27 December 2006

Choose One, South Korea: Homogeneity or Unification

Volume 30 (2006) of Korean Studies (Project Muse subscription required) contains a perceptive book review by an antinationalist expat Korean of a perceptive book by an anthropologist of Africa who turned his attention to questions of national unity in the Korean peninsula.
The book maintains that South Koreans have patterned their identity in opposition to images of North Korea. For South Koreans, North Koreans are viewed ambiguously, both positively and negatively at the same time. On one hand, North Koreans are seen as being helplessly indoctrinated by their regime, and “uncivilized, heathen, and backward” (p. 8). At the same time, North Koreans are also praised for preserving old Korean traditions, which are considered to have been lost in South Korea through the process of modernization. In colonialist fashion, South Koreans actually define themselves by the “othering” of North Koreans.

South Koreans also consider unification as the recovery of national homogeneity, and thus as the “endgame.” The author argues that this very attitude and discourse actually hinders Korean unification, as overemphasis on national homogeneity would result in the denial of the diversity of the nation. He points out that the difference between North and South could be seen as “a foundation for new communities that bring together Koreans’ separate and yet shared experiences of division in a way that strengthens the nation” (p. xi). The book suggests an alternative future of diversity and heterogeneity rather than the homogeneous national future that most South Koreans imagine.

The book’s arguments are original and bold. According to the author, his not being a “true expert on Korea” made it possible for him to question the seemingly obvious issues of national homogeneity and unification. As an anthropologist studying the tribal groups of central Africa, the author came to be interested in the question of Korean unification after learning about the continued division within the minds of Koreans despite their alleged homogeneity. This contrasts with the two tribal groups of northern Zaire, who “are culturally, physically and linguistically distinct from each other, but live in the most intimate association with each other” (p. 16). The author may not be an expert on Korea, but this book reveals his great erudition.

The book contains many rich theoretical elaborations, thorough analyses, and useful analogies. The most important aspect of the book is its skillful and sharp analysis of the role of North Korea in the formation of South Korean identity, the problematic assumption of national homogeneity, and the South Korean “colonialist” view of their brothers in the North. Korean nationalism, developed in the twentieth century through the experiences of Japan’s colonization and national division, functioned as an ideology of liberation. However, the same ideology also worked as a “meta-narrative” and suppressed other narratives and thus hampered the development of a more democratic culture in Korea. The book’s argument that “unification will require a reckoning with difference, especially different conceptions of history, and a direct confrontation.... with South Korea’s master historical narrative and mythology of homogeneity” (p. 96) is an important message for all Koreans.
The book under review is Korea and Its Futures: Unification and the Unfinished War, by Roy Richard Grinker (St. Martin’s, 2000).

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