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Excessive patriotism repels young Koreans : Throughout history, nationalism has been connected to identity

Jan 25,2017
Koreans root for their national football team at a match of the 2002 FIFA World Cup co-hosted by Korea and Japan. While nationalism can bring people together, critics say excessive nationalism can lead to cynicism and discrimination. [YONHAP]
With the whole country feeling somewhat betrayed after the latest political scandal regarding President Park Geun-hye and her confidante Choi Soon-sil, it’s probably natural that many Koreans have become quite cynical about politics.

And among several words that were coined recently to deplore life in Korea, gukppong satisfies the cynical side of Koreans quite well.

Gukppong is short for gukga (nation) and ppong (a slang for methamphetamine).

Basically, it mocks when a person is being unconditionally patriotic or displaying irrational pride in one’s country.

It’s often used in situations like when Koreans root for foreign sports clubs just because they have a Korean athlete; when Korean reporters ask a foreign actress who came to Korea to promote a film if they know kimchi (Korean fermented side dish); or when a Korean correspondent asks a spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department in a regular briefing on state affairs and foreign diplomacy if she knows singer Psy.

Films that contain scenes that overly glorify Korea or feed on patriotism are also categorized by netizen as gukppong films. Even at screenings, director are often asked to explain their thoughts on such controversies.

Since when did patriotism become such a cringeworthy thing for Koreans, particularly those in the younger age bracket? Rewind to just decades ago, when Koreans saluted every day when flags at government organizations or schools descended, such cynicism would’ve been criticized as “Communist” or “pro-Japanese.”

Korea is a country with a strong sense of nationalism and critics say understanding gukppong and the increasingly prevalent cynicism towards patriotism wouldn’t be complete without an examination into the history of the country’s nationalism.

The Korea JoongAng Daily takes an in-depth look at the phenomenon of gukppong that has been spreading online and offline, as well as the unique, yet relatively short history of Korea’s nationalism.



Left: A Korean netizen made this image that combines everything that Koreans are proud of to portray how extreme patriotism can be cringeworthy. Right: The “Kimchi Warrior” (2010) animation series appealed to patriotism, but failed to win people’s hearts. [SCREEN CAPTURE, JOONGANG ILBO]
Patriotism, a cringe factor

When you type in “Gukppong Man” (in Korean) in a web search, an absurd image of a man appears.

Like a hybrid creature in some mythologies, he has the face of Psy, a Korean singer who made his name internationally known with the song “Gangnam Style”; an arm of Ryu Hyun-jin, a Korean professional baseball player who is a starting pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers; a leg of Kim Yuna, a Korean figure skater who is an Olympic gold medalist; holding kimchi in one hand and a Samsung handset in the other.

In the background are Dokdo, an islet that Koreans believe to be theirs while Japan also claims territorial rights; K-pop girl group Girls’ Generation; and bibimbap, a Korean dish where rice is mixed with various vegetables;

The image was created by a netizen and there are various versions depending on who made it. Basically, it is mocking everything Koreans are proud of.

There is also an image of a T-shirt, also made by a netizen, that is recommended to foreigners coming to Korea. The T-shirt has writing that says, “I know Psy, Gangnam Style, Dokdo, Kimchi, Park Ji-sung (Korean football player) and Kim Yuna,” to make fun of how Koreans tend to ask any foreigners if they know these things or these people in whatever conversational context they may be in.

Such satire and humor online reflect how Koreans today have become intolerant to unconditional patriotism and instead find it funny.



Different audience

In fact, many gukppong content - or videos, cartoons and other visual content - that appeal to patriotism have become sources for mockery lately.

With the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics coming up, the Korean government released a promotional video on YouTube in September. Titled “Arari·Yo!,” the music video stars Hyolyn from girl group Sistar, who sings and dances to the Korean folk song Arirang.

“A lot of people will get to know about the video,” said Yun Min, a 22-year-old Korean student who spent most of his life in Thailand, “not because it’s a well-made clip, but because it isn’t well-made. I think it’ll have a bad effect on our national image. We’re known as one of the leaders in IT, but this video could make some people wonder why.”

“I can’t understand how this is supposed to be a promotional video,” said Kim Su-jin, a university student majoring in international studies. “It seems to depict Korea in the 1990s, not the present. This video is unsophisticated and messy.”

There is also the “Kimchi Warrior.” In 2010 director Kang Young-man came up with a Korean animation series named “Kimchi Warrior” in English targeting foreign audiences. The superhero defeats fatal diseases after gaining power from eating kimchi or throwing it towards germs.

“The purpose of promoting Korean food through animations is a great idea,” said Kim Seo-young, a Korean student residing in China, “but the animation’s quality just gives it all away. Its characters, music and image are lowbrow and childish, and it hardly has a storyline.”

“I almost threw up watching ‘Kimchi Warrior,’” said Park Do-hun, another university student. “I thought it was made by an amateur for fun, but was shocked to hear about its production cost.” The series got a 150 million won ($128,000) subsidy from the Korea Agro-Fisheries and Food Trade Corporation.



Propaganda controversy

Films are no exception. Often when a historical film comes out, audiences scrutinize it to see whether or not it has a gukppong element.

“I tried to stay away from gukppong,” director Kim Jee-woon said for the screening of his latest historical film “The Age of Shadows,” “but I couldn’t help become so passionate.”

Korean war blockbuster “Operation Chromite,” which was released last year, was harshly criticized for being reminiscent of propaganda.

