EXCERPT | Understanding Korean Identity
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EXCERPT | Understanding Korean Identity

By Dr. Virginie Grzelczyk
via Elsevier

Image Attribute: Roman Harak - North Korea / Wikipedia / CC BY-SA 2.0

Image Attribute: Roman Harak - North Korea / Wikipedia / CC BY-SA 2.0

The concept of a Korean identity differs from the general understanding of what a national identity is, mostly because of the fact that the Korean nation as a group has been split in two since the end of World War Two. As a result, forces highlighted above and known to influence the formation of a group identity and therefore of a national identity such as government structures, education, relation to territory and especially the links one group entertains with its own history are different for North and South Koreans, thus leading to two separate identities emanating from a single overarching Korean identity largely definite in terms of one unique race. Hence, Korean identity for both groups has been associated with ethnic nationalism in some cases, but highlighted as not being sufficient-enough to really understand the complexity that exists in each group, and especially how the two groups understand each other as well [1]. North and South Koreans therefore clearly exhibit separate traits such as conflicting identities, dissonance, opposition, and security-derived expression of self, all compounded by the legal question of which group represents the ‘true’ and ‘original’ Korean population. Yet, despite those differences, Koreans as people also are a homogeneous group: this blood-based homogeneity sometimes brings both identities together toward the will to reunify. 

Park and Chang [2] provide a clear explanation of the dilemma that lies at the core of North and South Korean people, by suggesting that “the discrepancy between a single ethnic identity and the reality of political divides produces dissonance in identity maintenance". What is more difficult to assess in the literature, however, is whether a single Korean identity, born out of centuries of traditions and consolidated during the Japanese occupation has now been stretched in two different and opposing directions because of the ideological and political models imposed by the DPRK leadership on the one hand, and successive South Korean presidencies on the other hand, or whether conflicting identities have been developed in both Koreas in order to compete against one another. 

While it is generally assumed that North Korea’s national identity is monolithic because of the nature of the regime and the lack of political freedom, it is questionable whether there also exists only one South Korean national identity. In this regard, Suh [3] suggests that South Koreans are divided in regards to understanding how their relationship with the United States oscillates between alliance and dependency, and this in turn affects their own national identity. What has been clearly delineated in the literature, however, is how both Koreas appear to have built their identities on what Bleiker calls ‘negative terms’ [4], essentially because both Pyongyang and Seoul have developed political systems that claim they represent (short of being actually implemented, but at least rhetorically) the entirety of the Korean peninsula, as well as the entirety of the Korean people. Discrete citizenships (one Korean being a South Korean citizen cannot also be a North Korean citizen and vice-versa) means that Korean identities appear to have become mutually-exclusive, mostly because of security concerns and because of the relationship both Koreas have developed with the United States. This dual national identity is expressed in the most obvious way by the need to use different names when referring to the two Koreas, with Paik suggesting that “national identity for a contemporary Korean is at the very least double, namely as a member of the Korean nation and a citizen of either of the divided states” [5]. The concept of one Korean nation is by far one of the most important unifying characteristics for both Koreas apart from pre-division history, and a “strong, almost mythical vision of homogeneity permeates both parts of Korea [4]. 

The simple fact the Korean people have remained an almost homogeneous ethnic group over the years has led both countries to argue that the Korean partition has been an unnatural event that has severed the nation in two: there is an ever-present notion that eventually, Korean people should become one again and in the meantime, maintaining ethnic purity is taking a rather important position in North Korea but to some extent in South Korea as well. 


[1] Shin, G.-W., Burke, K.C., 2008. North Korea and Identity Politics in South Korea. Brown Journal of World Affairs 15, 287-304. 

[2] Park, J.-S., Chang, P.Y., 2005. Contention in the Construction of a Global Korean Community: 

[3] Suh, J.-J., 2004. Bound to Last? The U.S.- Korea Alliance and Analytical Eclecticism, In: Katzenstein, P.J., Carlson, A., Suh, J.-J. (Eds.), Rethinking Security in East Asia: Identity, Power and Efficiency. Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA.

[4]  Bleiker, R., 2001. Identity and Security in Korea. The Pacific Review 14, 121-148

[5] Paik, N.-C., 2000. Coloniality in Korea And A South Korean Project For Overcoming Modernity. Interventions 2, 73-86. 

This article is an excerpt from research paper, titled " Special Issue: New Approaches to North Korean Politics After Reunification: The Search for a Common Korean Identity by Dr. Virginie Grzelczyk "

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