South Korea: The Unloved Republic?

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.

Next: What the public's reaction to the Cheonan sinking tells us

Myers pointed out that neither Korea was fundamentally anti-collaborator. North Korean leader Kim Il-sung got rid of land owners—whether pro- or anti-Japanese—but he was very welcoming of collaborator intellectuals.

As an example, Myers cited Choi Seung-hui, the famous modern dancer. She was given control of all dance in North Korea after speaking proudly during the Second World War of being a Japanese citizen. Likewise, the dramatist Song Yeong had penned works encouraging Korean men to give up their lives for the emperor; in North Korea, he was put in charge of the drama association. Therefore both Koreas are equally tainted by the stain of collaborationism.

And yet the left, Myers, continued, feels that South Korea is inherently lacking in legitimacy, loyalty, and so on. All bad things are blamed on the republic, while all good things are ascribed to the race (minjok).

The New Right in South Korea believes at last that an official state patriotism is needed. They are trying to revise history textbooks and to change August 15 into a national "founding day," not a liberation day anymore. In Myers's opinion, this is the worst way to instill patriotism in the populace.

But for now, both right and left still preach race nationalism. The right pretends that it supported the United States after the accidental deaths of two schoolgirls in 2002, but it was right-wing presidential candidate Lee Hoi-chang who wanted then-President Bush to apologize to the Korean nation, not Roh Moo-hyun.

Myers's clear message was that South Korean authorities and political parties must abandon blood nationalism.

With regard to North Korea's leadership, Myers suggested that a young, urbane leader will make it hard for young people in South Korea to maintain any sense of loyalty to the southern Republic and its corrupt old political scene.

The most imminent danger of all is the response to the Cheonan sinking—that South Koreans barely reacted in anger at all. In Myers's view, this kind of apathy can only encourage the North to continue such gambits.

How to deter another attack by peaceful means? The political left and right need to join together to move away from a focus on the 1940s and post-colonial heritage and shape a healthy loyalty to the Republic of Korea. Patriotism is not the last refuge of the scoundrel, as Samuel Johnson famously suggested; nationalism is.