What forces have fostered nationalism in Korea? How have they done this, and what has been the result?

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kipling2448 | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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Korea’s is an ancient culture, and nationalism among Koreans is as strong as any in the world. Koreans take great pride in their heritage, and in the contributions to the growth of Asian civilizations. Nationalism, of course, is a shared sense of identity among a group of individuals within a defined state, the population often—but not always—united by a common language. It is further defined by collective pride in that nation and generally includes a sense of superiority over all other cultures. All of this applies to Korea. Existing on a peninsula, with only one major international border (there is a very small common border with Russia near Vladivostok), that being with China, Koreans were insulated from most outside influences for many centuries. That said, nationalism among Koreans is often said to have become a major force in the 19th century. As is often the case, the rise in Korean nationalism is largely attributable to resistance to outside forces. As European explorers, missionaries and general purveyors of Western imperialism increasingly injected Western concepts, including Christianity, into Korean culture, they were met with a major backlash in the form of nationalist sentiments that rejected Christianity in favor of “Eastern” influences native to the region.

Korean resistance to Western influences found its most formidable expression in the development of an entirely new religion, Tonghak. Founded by Ch’oe Cheu (1824-1864), Tonghak incorporated elements of the Buddhism and Confucianism native to the region, but Cheu refined it and made it uniquely “Korean.” For his efforts at preserving the Korean identity, Cheu was executed, precipitating the Tonghak Rebellion that did more to cement Cheu’s enduring influence in Korean culture than any other action. It wasn’t only the West that threatened Korea’s identity and independence, though. As Japan emerged as a major regional power and practiced its own imperialist policy, it made Korea one of its main targets for colonization. If European imperialism fostered the growth of Korean nationalism, Japanese imperialism made Korean nationalism a major force with which to reckon. The Japan-Korea Treaty of 1876 had formalized and institutionalized a Japanese role in Korean affairs, but it was the wholesale Japanese invasion of the Korean Peninsula in 1910 that seriously spurred the growth of Korean nationalism. The brutality of and indignity inherent in Japan’s ruthless occupation was the spark that truly precipitated a degree of nationalism that remains extreme to this day.

With this brief (very brief) background, an essay or research project focused on nationalism in Korea should emphasize the nation’s history of resistance to outside influences and the growth of the Korean identity in the face of external pressures to westernize and to submit to Japanese imperialism. The goals and methods underlying Korean national identity are deeply rooted in the nation’s ancient history, but, as with many smaller countries confronted with the threat of submission from larger neighbors or distant powers, the unifying effects of those external threats were instrumental in facilitating the growth of Korean nationalism. Nationalism in Korea reflects that nation’s geographic isolation and its history of resistance to foreign imperialism. Today, that nationalism serves to maintain national unity on both sides of the 38th Parallel.  In both the north and the south, it is a major force in the Korean people’s perceptions of their place in global affairs. Koreans continue to look at outside powers, especially Japan, as a threat to Korean independence. They can be deeply emotionally wounded by perceived slights in the international arena, and take tremendous pride in national accomplishments, such as economic growth and the success of Korea’s high technology and automotive sectors in the south, and the ability to rattle far larger, more powerful nations through demonstrations of its nuclear capabilities in the north. Korean school textbooks reflect that sense of national pride by emphasizing their country’s role in world affairs while also recalling the country’s humiliation at the hands of the Japanese. (The issue of Japan’s use of kidnapped Korean women as prostitutes to service Japanese soldiers during the occupation, the so-called “comfort women,” remains among the most sensitive issues dividing both Koreas from Japan.)

Discussions of the methods employed by Koreans to further foster a strong sense of nationalism should include the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul. Every nation that hosts the Olympics exploits the opportunity to foster national pride and to propagandize to the world about that nation’s cultural superiority. In Korea, manifestations of nationalism that accompanied the 1988 Olympics were as evident as any in recent memory. Koreans took great pride in their opportunity to host that major athletic event.

Nationalism, as noted, affects every country in the world. Countries that are geographically—and, in the case of North Korea, politically—isolated generally develop extreme forms of nationalism that defy the realities in which those nations exist. North Korea is able to exploit Korean nationalism by virtue of its once formidable ability to seal its population off from outside influences, including all forms of communication. The advent of the Internet has made available to even some North Koreans access to information heretofore unheard of in “the Hermit Kingdom,” but mass ignorance of the outside world on the part of most North Koreans has made possible degrees of nationalism unmatched in much of the world. Governments in North and South Korea have historically used crude stereotypes and perceptions of external threats (including to their populations’ dignity) to foster nationalism that helps them to retain their holds on power.

An essay on nationalism in Korea can start with an introductory paragraph that defines “nationalism” and provides a brief discussion of nationalism in Korea as manifested in public perceptions of their own and other countries, such as through the use of survey and polling data. Following paragraphs should retrace some of the pertinent history, especially that covering the last 200 years, while describing the development of those philosophies and religions unique to Korea, such as the development of Tonghak. Hopefully, the sources linked below will be of assistance in preparing any such essay.

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