Thoughts on History and Future of Minjok

Back in June of 2002, a large crowd in red clothes filled the Seoul Plaza to see soccer matches together on a giant screen. It was the Red Devils, Korean national soccer team supporters, shouting "taehan min'guk(Republic of Korea)" and hugging with strangers when Korea scored or won the game. The then president Kim Dae-Jung commented on the victory over Spain as 'Korea's happiest day since Dangun', and news media reported that the World Cup brought Han Minjok as one.

But what exactly is Minjok? Koreans use this term frequently to describe their identity, even though the concept of it cannot be easily explained. I am a student of Korean Minjok Leadership Academy and the school tries to raise Minjok's future leaders. Shamefully, I feel daunted to talk about what the word means since I find it ambiguous and difficult to set the boundary as to how far it covers. So, it was a moment of revelation when I discovered that 'Minjok' is actually derived from a Japanese notion of minzoku (nation) in the early Meiji period. Further research found that Shin Chae-Ho, an active nationalist and independence activist in the first few decades of 20th century, proposed the concept in an attempt to "inspire confidence in Korea's resistance against the Japanese" when Korea was under Japanese rule. 

1. History

Shin Chae-Ho,
“Korea’s greatest historian”
Shin strengthened the idea by tracing Korean history to Dangun, a fictional character who is believed to had founded Gojoseon in 2333 BC. Dangun replaced Gijaa semi-legendary Chinese sage who is said to have ruled Gojoseon in 11th century BCThe reason why he chose Dangun as the root of the Korean is well-explained in Korea Between Empires, 1895-1919, written by Andre Schmid
"Korea needed its own national genealogical founder to compete with China's Huangdi or Amaterasu of Japan. It was Tan'gun who fulfilled this role as national founder and ancestor of the Korean minjok as propounded by Sin Ch'aeho in Toksa sillon (A new reading of history: 1908). By tracing Korean ancestry from Tan'gun through Puyô, Samguk, T'ongil Silla, Parhae, Koryô, and Chosôn, Sin compiled a national chokpo (genealogical table) for the Korean minjok and provided a new concept of national identity that persisted regardless of dynastic change or indeed colonial rule."
This tells us the Minjok was devised to set Korea's genealogical history apart from that of China and Japan, establishing the uniqueness of the Korean race. In other words, the concept had to be created out of necessity to stop Korea from being a colony and fight against Japan's attempts to assimilate Korean culture in various ways such as Sōshi-kaimei, forbidding the use of Korean in schools, and forcing to worship Shinto, Japans's indigenous religion. Shin's plan was to set Minjok as a pivotal idea in enlightening people about the situation and stimulating both resistance and autonomous spirit in their mind to take back what they had lost.  He also wanted to prevent intellectuals from collaborating to Japan. Many intellectuals including turned their backs on Korea due to social Darwinism, an ideology of society which suggested that the 'fittest' races survive. One of them was Yi Kwang-su, well-known for later cooperating with Japanese rule over Korea, even though his early works aimed for national enlightenment, and he grew up with Donghak believers, a religion which rose against the encroachment of European culture.

2. 'Minjok' after liberation

Rhee Syng-Man(Left, in office from 1948 to 1960)
Park Chung-Hee(Right, in office from 1962 to 1979)
So, the goal of Shin's Minjok concept was to unite Korean people through the same historic ancestry. What is interesting is that the race-based concept did not disappear after Korea's liberation and persists to this day unlike Germany and Japan, which abandoned it after the world war due to its extremely nationalistic qualities. The concept flourished to serve as political motives in the early years of South Korea, especially when President Rhee Syng-Man and Park Chung-hee took office. If Shin used the notion to resist against imperialism, the two president combined nationalism and anti-Communism in Minjok to accomplish their political intentions. They tried to bring Korean people together to "increase competitiveness and productivity, improve national unity, and preempt criticism of the government."

This approach had resulted in several desirable outcomes. Rhee "established building blocks for development of Korean economy" by instituting market economy. Park introduced New Community Movement, successfully modernizing rural economy to strengthen Korea's economic stability. The movement greatly promoted Korea's economic growth that UN chose it as one of the efficient rural development models in the world, and that more than 70 countries adopted it as a base model for economic reform

New Community Movement (New Village Movement or Saemaul Movement)

But at the same time, strong nationalism provided the two presidents reasons to justify violence against those who held communist beliefs. Rhee was responsible for Jeju Massacre in 1948 and Bodo League Massacre in 1950, which his army slaughtered an estimated number of 60,000 and 200,000 South Korean communist sympathizers respectively. One fifth of the entire Jeju population was killed because they disagreed with the idea of setting up different governments for North and South Korea. Bodo League was an 're-education' movement consisting of leftists and Rhee's political opponents. When Kim Il-Sung started the Korean War in June 1950, Rhee ordered his army to execute Bodo League and South Korean Workers Party related people, and U.S. Army also took part in the killing. These mass killings were kept highly confidential for many years from the public, as the government argued that its policies do best to implement the interest of Minjok.

