Some Thoughts on Nationalism in a Korean Context

This is an article Damjan posted some time ago. It has taken a while to bring my thought process to an appropriate place for sharing. It is about the development of legislation that outlines prosecutable acts of racist harassment in the Republic of Korea. I suppose we should be proud of Korean Politicians for deciding to address this issue, and I suppose we should consider it progress that “prosecutors sprang into action;” but all this legal posturing doesn’t meet a minimum expectation for civil decency and should have sprung 40 years ago.

The primary incident characterized in the New York Times article is against mixed-race couples of foreign men and Korean women. While abuse is described as perpetrated by middle-aged Korean men, the underlying sentiment exists across spectrums of age and gender. Hostile stares, whispers and insults muttered toward woman in the relationship are far more consistent trials these couples encounter. The resulting anxieties alter the way people live their lives. Aggression against children of these couples begins early, and is prolonged well into adulthood.

When American Football star Hines Ward was celebrated across South Korea after becoming the MVP of the 2005 Super bowl, his nationalist-inspired celebrity became a bitter-sweet display of hypocrisy for certain pockets of the populous. It was the first time children who had been bullied into isolation and suicidal ideation had seen anyone like them embraced as a symbol of success or pride. Mr. Ward has done much to use his celebrity to help children of mixed-race couples in Korea; making frequent visits to the country, and founding a charity to help children establish a sense of identity and self worth in a culture that often rejects them.

You can read the reaction of Mr. Ward’s mother to his celebrity in Korea here.

Over thirty years after leaving the Republic of Korea, she still does not seem very positive about the prospects it offers for children of mixed-race couples.

There are so many harmful elements inherent in Korea’s prominent, nationalist/racist/misogynist trend of thought that I thought it would be best to simply make a list of the most glaring self destructive components. All these points are complex in origin and propagation. They deserve their own essays:

  1. Korea- like Japan- has a drastic child shortage. Economically speaking it cannot afford to destroy and alienate its own children- regardless of who the parents are.
  2. Korea has been encouraging immigration and long term stays for selected populations over the last several years- importing laborers and specialists. It’s not just for the US Army and English Teachers anymore. If these people remain in Korea, rejected from larger society, there is a risk of creating an ostracized minority within the culture that does not feel accepted or a part of the larger community in which they live. This is a common and harmful trend in immigration patterns across the world.
  3. During my time in Korea, and in conversations with friends, I have never heard of couples with Korean men and foreign women experiencing anything close to the kind of harassment couples of the opposite dynamic feel. Korean men dating foreign women are generally not considered traitors to their nation. They seem to be viewed rather, as gifted sources and symbols of nationalist pride.
  • If Korean women are seen as victimizing their nation when they are in a sexual relationship with a foreign man, and Korean men are viewed as establishing a base for national pride when they are in a sexual relationship with foreign women, (as long as they do not marry or have children) a scaffolding for aggressive, unsympathetic male sexual roles is implied. The following attitudes of domination cannot lead to healthy, fulfilling sexual dynamics.
  • Socially, women have always married up. Until recently, they were very passive in that role. Parents made choices; dowries were exchanged based on competition and stature. Generally older, more moneyed men were considered preferable in this practice. They had physical, quantifiable worth. Recently women have developed more choice in partner selection, and if we believe women are still interested in marrying up, it might injure some men to feel as though they were frozen low on the mating chain because of unalterable, superficial genetic issues. – Is this a part of the hostility bore toward women in these relationships? If so, what does it say about the accepted role of women in relationships or the way men develop personal value?

Issues of jingoism and prejudice across gender and ethnicity are not unique to the Republic of Korea. There was a time when I would have questioned the propriety of focusing on such matters outside one’s home country. It is certainly possible for people of any nation to outline hypocrisies from any other critical nation or its citizens. Only recently a judge in Louisiana made news in the United States for refusing to perform marriage ceremonies for interracial couples.

Justice of the Peace Keith Bardwell claimed in that case that he did not believe mixed race couples should have children because of the social difficulties those children experience. I suspect such reasoning is a façade for deeper prejudice. Mr. Bardwell is accurate however, in pointing out that these couples and their children still experience hardship in the United States.

Comparisons of the comments on these two blogs indicate similar problems in China:

Be warned that some of these comments are predictably unpleasant. Not all the negative comments are from translations of Chinese reactions.

This is a random blog about a Chinese man dating a black woman.

This is a blog covering the recent popular story of Lou Jin- a woman with a black father and Chinese mother.

When it comes to issues of prejudice and homogeny, Asia can be frustrating by today’s Western standards. Every culture seems ready with a list of other hated groups of people, and nationally trained reasons for their own superiority. It’s a hate my grandparents identified with more than me. They harbored it more for the Japanese and the Germans; and that is a good perspective to bear in mind.

