Korea is a nation that is very conscious of its identity. The concept of the Korean race(Minjok) is continually emphasized by many. The Minjok identity helped Koreans to unite under a national impetus of modernization and industrialization during the 1960s to the 1980s. The Media often describes Korean cultural heritages as ‘the cultural heritages of the Korean Minjok’. Until recently, the Korean Ethics textbook stated that Korea was traditionally comprised of a single Minjok, and that we should be proud of that.
Since the Chosun dynasty, concepts that were similar to Minjok had been in use. Concepts such as ‘Dongpo 동포 同胞’, ‘Jokryu 족류 族類’ were in use then . Jokryu was used to differentiate the Koreans with the Japanese, and the northern equestrian Nomads. Dongpo meant ‘the people under the same King’s grace. However, these words were more limited in meaning compared to the modern ‘Minjok’. Towards the end of the Chosun dynasty, the term Minjok was used to describe ‘ethnicity’. Uses such as ‘the white Minjok 백인 민족 are noted.
This changed as the Japanese rule over the Korean empire strengthened. Liang Qichao 梁啓超 introduced a new theory about what Minjok was. He defined Minjok as a group of people who ‘share a common ancestry, reside in the same area, share the same history, share a common religion, and use a common language.’ Along with Minjok, Liang Qichao also defined Gukmin 국민 國民(national citizens) as people from the same Minjok, who share interests , and work together for a common goal. Affected by Liang Qichao’s work, the term Minjok began to be used along with Dongpo to represent the Korean people. As time went on, the Korean Minjok became a group of people who shared the Korean Spirit 조선혼, 민족의 국혼. Shin Chaeho, a contemporary Korean nationalist hisotrian, thought that Minjok was a concept that was beyond simple ‘ethnicity. He thought that Minjok was a group of people who shared a common sense of history, and who would be the central workers in the building of a modern nation. However, during the Japanese colonization period, the idea that Korea was of a single Minjok did not exist.
After the Korean liberation, the idea of the ‘Single Minjok 단일민족 單一民族’ was emphasized. This was in reaction to the trusty ship that the USA and the Soviet Union planned to impose over Korea. Leaders such as Kim Gu stepped forward, proclaiming that the Koreans were of a Single Minjok, and had been over 1300 years. The Single Minjok idea became the rallying point of Koreans who opposed division.
After the Korean division, the concept of Minjok took a different turn in south Korea. The first Korean President, Seung-mahn Lee, proposed the ‘One-people theory’. According to the one-people theory, the Korean minjok were to become a tight community that worked for the general welfare. The blood relationship that forged the Korean Minjok was essential in tying this community together. Naturally, ethnic nationalism began to from in Korea. After the Korean war, the idea of Minjok was suppressed. The Lee Sueng-mahn administration was filled with japanese collaborators, and they used the anti-communism ideology to stifle the concept of Minjok.
It was acutally the democracy fighters who revived Kim Gu’s ideals of Minjok. They merged the idea of Minjok with democratic ideals. Their ideals became known as Korean liberal nationalism (자유주의적 민족주의) They fought for the restoration of democracy in south Korea, they also fought for Korean reunification, and to get rid of the remains of the Japanese colonial rule. When the president stepped down, it seemed the ideals of liberal nationalism would be actualized.
All hopes of democracy was let down when the Military staged a coup that unseated the liberal government and built a pacist regime in Korea. Liberal Nationalism was stifled. The Park Jeong-hee administration merged nationalism (the concept of Minjok) with ideals of Industrialization. Nationalism was used as a tool to make people more obedient, and more willing to sacrifice for the Nation. Students were required to memorize the National Educational Bill, which stated that ‘we were born with the historic duty of the Minjok’s revival.’
Through continued protests and struggles, Koreans achieved a hard-fought democracy. With the new democracy, liberal nationalism gained a voice once more. However, along with liberal nationalism , the idea that nationalism was an outdated ideal also rose.
Currrently, the concept of Minjok is a confusing matter. The concepts from Military rule period are mixed with the definition given by the liberal nationalists.
The idea of Minjok went through many trasformations throughout Korean modern history. It has served a variety of purposes, and has benefited the Korean people in many ways.
Today, the debate rages on whether the idea of Minjok is outdated for the globalized world. Certainly, the ‘Single Minjok’ idea seems to conflict with the inflow of foreigners into Korea. Perhaps, the Korean xenophobia that Koreans hold towards foreigners stems from the ‘single Minjok’ ideal.
can Multiculturalism survive along with the Korean Minjok?
Obviously, if the idea of Minjok is confined to a ethnic group connected with blood-relationship ties, it cannot be compatible with multiculturalism. Inadvertently, in this case, the idea of Minjok will lead to the rejection of foreigners, and naturalized Koreans. It would be a different form of racism. It could not co-exist with any modern ideal.
However, over a very long time, the term Minjok has become synonymous with ‘the Korean people’. The idea of Minjok runs deep in the Korean mind. It forms a large part of the national identity. The term of minjok serves an invaluable function of bringing Koreans together. Then, the idea of Minjok must be expanded, rather than abandoned.
Several scholars have suggested the possibility of Open Nationalism. The Minjok should no longer be an exclusive group. The basis of the minjok must be based on equality, human rights, freedom, and democracy. These scholars call for a redefinition of the term Minjok. They claim that the minjok identity will never die away in Korea.
Shin Chaeho suggested that the Minjok was a group that shares a common sense of history, feels a sense of Community, and feels that all members will share a common future. In this definition lies the future of the Korean Minjok. To become a more accepting, open group. The minjok will continue to be an essential part in the Korean identity.