Korean ethnic nationalism, or racial nationalism, is a political ideology and a form of ethnic (or racial) identity that is widely prevalent in modern North and South Korea. It is based on the belief that Koreans form a nation, a "race", and an ethnic group that shares a unified bloodline and a distinct culture. It is centered on the notion of the minjok (Hangul: 민족; Hanja: 民族), a term that had been coined in Imperial Japan ("minzoku") in the early Meiji period on the basis of Social Darwinian conceptions. Minjok has been translated as "nation", "people", "ethnic group", "race", and "race-nation".
This conception started to emerge among Korean intellectuals after the Japanese-imposed Protectorate of 1905, when the Japanese were trying to persuade Koreans that both nations were of the same racial stock. The notion of the Korean minjok was first made popular by essayist and historian Shin Chaeho in his New Reading of History (1908), a history of Korea from the mythical times of Dangun to the fall of Balhae in 926 CE. Shin portrayed the minjok as a warlike race that had fought bravely to preserve Korean identity, had later declined, and now needed to be reinvigorated. During the period of Japanese rule (1910–1945), this belief in the uniqueness of the Korean minjok gave an impetus for resisting Japanese assimilation policies and historical scholarship.
In contrast to Japan and Germany, where such race-based conceptions of the nation were discred after the Second World War because they were associated with ultranationalism or Nazism, postwar North and South Korea continued to proclaim their ethnic homogeneity and pure bloodline. In the 1960s, President Park Chung-hee strengthened this "ideology of racial purity" to legitimate his authoritarian rule, while in North Korea official propaganda has portrayed Koreans as "the cleanest race." Contemporary Korean historians continue to write about the nation's "unique racial and cultural heritage." This shared conception of a racially defined Korea continues to shape Korean politics and foreign relations, gives Koreans an impetus to national pride, and feeds hopes for the reunification of the two Koreas.
Despite statistics showing that South Korea is becoming an increasingly multi-ethnic society, most of the South Korean population continues to identify itself as "one people" (Korean: 단일민족; Hanja: 單一民族, danil minjok) joined by a common "bloodline". A renewed emphasis on the purity of Korean "blood" has caused tensions, leading to renewed debates on multi-ethnicity and racism both in South Korea and abroad.
Contrary to popular belief that the contemporary Korean ideology of a "pure Korean race" began only in the early 20th century when the Japanese annexed Korea and launched a campaign to persuade them that they were of the same pure racial stock as the Japanese themselves, this ideology existed since ancient times, similar to the Mongolian or Han race system.
In the colonial period, the Imperial Japanese's assimilation policy claimed that Koreans and Japanese were of common origin but the former always subordinate. The pure blood theory was used to justify colonialist policies to replace Korean cultural traditions with Japanese ones in order to supposedly get rid of all distinctions and achieve equality between Koreans and inlanders. The policy included changing Korean names into Japanese, exclusive use of Japanese language, school instruction in the Japanese ethical system, and Shinto worship. Brian Reynolds Myers, a professor at Dongseo University, argues that seeing the failure of the pure assimilationist policy, Japanese imperial ideologues changed their policy into creating a Korean ethnic-patriotism on par with the Japanese one. They encouraged Koreans to take pride in their Koreanness, in their history, heritage, culture and "dialect" as a brother nation going back to a common ancestry with the Japanese.
Shin Chaeho (1880–1936), the founder of the nationalistic historiography of modern Korea and a Korean independence movement activist, published his influential book of reconstructed history Joseon Sanggosa (The Early History of Joseon) in 1924–25, proclaiming that Koreans are descendants of Dangun, the legendary ancestor of Korean people, who merged with Buyo of Manchuria to form the Goguryeo people.
Borrowing from the Japanese theory of nation, Shin Chaeho located the martial roots of the Korean in Goguryeo, which he depicted as militarist and expansionist which turned out to inspire pride and confidence in the resistance against the Japanese. In order to establish Korean uniqueness, he also replaced the story of Gija Joseon, whose founder (Gija) was the paternal uncle or brother of the Chinese Shang emperor Zhou, with the Dangun legend and asserted that it was an important way to establish Korea’s uniqueness.
After independence in the late 1940s, despite the split between North and South Korea, neither side disputed the ethnic homogeneity of the Korean nation based on a firm conviction that they are purest descendant of a legendary genitor and half-god figure called Dangun who founded Gojoseon in 2333 BCE based on the description of the Dongguk Tonggam (1485).
