When we talk about society and politics, one often encounters trends which are clear to people on the ground, but remain largely hidden from outside observers. Unfortunately, in many cases such tectonic shifts in popular sentiment, values and cultural fashions remain hidden within a thick cloud of rhetoric and accepted wisdom. If actual developments don’t agree with widely accepted ideological cliché, people, including insiders, tend to remain silent on such changes, since even obvious things might appear controversial.
Thus, it is always refreshing when one comes across an article or book whose author is both independent enough and brave enough to call a spade a spade, to challenge widely accepted fictions and bring attention to a reality which to many is unpalatable.
Emma Campbell’s book, South Korea’s New Nationalism: The End of ‘One Korea’? is a good example of such an approach. One cannot label it as iconoclastic, since the author says what has been quietly discussed for many years. Nonetheless, Emma Campbell’s observations contradict what both the South Korean left and the South Korean right want us to believe and she is one of the first to say loudly and persuasively what many of us have long felt. The book is based on firm, broad factual observations (in her case, a large-scale interview program targeting young South Koreans from a range of the nation’s universities).
The younger Koreans are less concerned with blood, genes and soil
In a nutshell, Campbell demonstrates convincingly that in the minds of young South Koreans, national identity is undergoing significant changes. These changes can be best described as a slow-motion transition from ethnic to civil nationalism. The younger Koreans are less concerned with blood, genes and soil. Rather, they are much more concerned with a shared identity and culture.
This change in the nature of South Korea’s nationalism implies two important things. First, young South Koreans are less inclined to interpret North Korea as part of the “imagined community” of their nation. For them, North Koreans, as well as many ethnic Koreans overseas, in spite of shared blood, are clearly outsiders. On the other hand, as Emma Campbell demonstrates, the young are much more ready to embrace ethnically non-Korean immigrants as a part of their national community (as long as these immigrants are willing to learn the language and conform to accepted South Korean behavioral norms).
This change, which began some 15 years ago, and has greatly accelerated in recent years, forces us to reconsider the future prospects of the Korean Peninsula. As Emma Campbell points out, the majority of her interviewees showed little interest in reunification with the North. While in many cases they did not openly challenge the idea of unification being desirable in the long run, the interviews nonetheless express a clear unwillingness to reunify anytime soon.
Most of them explain this attitude through fear of economic disruption, which would almost certainly arise from reunification. Even those who embrace the idea of a united Korean Peninsula tend to support arguments smacking of early 20th century imperialism. These people talk about the abundant natural resources and cheap labor of North Korea, both of which are in ready supply should the North and South reunify.
WHAT MAKES A NATION?
The numerous extracts from the interviews, dealing with the topic, make an instructive if disturbing reading even for those who have heard same talks oneself. Needless to say, the perception of North Koreans as merely suppliers of cheap labor and services for a modern South Korean economy does not sound anachronistic in the modern world, but is bound to create significant tensions between the two countries should reunification occur.
Campbell draws on her interviews and public surveys to point out that North Korean refugees seeking opportunities for work and social advancement face serious discrimination in the South. Campbell agrees with Seol and Skrentny’s idea of modern South Korea as a “hierarchical nation.” She emphasizes that in this new socially constructed hierarchy, North Korean migrants are at the bottom, while it is dominated by South Koreans and ethnic Koreans from Westernized developed countries, above all, the U.S.
These findings may understandably cause one to be judgmental of South Koreans, accusing them of arrogance and lack of compassion. However, this is inherently the wrong approach. The changing perceptions of South Korea in regards to the North is accompanied by an increasing willingness to accept non-ethnic Korean newcomers as a part of the emerging South Korean nation.
One should not be surprised by such developments. Among historians there are heated debates on the origin of the concept of national identity, but no serious scholar would doubt that nations are made and re-made. The imagined community of a nation is created, and strengthened, by shared historical, cultural, and social experiences. However, this is exactly what both North and South Korea have been lacking for more than 70 years. The lives of Northerners and Southerners are obviously very different now, and this difference is growing. Thus, it is understandable that South Koreans are beginning to see themselves as another, wholly separate, community based exclusively on the territory of (South) Korea. These changes are natural and, as time goes by, might become irreversible.
Perhaps if unification does not happen within the lifetime of this young generation, it will not happen at all
This transformation, described by Campbell, could mean a completely new situation may eventually arise around ideas of a unified North-South Korean state. Sooner or later, the people in their 20s that Campbell interviewed, will become opinion leaders, as well as decision-makers. When that happens, one should not expect they will have the same positive attitude toward reunification as previous generations, whose worldview was dominated by old school ethnic nationalism.
To put things differently, Korean unification is becoming less and less likely as time goes by. There is less and less drive towards achieving it among the South Korean public. Perhaps if unification does not happen within the lifetime of this young generation, it will not happen at all. And we are lucky that there are people like Campbell who can dedicate the required hundreds – if not thousands – of hours to interviewing Koreans, demonstrating this tectonic shift and contemplating the consequences. And the book is well-written as well: easy to read, full of witty observations and telling quotes from the many interviews conducted during Campbell’s extensive research.
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Featured Image: Group photo with some awesome Korean university students by seafaringwoman on 2011-05-28 18:00:53