The ICAS Lectures


Koreanness and Korean Identity in the 21st Century

Young-chan Ro

ICAS Summer Symposium

August 16, 2014
George Mason University

Institute for Corean-American Studies, Inc.

Biographic sketch & Links: Young-chan Ro

Koreanness and Korean Identity in the 21st Century.

Young-chan Ro

George Mason University

Institute for Corean-American Studies Summer Symposium,
George Mason University
August 16, 2014


A new search for "Koreanness" and "Korean identity" is a recent phenomenon. Fifty or sixty years ago, we had a very different view of "Koreanness" or "Korean identity." After the liberation from the Japanese occupation in 1945 and the tragic and devastating Korean War in 1950, Korea was busy with re-building a nation. The most pressing concern for Korea was our survival as both a nation and an individual. We had very little time to think about ourselves as Korean except a very simple negative view of being "Korean" with low self-esteem.

Korea has transformed herself in a remarkable way for the last 50 years since 1960s. Now, the Korean identity is emerging as an important issue. Korea has made impressive achievements during the last 50 years in three different but related areas: the political, the socio-economic, and the cultural. Politically Korea has achieved democratization from the dictatorship and military regime. When I came to the United States in 1971, the only news that American news media reported about Korea was the military dictatorship of President Park Chung Hee. Korea was depicted as a politically primitive country, and many people inside and outside of Korea thought that the realization of democracy in Korea was an impossible dream. A foreign news reporter who came to Korea in 1950s and 1960s to observe the Korean society and political situation at that time made the famous statement, "To expect democracy in Korea is to expect the blooming a rose in a trash bag." Now you see the full-blown democracy in Korea. This is a miracle. Korea achieved this miracle only within the last half a century. I am not saying that Korean democracy is the best form of political system. Although Korea suffers the same kinds of political problems and mishaps found in democracy in any other countries but still it is true that Korea is a fully democratized country.

On the economic front Korea has made a phenomenal growth from the one of poorest countries on earth to the one of the top ten or twelve industrialized countries in the world within only 50 years. Korean technology now dominates the world market. Samsung, Hyundai, and LG have become global brand names. When I came to the United States in 1971, the only "made in Korea" products found in the US market were cheap wigs and textile goods. No refined and sophisticated Korean technological products were available in the world market. Even 20 years ago, the Korean made cars at that time were the subject of a joke of an American TV talk show. Now, no Americans joke about Hyundai Sonata, Samsung TV, or LG refrigerator. Rather these brand names are now the envy of the world.

From the cultural point of view, Korea has gone through the process of re-discovering and re- appreciating its own tradition. My generation, as we grew up in South Korea, did not appreciate much about our own cultural heritages. The devastation of the Korean War (1950-1953) and the economic destituteness made us "survival" as the first priority both individually and collectively. Our major concern was how to catch up with the modern industrialized West. Korea has also developed a sense of urgency in transforming the country with the Western values. The whole country looked up the Western and especially American values and look down whatever associated with Korea or Korean heritages. "Made in Korea" was a nickname for inferior quality while "made in USA" was a label for superior quality. Korea, 50 years ago, had a very negative view of herself because most Koreans at that time believed the hardship we endured at that time was due to the fault of our own traditional social values and cultural heritages. We blamed our own ancestors and our traditional culture and heritages for all the misfortunes and social ills. We never thought about anything good about ourselves. We did not have a desire to learn our past and our own heritages. Best and brightest minded young students, when they go to colleges and universities, often preferred majoring the subjects associated with the Western culture such as English literature, history, philosophy, religions, etc., and most college courses were designed to study the West. We looked down ourselves, our own traditions. Even in arts and music, very few studied traditional Korean arts and music such as gayaguem or pansori while the students who study piano and violin, for example, were highly popular. Now many Koreans are studying our own cultural heritages, arts, and music with a sense of pride. Furthermore, Korean pop-culture in the form of popular drama and popular song and dance, K-Pop, called hallyu, is now spreading throughout not only Asia but also it expands even beyond Asia and extends to South America and North America.

Historical Observation

When I grew up in Korea in 1950s and 1960s, Korean's self-understanding negative and self- esteem was low. Some even lamented about the fact that we were born in such a poor and powerless country. There was no sense of pride and confidence in saying that "I am a Korean" when I came to the United States. In fact, right after the liberation from the 36 years of the Japanese occupation in Korea in 1945, Korea divided in two, North Korea and South Korea resulting in the tragic Korean War. South Korea was under the power of America, North Korea under Russia and China. Therefore, we were divided in two and each was heavily dependent on the major powers of the world. In this context, Koreanness seemed to be defined in terms of "divisive" and "serving a big power" among others as characterized by some.