In both Koreas, pure blood theory is a common belief, with even some South Korean presidents subscribing to it. The debates on this topic can be found sporadic in the South, whereas the public opinion in the North is hard to access. In a nationalistic view, to impugn or challenge the theory would have been tantamount to betraying Koreanness in the face of the challenge of an alien ethnic nation.
Some Korean scholars observed that the pure blood theory served as a useful tool for the South Korean government to make its people obedient and easy to govern when the country was embroiled in ideological turmoil. It was especially true in the dictatorial leaderships by former presidents Syngman Rhee and Park Chung-hee when nationalism was incorporated into anti-Communism.
In South Korea, the notion of "pure blood" results in discrimination toward people of both "foreign-blood" and "mixed blood". Those with this "mixed blood" or "foreign blood" are sometimes referred to as Honhyeol (Hangul: 혼혈; Hanja: 混血) in South Korea.
The South Korean nationality law is based on jus sanguinis instead of jus solis, which is a territorial principle that takes into account the place of birth when bestowing nationality. In this context, most South Koreans have stronger attachment to South Koreans residing in foreign countries and foreigners of South Korean descent, than to naturalized South Korean citizens and expatriates residing in South Korea. In 2005, the opposition Grand National Party suggested a revision of the current South Korean nationality law to allow South Korean nationality to be bestowed to people who are born in South Korea regardless of the nationalities of their parents but it was discarded due to unfavorable public opinion against such a measure.
According to Jon Huer, a columnist for the Korea Times:
In trying to understand [South] Korea and [South] Koreans, we must recognize how important blood is to [South] Korea. [South] Koreans love blood, both in the real sense and metaphorically. They like to shed blood, sometimes their own in cut fingers and sometimes animal blood, in protest. They hold "blood relations" as supreme, above other links and connections. They often add "flesh" and "bone" to their rhetorical statements and preferences. In short, [South] Korea is quite fond of thinking of itself and its people in terms of blood...
Emma Campbell from the Australian National University argues that the conceptions of South Korean nationalism is evolving among young people and that a new form is emerging that has globalised cultural characteristics. These characteristics challenge the role of ethnicity in South Korean nationalism. According to Campbell’s study for which she interviewed 150 South Koreans in their twenties, the desire for reunification is declining. However, these who are in favor of a Korean unification state reasons different from ethnic nationalism. The respondents stated that they only wanted unification if it would not disrupt the life in the South or if North Korea achieves economic parity with the South. A small number of respondents further mentioned that they support a "unification on the condition that it did not take place in their lifetime." Another reason stated for the wish for unification was the access to North Korea’s natural resources and cheap labor. This notion of evolving nationalism has been further elaborated by the meaning of uri nara (Korean: 우리나라 my country [sic!]) for young South Koreans, which only refers to South Korea for them instead to the whole Korean peninsula. Campbell’s interviews further showed that many young South Koreans have no problems to accepting foreigners as part of uri nara.
B. R. Myers noted in a 2010 New York Times orial that there was relatively little public outrage in South Korea over the sinking of the ROKS Cheonan earlier that year, which he attributed partly to a feeling of sympathy towards North Korea among South Koreans, resulting from a closer identification with the Korean race than with the South Korean state. Myers also stated that race nationalism in South Korea undermines the South Korean citizenry's patriotism towards South Korea by increasing sympathy towards North Korea, thus threatening the country's national security in the face of North Korean aggression, a sentiment shared by Korea Times columnist Jon Huer. He stated that South Koreans' race nationalism "is no problem when you have a nation state like Japan or Denmark, but is a problem when you have a state divided." Myers has also stated that conversely, North Korea does not suffer from this dilemma as by and large the North Korean people tend to equate the "Korean race" and the country of North Korea as being one and the same, unlike in South Korea where the "Korean race" and South Korea are largely seen as different entities, the former positively, the latter negatively.
As part of the deterioration of relations between North Korea and the Soviet Union in the early 1960s, North Korea forced its male citizens who had married Soviet and Eastern European women to divorce, whereupon the women, a few hundred, were expelled from the country. North Korea is alleged to have abducted foreign women in the 1970s to marry to foreign men that immigrated to North Korea in order to keep these men from having children with North Korean women. North Korea is accused of killing babies born to North Korean mothers and Chinese fathers.
In 2006, American football player Hines Ward, who was born in Seoul to a South Korean mother and a black American father, became the first South Korean-born American to win the NFL Super Bowl's MVP award. This achievement threw him into the media spotlight in South Korea. When he travelled to South Korea for the first time, he raised unprecedented attention to the acceptance of "mixed-blood" children. He also donated US$1 million to establish the "Hines Ward Helping Hands Foundation", which the media called "a foundation to help mixed-race children like himself in South Korea, where they have suffered discrimination." Hines Ward was granted "honorary" South Korean citizenship.
