Unity is Almost Always a Myth

In an otherwise interesting discussion of North Korean defector readjustment and North-South relations in the Washington Post, Samuel Songhoon Lee drops this

In South Korea, a country that withstood centuries of invasions from its Chinese and Japanese neighbors, unity defines survival. And without ethnic diversity or a history of immigration, unity means conformity. When something becomes fashionable here, it can have significant consequences. For example, South Korea has the world’s highest ratio of cosmetic surgeons to citizens, catering to the legions of girls who receive eyelid surgery as a present for their 16th birthday. … The lack of diversity at school makes the young defectors instant standouts — subject to 15 minutes of fame and adulation, then an enduring period of isolation. When their peers ask about their accent — noticeably different from what’s common in Seoul — most students say they’re from Gangwon Province, in the northeastern part of the country.

My second reaction was to note the self-contradictory nature of the paragraph: if conformity is so ubiquitous and nationalized, how can strong regional accents survive? In fact, this is something which I’ve noted with regard to Japan as well: to a large extent, parochialism and immobility (geographic and class) mask diversity because most people don’t experience it within their own society. There’s another factor which is similar between Japan and South Korea: the domination of the media by media created within a single mega-urban community, which tends to assume its own experience and views as “normal.”

But it’s the historical early section which piqued my interest in the first place, of course. Maybe it’s just a word choice thing, but I’d be much more comfortable with the idea that Korea “endured” invasions than “withstood”: the latter implies that they successfully resisted. They didn’t repel the Mongols: they waited until that empire had collapsed elsewhere before rising in revolt. They didn’t repel the Japanese in the 1590s without considerable assistance from China. They were in no condition to repel the Qing, thanks to the Japanese, though they retained their independence. They didn’t repel the Japanese in the modern period at all, though they enlisted the aid of their largest, most powerful neighbors. In one sense — the continued existence of an entity which eventually became the modern Korean states — the term “withstood” is tolerable, but it still implies that Korea was largely unchanged by the experiences, and that wasn’t really true, either.

Then there’s the “unity defines survival” question: for most of Korea’s history there was a pretty sharp divide between aristocratic and commoner, as well as pretty significant unfree populations. I suppose you could argue that it was the unity of Korean elites which defined the cultural survival of Korea, but that still requires believing in some essential element persisting and also that Korean elites were actually unified, which seems quite questionable, especially in periods like the Koryo.

Finally, there’s “unity means conformity” which just makes my skin crawl. I’ll freely admit that it’s an American bias, but it also seems a long way to me from fashion conformity (which is fleeting and faddish) to national unity (which ought to be enduring and based on some kind of fundamental principles). The concept of the nation as sharing culture usually refers to an historical tradition; the idea of the nation as people who share fads is a significant degradation of an already questionable concept.

Addendum: The author of the Post article contact me, as he has everyone who’s blogged about his article, to alert us to a problem, namely that he’d neglected to use pseudonyms and alter identifying information for his students. This raises safety issues for their family members who are still in North Korea, and consequently he is asking that anyone who blogs about the article be careful to avoid identifying his students.


  1. These sorts of statements are so routine that I think I sort of don’t hear them any more when I’m reading articles like this or talking about history with Koreans (and often non-Koreans too). My brain has created a filter that puts them in a folder where I can forget about them, like all the mailing list e-mails that I get.

    More seriously though, the sort of topoi found in the quotation above are very much the creation of the modern South Korean nation state and education system (ie post-1945) and find their most typical and fixed form in statements such as “Korea has been invaded more times than any other nation”; “because of their tragic history Koreans have a unique emotion called Han”; and “Korea is the most homogeneous country in the world”.

    Of course self-defining nationalist commonplaces like these can be found in every country, but the uniformity and ubiquity of these ideas in the minds of people educated in South Korea says something about the extremely rigid (perhaps even totalitarian) nature of the education system since liberation. Thus we arrive at something of a reflexive situation: the very system that fixed these largely rhetorical forms in the minds of a nation made them at (least partially) come true. Koreans really can be very conformist in believing themselves to be unified and conformist.

    One interesting thing about the article that you quote from is that it would be perfectly easy for the author to explain the shunning of his defector students by any number of social or other theories with no reference whatsoever to the supposed specific conditions of Korean society. This raises the question: why is it the obvious option for him to choose a ‘uniquely Korean’ explanation for the problem he identifies rather than a more universal one?

  2. the uniformity and ubiquity of these ideas in the minds of people educated in South Korea says something about the extremely rigid (perhaps even totalitarian) nature of the education system since liberation.

    Perhaps that’s why it jumped out at me: I’m used to seeing these tropes in Japan, where the legacy of wartime propoganda and the national education system have perpetuated the theme of Japanese uniqueness and uniformity. I wonder how much of South Korea’s adoption of these themes is related to the legacies of the colonial experience, in terms of structures like national education and a penchant for reactive cultural essentialism.

    As an aside, almost any territory in the near or middle east can claim at least as many invasions and imperial overlords as Korea.

  3. Many academics have pointed out the obvious similarities between the ideas employed in postwar (North and South) Korean nationalism and Japanese imperial ideology. Often even the terminology used is the same or similar. I recall that in a lecture or interview he gave a while back Noja pointed out how the North Korean term Juche is likely to be related to the Japanese Kokutai both conceptually and linguistically (actually Bruce Cumings and others have also pointed this out in the past).

    In fact, I would say that the idea that many of the ‘bad things’ (particularly the education system) about modern Korean society have their origins in the Japanese colonial government is almost as much of a commonplace among ordinary Koreans (particularly those of a more liberal or left persuasion) as the nationalist tropes we were discussing above. My opinion is that while the precise form of these nationalist themes certainly seems to have been shaped by the colonial experience (helped along of course by a much longer history of shared cultural and linguistic heritage) they don’t exist *because* of that experience – they exist because of the requirements of high speed state-led capitalist development.

    On the invasions thing: I’ve toyed with the idea in the past of writing something about the exact number of invasions the Korean peninsula has suffered and attempting to compare it to other parts of the world. I know this would be a fairly pointless and frivolous exercise, but it might be interesting to show just how Korea stacks up in the ‘invasions league table’.

  4. Ah, well: I never thought I was being all that original….

    I thought Juche was related to Maoist concepts of self-sufficiency… of course, at a certain point all totalitarian concepts start sounding alike.

    In terms of the education system, what’s actually quite striking — and supports your argument of developmental requirements — is that the South Korean system closely resembles the Japanese system after the two separated and, theoretically, went their separate ways, both on state-driven developmental courses. Did the US have a hand in the post-war Korean education reform, the way it did in Japan?

  5. ‘they did’t resist with success…’

    really, then, why are the koreans still here?

    you mean, koreans had nothing to do with winning the imjin war? i think they did. china was one of three factors leading to japan’s defeat, the other two factors were korean. boy, i get so tired of westerners trying to take a dump on everything koreans find important due to their need for revenge. man, why not go to a country that you actually like?

  6. Actually, my training is as a Japanese historian, but I’m increasingly intrigued by Korean history and convinced that it’s essential to understanding East Asian history as a whole.

    That doesn’t mean that I’m going to let ahistorical overgeneralizations or mythologies pass uncommented. If it makes you feel any better, I’m just as harsh on Japanese uniqueness, American melting-pots and leftist politicization of the classroom.

    I’m kind of curious as to what the “three factors” were: whatever they are, it’s clearly a formulaic simplification of a much more complicated history (about which I’ve written before), but it’s useful to know the formulas.

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