In 1991 Gallup released a survey of Americans indicating that 48% of respondents approved of interracial marriages compared with 42% who opposed them. It was a difference of only 6%, but the first time since the polls inception in 1958 that a relative majority had responded with general approval to the closed question. An absolute majority would not side with approval until 1997- only 13 years ago.

In 1991 I was in 9th grade, living in a small town north of LA. The place had decompensated into an erratic frothing rage over the issue of race. Rodney King was getting pummeled every hour on news updates. Given the fights and animosity at my High School I never would have guessed that our country was turning a corner in race relations. Hearing Gallup’s survey results broadened and improved my understanding of the world. If my town had so many racists and angry people, all I had to do was leave, and head to a place where enlightenment was proportional and growing stronger. The United States was 215 years into democracy and 22 years beyond landing a man on the moon. The attitudes of many at that time were at least 40 years deficient to the nations established policies on race relations and had been horrifyingly inadequate for far longer. Still, in part because of Rodney King, people understood the need for progress in this area. Spike Lee was making popular films about Malcolm X and commercials with Michael Jordan. We were a year away from electing Maya Angelou’s “First Black President (Bill Clinton).” All that seemed exciting at the time. It felt like progress we would never lose. Now here I am in Asia, where the democracy and space programs are some of the youngest in the world, and social issues will develop as it did in my days of High School: slowly, as a necessary afterthought until they can gather inertia and popularity.

These days over 75% of Americans state their approval of interracial marriages in Gallup’s anonymous surveys. Nobody has ever thought to see if those sentiments correlate with approval of interracial dating or neighborhoods. I’m unaware of any survey about popular roles of cultural minorities in the entertainment industry. We’ve been applauding our encouraging signs as of late. Signs that are not long distant from an NFL commentator suggesting racial conspiracy in the elevation of one of the Leagues most gifted athletes- because the league needed a black quarterback for better ratings.

That was on live national television, and the League still considers its worst publicity incident to be the exposure of Janet Jackson’s right nipple during Superbowl XXXVIII.

It is important for visitors to retain a perspective on the social development and equality of their host culture. Not to excuse poor behavior, but to prepare for the possibilities and implications of encountering it or experiencing it. There is nothing that will ever make prejudicial thought or aggressive behavior anything but violating to witness or experience; and there is rarely anything a foreign guest can say that will extinguish a prejudice or an individual’s self-righteousness. We are not allowed to understand; even if we are the target of the righteousness itself. It is a difficult leap backward in time when you consider the process and difficulties involved with the progress of the environment we traded for the experience. It can be of surprising personal assurance however, to have the ability to say: “I knew this was a possibility when I signed up.” That at least allows the sojourner to retain a bit of control in the experience.

South Korea has been discussing changes to its public education system that may encourage slightly more open concepts on race and ethnic identity. It is 40 years too late and not nearly enough, but a practical and logical step. As our new decade approaches, here’s hoping that the world continues to make progress and forsake complacency as best it can.

Happy Holidays Everyone,

Thank you to Veronica, Jules, Nick and Maria for contributing thoughts to the process of this writing.


  1. demonized by the demon himself says

    God created heavens and earth equally the Western Powers created the HUMAN RIGHTS ABUSES, the corruption, the wars and the “GREAT CONSPIRACY” known as the ILLUMINATI. The entire American, British, Canadian and Australian Government systems are totally corrupt. The Western Media has created an incredible veil in front of the eyes of their enslaved citizens. All one has to do is research the crimes against humanity by the Western World, it is all over the Internet. Even the widely publicized wars and destructions against nations that were created by the West and destroyed by the West. However the massive brain washing Media Propaganda employed by the West blinded all. The false claim of transforming the world into a Democratic world is a massive smoke screen that veils the true nature of what the Western world is doing behind closed doors. The Chinese Government have 1.4 Billion people to control with relatively small economy and the west accuse China of being harsh. On the other hand the Super Power, the United States of America imprison more innocents in their jails than criminals. Murders that occur in the United States equal more than other countries in the world. If one researches the Human Rights abuses of the Western World, would in fact discover that it is much more serious than anything China has done. I personally am one of the people who blows the whistle on corruption and so far I discovered that in my Western Democratic Country, not one single Government entity is not corrupt. They are the true criminals and the real terrorists.

  2. says

    Paul, whilst I agree that the measures were long overdue, I don’t think we should view this as anything other than a positive step. Although it is far from ideal, it remains a fact that some Asian countries such as Korea retain a deeply conservative and prejudice outlook with regards to human rights. We must see the progress being made in the context of the country concerned, rather than looking at it from the Eurocentric perspective to which we have become so well accustomed. Progress can only be rightfully appreciated if it is viewed in this way.

  3. says

    I agree with Ian. At least, it’s making progress in it’s own way and should be given the chance to improve the things that need to be altered, it’s not too late anyway.

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