The film revolves around the Battle of Incheon, in which the United Nations and South Korean forces reclaimed the port city of Incheon in 1950. The peninsula was on the brink of being occupied by North Korean troops. Despite its star-studded cast of Lee Jung-jae, Liam Neeson, and others, the film met with negative reviews for placing so much emphasis on glorifying the war heroes and not so much on the accurate war strategies.

“A lot of people claim that it’s a propaganda film,” said Jeong Tae-won, a representative of the filmmaker Taewon Entertainment, “but we produced this movie in hopes of raising people’s awareness of national security. We’re the only divided nation in the world. North Korea is constantly provoking us, and war can happen at any time.”

Director Yoon Je-kyun’s “Ode to My Father” (2014), which depicts the harsh time Koreans went through after the 1950-53 Korean War, was also criticized for leaving out historical background stories and unconditionally beautifying people’s sacrifices.

In one scene, the married couple is fighting but when a national anthem plays to let people know that the flag was coming down, the husband and wife stop bickering to salute. “The scene can be seen as both patriotic or satirical,” director Yoon told JTBC.



A nation is not who we are

Critics say young people have developed new ways to identify themselves. In other words, their nationality is only one of many things that make up who they are.

“In the past, being a member of hanminjok (the Han people) was considered the most important in one’s identity,” Lim Jie-hyun, professor of history at Sogang University said. “But people today have many references that define who they are like generation, class, gender, interests and others. It can be considered ideal as frames in which people understand their lives and identities have become more diverse and complex.”

Others say that Koreans today appear to have grown sick and tired of content that says Korean this and that is the best, the largest, the oldest and so on - an idea that stems from nationalism gone too far.

“[The coinage of gukppong] means that the hanminjok supremacy, or the principle that everything Korean is good, doesn’t work anymore,” Shim Jae-hoon, a history professor at Dankook University, said. Shim says gukppong in that sense could mean fatigue from nationalism.

Kim Ki-bong, a history professor at Kyonggi University, says “a word that ends with “ism” is usually an ideology. It’s a school of thought. But interestingly, nationalism is a highly emotional concept. That is why highly rational people are having a difficult time accepting [gukppong content rooted in nationalism].”



Roots of nationalism

So what’s the origin of nationalism in Korea?

According to Shim’s book, “Seeing Korean History with a Fascination of Ancient China,” the word minjok (nation or ethnic group) or hanminjok are the ones that appear the most in state-approved Korean history textbooks.

He quotes Benedict Anderson (1936-2015), a scholar who taught at Cornell, who argued that nations were “imagined communities” that arose from the fateful interplay of capitalism and the printing press and formed as people share an experience and endow significance to their community.

The words nation or ethnic group, according to Shim, appear in the West between the 18th and 19th century as nation-states formed. A nation-state, according to the Oxford Dictionary, is an independent political state formed from a people who share a common national identity.

In East Asia, the word minjok begins to appear in mid-19th century as Japanese people translated Western writings, Shim says. In Korea it appears during the Japanese colonization (1910-45) as scholars who acted as independence fighters emphasized the concept to encourage anti-Japanese sentiment.

Shim notes that given the word hanminjok is used in South Korea only (and North Korea uses Joseon Minjok), the concept of nation in Korea may also be an imaginary community. “It has to do with the unique historical situation of Korea in the late 20th century when South Korea hoped for a new state. … In that sense, nation is something formed in a unique history, difficult to define and a variable concept.”

But experts say unlike nationalism in the West, Korean nationalism can be divided into the right-wing nationalism and the left-wing nationalism.

While the former defines its boundary within the Republic of Korea and praises the economic stride it has made in the 20th century; the latter encompasses both the South and the North, emphasizing the one ethnic group principle, and has a strong anti-Japanese sentiment.



Independence from nationalism

Lim of So-gang has been one of the few historians in Korea who has been, since the late 1990s, warning against excessive nationalism. He has argued that too much emphasis on nationalism could take history into the realm of mythology.

In his writing titled “Nationalism and Neonationalim,” he said “modern academic disciplines of history, literature and philosophy have been tools to legitimate the nation-state objectively and scientifically.”

Nation-state, of course, is something that Koreans have lacked and yearned for since the early 20th century.

Between 1910 and 1945 Korea was colonized by Japan. Since 1950 Korea has been divided into the South and the North. Both of the instances led to the absence of a true nation-state in Korea. Therefore a nation-state or the yearning for it strikes a very special chord with the Korean people.

Lim argues that nationalism can bring about something called “political religion.”

“Political religion confers a scared status on earthly entities such as nation, state, class, history and race by rendering them into absolute principles of collective identity. … Political religion functions to bind the individual to a sacralized secular entity.”

His arguments lost traction, Shim’s book evaluated, as China strengthened its so-called Northeast Project. The project attempts to include all events that once occurred in present-day China into a part of China’s national history.

Still, critics argue that while mockery is not ideal, being liberated from nationalism is important.

“Korea’s nationalism partly comes from insecurity,” Kim of Kyonggi University said. “Korea has long been a periphery state and it has had a complex for not having a ‘one country with one ethnic group.’”

Shim also says that Korea is an economic powerhouse in Asia now that it “no longer has to get affirmation through a vague term of hanminjok and imagined former glory.” He adds that nationalism can also lead to discrimination against aliens when the number of foreigners in Korea is rising and so are multicultural families.

“While keeping the sovereignty of our nation,” he emphasizes, “independence from nationalism is something that we should work for.”

BY KIM HYUNG-EUN, SHON JI-HYE [hkim@joongang.co.kr]

Chung Jin-hong contributed to this article.


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