However, while some South Koreans are fascinated by the bi-racial sportsman, the majority of ordinary mixed-race people and migrant workers face various forms of discrimination and prejudice. In 2007, the "Korean pure blood theory" became an international issue when the U.N. Committee on the International Convention Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination urged better education on the pure blood theory is needed especially for judicial workers such as police officers, lawyers, prosecutors and judges. The suggestion received mixed reception in South Korea in which some raised a concern that foreigners will invade the South Korean culture and challenge national sovereignty. Others say that the embrace of multi-ethnicism will diminish chances of reunifying the Korean Peninsula.
In 2007 the South Korean government passed the Act on Treatment of Foreigners. Later in 2007, the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination praised the Act on Treatment of Foreigners, but also expressed a number of concerns. The Committee was concerned "about the persistence of widespread societal discrimination against foreigners, including migrant workers and children born from inter-ethnic unions, in all areas of life, including employment, marriage, housing, education and interpersonal relationships." It also noted that the terminology such as "pure blood" and "mixed blood" used in South Korea, including by the government, is widespread, and may reinforce concepts of racist superiority. The committee recommended improvement in the areas of treatment of migrant workers, abuse of and violence against foreign women married to South Korean citizens, and trafficking of foreign women for the purpose of sexual exploitation or domestic servitude. It also noted that contrary to popular domestic perception, South Korea was no longer "ethnically homogenous".
Another legislation aimed at improving the integration of ethnic minorities into South Korean society, the Support for Multicultural Families Act, was passed in 2008 (and revised in 2011).
According to 2009 statistics published by South Korean Ministry of Health and Welfare, there were 144,385 couples of international marriage in South Korea as of May 2008. 88.4% of immigrants were female, and 61.9% were from China. Recently[when?] it has been argued that South Korean society had already become a multicultural society, although foreigners make up for 3.4% of the South Korean population. As of 2011, ten ministries and agencies of South Korean government are supporting international couples and foreign workers in South Korea toward the cultural plurality.
Existing provisions in South Korean criminal law may be used to punish acts of racial discrimination, but were never used for that purpose until 2009, when the first case of a South Korean citizen verbally insulting a foreigner have been brought to court.
In 2010, the South Korean government changed the oath of enlistment of Korean soldiers, so that they do not swear allegiance anymore to the Korean race, stating that this shows openness to multiculturalism. Similarly, prior to 2007 the South Korean pledge of allegiance was towards the "Korean race" rather than towards the country of South Korea.
In 2017, Korean American actress Jamie Chung, who had auditioned for a role in the movie Crazy Rich Asians but was turned down for allegedly not being "ethnically Chinese", called the movie's casting of biracial actor Henry Golding as "bullshit" in an interview; Golding, who is of English and Malaysian Iban descent, had been cast as the Chinese Singaporean character Nick Young. Chung's remarks were heavily criticized, with many accusing her of being bigoted or racist against Eurasians and promoting racial purity by assuming Golding was not "Asian enough" to play an Asian character, despite the actor's cultural ties and upbringing in Malaysia and Singapore.  Due to heavy backlash from social media, Chung walked away from her comments and apologized to Golding.
South Koreans do ascribe a relatively higher value to race than do other nations.
Racism is as much, if not more, a problem in South Korea as it is in the United States.
As noted earlier, the word minjok (read as minzoku in Japanese) was a neologism created in Meiji Japan. When Korean (and Chinese and Japanese) nationalists wrote in English in the first half of the twentieth century, the English word they generally utilized for minjok was 'race.'
The word minjok (민족,民族) translates as race.
The idea of racial unity and continuity is embodied in the concept of tanil minjok (pure race), which holds that all Koreans have successfully maintained their "Korean-ness" by fighting off foreign invaders since the formation of the nation in prehistoric times.
Koreans' beloved trope of tanil minjok—'the single ethnic nation'— would soon come into its own (see Shin 1998). The centrality of "blood" has been revived in more current times as well.
The South needs to retire the conventional civic religion here, which is anti-Japanese pan-Korean nationalism in favor of a collective identification of civic principles.
This is no problem when you have a nation state like Japan or Denmark, but is a problem when you have a state divided.
The military has decided to omit the word 'minjok,' which refers to the Korean race, from the oath of enlistment for officers and soldiers, and replace it with 'the citizen.' The measure reflects the growing number of foreigners who gain Korean citizenship and of children from mixed marriages entering military service.