In fact, during the Japanese occupation, most Japanese scholars, in order to justify Japan's occupation in Korea, defined "Koreanness" as "divisive" and Koreans were not able to exist themselves independently but they must depend on other big nations. Before we define ourselves, Japan defined Korean identity first in such a negative way. Japan did this in a systematic way by studying Korean history and came up with this conclusion in order convince us to believe that we need Japan to rule us 1.   In fact, Japanese historians studied and wrote Korean history as a nation- state, before any Korean historian did. Furthermore, most early Korean historians who studied Korean history were under the Japanese scholars and their guidance. Japanese imposed their specific view of history and interpreted Korean history from that particular perspective in stressing the two points. One was that Koreans are highly divisive () and the other one was that Koreans were unable to govern themselves and they were in need of a powerful nation to depend on (). Unfortunately, Koreans have accepted these characteristics as their historical "Koreanness" and shaped their identity based on these characteristics. 2   The tragedy of the Japanese occupation of Korea had a larger and more serious and long impact on shaping the negative image of "Koreanness." Now, we are in search of a new meaning of being "Korean" and "Korean-American," and a search of our identity. We can no longer accept the description and characteristics of Koreans that the Japanese manufactured and imposed on us. How do we discover ourselves collectively as Korean? How do we approach in finding our identity?

We have two yet related questions. What is "Koreanness" to be defined in the 21st century? What can be our identity as being a Korean or a Korean-American living in the global age? As seen above, defining "Koreanness" can be difficult and even dangerous. A new way of finding "Koreanness" must not be fixed and frozen but to be open, dynamic, and creative. In this sense, we have to look at our history from a new perspective with a new interpretative paradigm. We should no longer make a mistake by accepting the Japanese interpretation of Korean history or even writing and constructing Korean history from the Japanese colonial perspective and assumption. In fact, for the last a half century, some Koreans have struggled to get rid of the Japanese colonial perspective of Korean history but it has been a difficult task because many well known modern Korean historians during the Japanese colonial period were educated and trained by the Japanese historians who had a specific interpretative paradigm in interpreting Korean history.

On the other hand, there were counter movements against the Japanese colonial perspective. These young scholars, however, often became "nationalistic" and ideologically oriented. In other words, these counter movements against the Japanese colonial historical perspective have had a tendency in engaging in nationalistic interpretation of Korean history especially the ancient Korea. Shin Cheho (1880-1936), Pak Eunsik (1859-1925) were the leaders by focusing on the ancient history of Korea as a people in emphasizing the significant of Dangun as the founder of Ancient Kingdom of Korea.

We must have a new perspective and a new sense of understanding in the context of 21st century global age. We have to look our history from the perspective of 21st century Korea. The interpretation of Korean history is not fixed or static but open and dynamic process. Our new perspective or our new paradigm for understanding Korean history and heritages has to be moved from the past to the present and to the future. We have to reverse our way of understanding Korea: not from the past to the present, but from the present to the past. The Koreanness what we are looking for is not to be confined to our past. Instead, we have to look at what we are now and what we are envisioning for the future. I am not suggesting that we should abandon our past nor implying that our past history is irrelevant to our efforts in finding who we are in terms of "Koreanness." What I am suggesting here, however, a radical turn in the way of looking our history, we have to look our history from the present with the vision for the future. Our past is not something fixed, static and unchangeable but it is open to our interpretation from the present perspective. "Koreanness" is not to be found simply by going back to our history without having a clear sense of our present self-understanding and a vision for the future.

We can no longer accept, for example, the historical characterization of Korea as a "hermit kingdom." 3   Korea now is one of the most globalized and diasporic countries in the world. Now Koreans are scattered around 200 countries. Korean technologies gained a global reputation including Samsung, Hyundai-Kia, and LG that are found in everywhere in the world. Individually, Koreans are now in charge of most crucial global affairs including the United Nation and the World Bank. Korea certainly is no longer a "hermit kingdom." Korea has become a model country for many developing countries in Africa, South Asia, and other parts of the world. Korea is one of the most successfully globalized countries on earth. It is remarkable to look at the fact that a small country, only a half of the Korean peninsula with a population of 50 million without much natural recourses has become a major global country. In 2009, South Korea became the world's first former aid recipient to the OECD's Development Assistant Committee, becoming a major donor. Not only in the field of economy and technology but also in the field of arts and culture, Korea has produced many world-class top performers and artists. In the area of pop culture, Korea has considerable influence in Asia and expending globally in a process called the Korean wave or hallyu.

