Koreanness and Korean Identity in the 21st Century.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
We have two yet related questions. What is "Koreanness" to be defined in the 21st
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
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
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
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
, 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."
This page last updated August 20, 2014 jdb
|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).
|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.
|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.