Left : Communist sympathizers captured while hiding in mountains in Jeju
Right : Bodo League massacre mass grave

3. Another concept, Minjung

People's lives under the Fourth Republic and its Yushin Constitution were harsh, with a president exerting virtually autocratic power. Therefore, people began to fight for their political freedom against government suppression. Gwangju Democratization Movement arose a year later the assassination of Park in 1979, against the military coup by an army leader Chun Doo-Hwan. Numerous political demonstrations ensued including June Democracy Movement that drove Chun to quit presidency and changed the constitution to allow direct election of the President. 

<25 Years Ago: The Kwangju Massacre in South Korea>
-might take some time to load

The movements were attempts to shift the best interests of the nation from Minjok to Minjung, which included those politically oppressed, economically exploited, sociologically marginalized, culturally despised, and religiously condemned. This point of view condemned Korean government's reliance on Japanese and American economic and military powers, and tried to re-write Korean contemporary history from the perspective of 'the people' without the concept with Cold War mentality.
...the minjung liberation ideology argued that Korea’s enemies were not those north of the 38th Parallel, but rather those in South Korea, Japan, and America who profiteered from the labor of the Korean workers. It demanded a concrete reflection on the impact of economic development in Korea on the minjung’s welfare, and on the autonomy of Korea’s own domestic affairs, as well as economic independence.
The term “minjung” was associated with dissatisfied crowds of common people as early as the Tonghak peasants rebellions in the late nineteenth century. The later meaning of minjung was profoundly re-shaped by the 1980s student movements which added a socialist character to the image of the nationalistic and righteous minjung.
Luc Walhain - Transcending Minjok: How Redefining Nation Paved the Way to Korean Democratization

4. 'Minjok' in the future

Minjok is an artificial concept designed to bring people together and fight for existence of the nation. It was made out of necessity to set Korean apart from other countries, and triggered Defensive Nationalism. By stating Koreans have long history and are tanil-minjok (a single-ethnic nation), it created a strong bond between the people. However, it acted as an obstacle when dealing with North Korean issues and globalization. Incorporated with anti-communism, discussion of policies regarding North Korean has always been a sensitive matter in the National Assembly. Nationalism caused by the concept of Minjok often resulted in discrimination against the mix-raced and migrant workers.

In a globalized world, countries continue to establish close relations with other nations. It is an inevitable situation which every country will have to go through regardless of the position and influence in international society. Korea is not an exception, as "the number of immigrant spouses and their children reached 309,800, accounting for 0.36 percent of the population. The figure is expected to exceed 2 million by around 2050, taking up 5.1 percent of the population." Although the Korea nationality law is based on jus sanguinis,  the emphasis on sharing the same blood does not hold much importance in current segyehwa trend. It only hinders ethnic non-Koreans living in Korea including multicultural families from becoming true members of society by causing prejudices and unfair treatment, such as delayed payments and physical assaults on migrant workers.

Globalization is inevitable and Korea should change its way of thinking in order to transform the society into a flexible place where cultural and ethnic diversity exists in harmony. This is not to say that Korea should abandon or take less care of its history and tradition. Rather, Koreans should acquire knowledge on their own culture and build up a solid foundation to accommodate foreign ideas through creative modifications so that they suits the circumstances of the country. Therefore, the concept of Minjok should be used to overcome a national crisis like it did back in '1997 IMF financial crisis' and solve social problems that minjung suffers. Otherwise, it can shape up part of a political strategy and allow one person to have too much power in possession.

However, the ultimate goal of Minjok is peaceful reunification of North and South Korea. Though North Korea's attitudes of the last few decades have not been friendly towards South Korea, Minjok will play a key role in a possible reunification process. North Korea has been virtually isolated from the international society, but still shares the same concept of Minjok, that both Korea is originated from the same ancestry and possess the same blood. Of course, the discussion on economic and political integration must precede before actual endeavors for national unification, but the idea of Minjok will be an underlying force behind the whole process. My thought, however, is that the power of the word Minjok will dwindle and eventually disappear after the reunification since the reason why Shin Chae-Ho came up with the notion was to bring the nation together.

North and South Korea marching together under
one 'unification' flag in 2000 Sydney Olympics

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One Response to Thoughts on History and Future of Minjok

  1. Wow. BIG essay. I'm sure Menard liked it.

    As a general comment - your blog is great! Nice variety of posts and solid writing. Your posts all try and be a bit better than essential. Seems you enjoy blogging, so I hope you keep doing it even as a Junior. Someday this could be a valuable thing to use as a portfolio. Good luck!



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