Koreanness has to be redefined in light of what she has done during the last a half century. What Koreans have done in the fifty years were so remarkable and even miraculous considering the shortness of time and with very limited natural resources in Korea. This phenomenal success certainly reflects certain aspects of "Koreanness." The Koreans in this phenomenal success are characterized as entrepreneurial, adventurous, and enduring. These characteristics are found in both Korea and abroad. During the regime of President Park Chung Hee, there were numerous success stories about the industrializing process, the Korean success stories. When Korea applied a major loan from the World Bank to create a steel industry in South Korea during the Park regime, it was turned down because the World Bank thought Korea was not ready to start such industry. Steel industry requires a lot more money, experience, technology, etc. Korea was not qualified by any of these categories that will match the global standard. President Park Chung Hee was disappointed but he turned to Japan and able to get a small amount of loan to start the steel industry. Many professionals outside Korea thought Korea would not be able to start the steel industry with such a small amount of loan from Japan. This was the beginning of the world- renowned the Posco (Pohang Iron and Steel Company), the fourth largest steel company in the world located in Pohang, Korea. There are numerous stories like this to show how Koreans are so innovative, industrious, and adventurous. The miracle of the Han river was based on the unique Korean characters, our entrepreneurship, innovative mind, the spirit of adventure, and industrious persistent to achieve the goal.

Koreans abroad including the United States have achieved remarkable success. Most Korean- Americans opened their own small mom-and-pop shops in dangerous areas with considerable risks. Korean immigrants set up their business in the areas that the mainline American grocery company abandoned because they thought the areas were too dangerous to operate a store. Korean-Americans took risks and even sacrificed themselves to create successful businesses.

The concept of identity is not something so clearly defined and fixed but in the process of making. It is a dynamic process. Korean identity, thus, in the process of making, but we can envision and invent ourselves with the vision for the future. Based on what we have seen the Koreans what they have done in the last 50 years, we may be able to envision what we will be able to do in the 21century global age. The future is here now, we will be able to make the kind of Koreans what we invent and envision for the 21 century. Only then will we be able to see the true nature of "Koreanness" and "Korean identity."

1 Soon after Japan occupied Korea in 1910, Japan created the post of Governor-General of Korea (Joseon Chongdokbu) as the chief office to rule Korea. Under the direction of this office, Japan issued an edict in 1921 (Edict no. 64 ) to establish a committee to gather historical data, edit them , and write Korean history in order to justify the Japanese occupation of Korea. This committee was consisted of many Japanese historians and several noted Korean historians. The official name of this committee was the Committee on Editing and Supervising of Korean History (Joseonsa pyeonsuhoe).
2 We must recognize that there were some genuine patriotic movements to transform the negative aspects of Korean characteristics in 1920s right after the Japanese occupation initiated by Yi Kwang-su, Ahn Changho, Seo Jae-pil (Philip Jasisohn), Syingman Rhee, and others. Yi Kwang-su, for example, published an article, "minjokgejoron" [Discussion on Re-making of Korean People], in Gyebyeok in 1922. These and some others who thought the weaknesses and miseries what Korea was facing as a nation at that time was largely due to some negative characteristics of Korean people at that time, especially by the end of the Joseon Dynasty. Yi Kwang-su, however, became a "collaborator" in implementing the Japanese colonial policies in the late 1930s. Nonetheless, we must make it clear that when Yi Kwang-su, wrote the controversial article minjokgejoron in 1920, he like other patriotic figure such as Ahn Changho, was not influenced by the Japanese attempt to justify the Japanese occupation of Korea. On the contrary, he together with other leaders was involved in independent movement against the Japanese colonial rule of Korea.
3 The Joseon Dynasty in the mid 19th century was often characterized by some foreign travelers who visited Korea as a "hermit kingdom" or "hermit nation." William Elliot Griffis, for example, wrote on Korea with the title, Corea, the Hermit Nation (1882), but now this title "the hermit kingdom" is also used in reference to North Korea.

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