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South Korea: The Unloved Republic?

Brian R. Myers speaking in Seoul on September 14, 2010. (Asia Society Korea Center)

Brian R. Myers speaking in Seoul on September 14, 2010. (Asia Society Korea Center)

SEOUL, September 14, 2010 - Have South Koreans lost their national pride? Such was the question posed by Brian R. Myers, Professor of International Politics at Dongseo University in Busan in an Asia Society luncheon lecture here at the Lotte Hotel.

In his talk, "The Unloved Republic? On the Lack of State-Nationalism in South Korea," Myers argued that a tradition of state "blood-based" or ethnic nationalism on a divided peninsula runs the risk of undermining loyalty to one republic and promoting loyalty to the other, competing, state.

Evidently, when the audience was asked what an average North Korean knew that his or her South Korean counterpart did not, they were unable to the name the date of the founding of the republic. Similarly, a recent poll suggested that only 1 in 10 South Korean students would fight to defend their homeland if war broke out in South Korea.

To Myers, South Korea is fast becoming a post-literate society. He quoted research that showed Koreans read only three hours a week. According to the study, the same problems exist in countries with high rates of illiteracy—irrational emotionalism, a susceptibility to conspiracy theories, etc.

"Usually the South Korean left is blamed for the public's lack of patriotism," Myers said. "But it is the right who made blood nationalism a state religion."

In Myers's telling, South Korea's political right for decades neglected to instill any sense of pride in the Republic, because there was little to be proud of. Even the pledge of allegiance from 1972 is a pledge made to the homeland and the race, not to the Republic. Meanwhile, right-wing dictatorships were preaching race-oriented anti-Americanism behind the scenes while publicly expressing fealty to the United States.

As to how South Korean military governments prevented their citizens from having any sympathy for North Korea, Myers said that was made possible by depicting North Koreans as non-Korean. State media rarely referred to "North Korea" (buk-han) but to the "northern puppets" (buk-goi). That is why South Korea preferred cartoon depictions of North Korea to live actors playing those roles, because North Koreans could be effectively dehumanized and demonized.

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