aired serveral times a day in televisions.

“…Our single year equals ten years of the world. As one, we go to the world and to the future. …”

I sincerely believed this at that time. I knew Korea was insignificant and rather poor but i didn’t doubt that the country will be the best nation in a matter of time. The list doesn’t stop here. We were told to memorize Charter of National Education (국민교육헌장 國民敎育憲章) which mainly contained the sacred duty of devotion toward the nation. No teacher criticized the charter and they told us that they had to memorize it perfectly at their time. (There were not many unionist teachers(전교조 全敎組) yet who were oppressed by the government.) Fourtunately obligatory memorization was not enforced any longer then. The charter had been at the first page of every text book and it was abolished in the late 1990s under the democratic regime.

Injection of explicit nationalism disappeared in schools nowadays but indirect nationalism still exists there with history education and the attitude of overly nationalistic teachers. Now media have bigger roles in nationalistic propaganda. The media are not under the control of the government any more but they are voluntarily nationalistic still in the old inertia. Most Koreans are nationalistic in some degrees and the journalists are not exceptions. The rise and fall of cloning master Dr. Hwang and the media craze are the best example of the media attitude. The media are eager to find people who make Korea more shining. Korean major leaguers in US and internationally renowned artists are always under excessive attention of the media. So to speak, they always seek to masturbate themselves and their readers. They are also active at stirring up the anti japanese and the anti american sentiments which are related to unreasonable nationalism.


As seen above, Koreans are bombarded by nationalistic propaganda at school and through everyday media. You will find it difficult to reason properly in such circumstance. On top of this, Koreans are not very good at reasoning because of the broken education system of knowledge injection. You could enter Seoul National University(SNU), the nation’s top university, almost by memorizing text books in the 80s. The person mentioned in Travolta’s comment could enter SNU without good reasoning skills. (For his sake, he could be just patriotic regardless of being reasonable or not.)

It’s a wonder for me there are many Korean men like the person in Travolta’s comment. I had a friend who served together mandatory military service. He was no less disgruntled than I for the treatment of soldiers by the Korean government. (We were paid 10 dollars per month for full time service. And many Korean soldiers still live in a single room which accomdate 10 to 20 people. Shizophreniac environment I dare say.) I was litterally shocked and impressed when he told me that he is always ready to fight when the nation calls him. I don’t know his exact motivation but the existence of many like him in Korea may be translated into the strong effect of nationalism in this nation.


10 Responses to “Nationalism in Korea”

  1. Matt said

    Interesting post.

    As you point out, a lot of Korean nationalism was influenced by WW2 Japanese nationalism, which means that it is probably emotional nationalism and not rational nationalism.

    As a professor in this Hankyoreh article points out, morning assembly, school trips, athletic meets, hiking, hair cut checks, school mottos, class slogans, and clothing checks in front of the school are all the (presumably negative) legacy of Japanese imperial rule. From the article –

    ‘교육칙어’는 ‘국민교육헌장’으로, ‘히노마루’는 ‘태극기’로, ‘기미가요’는 ‘애국가’로, ‘황국신민서사’는 ‘국기에 대한 맹세’로 바뀌었을 뿐이라는 것이다.

    My (poor) translation –

    “‘The Imperial Rescript on Education became’ became ‘The Peoples Education Charter’, the ‘Hi-No-Maru’ flag became the ‘Taekukki’ flag, the ‘Imperial Reign’ Japanese National Anthem became the ‘Love Country Song’ Korean National Anthem, the ‘Imperial Subjects Oath’ became the ‘Vow to the Flag’, all they did was change it like that”’

    Korean nationalism is a tough pill for foreigners to swallow, especially if the nationalism is accompanied by statements that make foreigners feel excluded or inferior (like saying foreigners cannot have ‘정’ – a sense of human feeling or charity towards someone). Therefore, any foreigner is bound to regard Korean nationalism as against their interests.

  2. urbanara said

    Thank you for being the first commentor of my blog!

    “As a professor in this Hankyoreh article points out, morning assembly, school trips, athletic meets, hiking, hair cut checks, school mottos, class slogans, and clothing checks in front of the school are all the (presumably negative) legacy of Japanese imperial rule.”

    You are right. They were effective means to keep the power of military presidents of Korea. People do not realize that those legacies are irrational and undemocratic. Many people are indifferent to necessary changes. They get irked even more when the source is Hankyoreh, presumably too leftist.

    You may have had deep conversation with Koreans if you know the fact that Jeong(정) is regarded as only Korean thing. It is not right saying that foreigners don’t have warm human feeling. But Jeong is not simple human feeling or charity I think. Jeong includes some irrational aspects which will not convince Westerners. For example, in many Korean companies, you should go to every funeral of the family members of the colleagues whether you know the deceased and you are close to the colleague or not. It is a part of Jeong to cry together and share the joy though it is exhausting and not very meaningful to go to everyone’s funeral. But if you refuse it, you will be regarded as egoistic and Jeong-less person.

  3. ponta said

    What is the chinese word for jeong정?

  4. ponta said

    And,why did China play no role in forming nationalism in Korea?

  5. urbanara said

    hello, ponta.

    1. jeong = 情
    i guess that word may exist in Japanese, too.

    2.Qing dynasty of china had some role to develop further the nationalism created from the Seven years war. I mention Qing dynasty because Han China didn’t invade Korea since ancient time. Han China (Myng dynasty) was respected because it helped its ally (Korea).

    In the 19th century, China was one of the powers which wanted to overtake Korea. It was regarded as an enemy for a time but all the hate went to Japan who eventually became the winner.

    Today China is fueling Korean nationalism after she claimed Gogureyo(ancient kingdom which covered northern Korea and Manchuria) is a part of her history.

    China had good terms with Korea before the 19th century and it had no great conflict with Korea until now. (Dispatch of People’s liberation army in Korean War was requested by North Korea.) Thus it didn’t have important occasions to provoke Korean nationalism though Korean people get increasingly wary about the new power of Asia.

  6. ponta said

    Very infomative.

    情(jou) is humane emotion in Japanese. It is evaluated highly but it is also emphasized in Japan that you should not let 情 rule you.

    “China had good terms with Korea before the 19th century”
    Do you think China had good terms with Korea when Korea had been subordinate to China?
    For instance,
    The king of Korea was appointed by China.
    The status of King of Korea was below Chinese courtier

    Korea government had no right to produce money.
    Korea had to send 3000 women to China every year.

    ” (Dispatch of People’s liberation army in Korean War was requested by North Korea.”
    But Iljinhoe 일진회 一進会, which consited of hundreds of thousands of political members, invited Japan.

    Kim wang sop

    I am not claiming the colonization was right, it was wrong.But in my view, Korea was humiliated by China just as bad as Japan. If so, I wonder why is it that Koreans have grudges only against Japan..
    Some Japanese explain that Korean anti-Japanese sentiment is originated from Sinocentrism.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sinocentrism.China>Korea>Japan. And according to Confucious, it is just unforgivable that a subordinate rule a boss.That is why Korea still have relatively good relations with China when China played important role dividing Korea and that is why they still have strong anti-Japan sentiments.
    What do you think?

  7. […] I had good conversations with Matt and Ponta in the post Nationalism in Korea. Ponta’s questions from the post led to sino-korean relationship. I decided to make another post instead of making a follow-up comment because i find the use of the comment for a long post rather hard. […]

  8. […] Related posts: Mixed-blood fighter, Nationalism in Korea […]

  9. 4692dfd3da said



  10. Lucille said

    Fantastic read, I changed template on my website and then the rankings
    Posted this on Facebook, very interesting

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