Transcending the bounds of identity

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Transcending the bounds of identity

The one thing the goddess failed to cover was his scar.

Odysseus, the hero of the Trojan War, came back a changed man to his homeland of Ithaca after 20 years. The goddess Athena had altered his appearance so his political opponents would not recognize him. But his identity was found out when his old nurse spotted his scar, which he had gotten from hunting boars at an early age.

In ancient times, physical characteristics like scars or spots were used as a method of identification.

Identity cards were only systemized in the West during medieval times, when national restrictions were strengthened. The word “passport” originates from the castle gate pass card of 15th-century Europe. It was derived from the French word “passeport,” which combines the French words for “pass” and “door.”

Soldiers had identification cards to make recruitment easier and to prevent them from going AWOL. Hygiene cards were created to identify people from regions with a high risk of plague, and this later led to an identity card system, as described in Valentin Groebner’s “Who Are You?: Identification, Deception, and Surveillance in Early Modern Europe.” Identity cards were also used for taxation.

Korea had the hopae identification tag system, introduced during the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392) and carried into the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). According to the Annals of the Joseon Dynasty, the hopae, which was “three chi and seven pun in length, one chi and three pun in width, and two pun in thickness with a curved top and angular bottom,” was made of materials such as ivory or wood. Government officials were identified by their official positions, and noblemen by their former occupations, names and addresses. Commoners had to use physical characteristics such as face color, facial hair and height.

Like the hopae cards, the citizen ID cards introduced in 1950 contained information such as occupation, height, weight and physical characteristics. The resident ID card system we have today started in 1968.

Lawmakers also carry identification cards, which are similar in size to a driver’s license. There is little need for them, however, because the lawmaker’s face usually serves as proof of his or her identity.

On Wednesday, President Lee Myung-bak received his first “electronic political party membership card” when he met with Chung Mong-joon, the new chairman of the Grand National Party, at the Blue House. The president is in a position where he does not need an identity card, but the party gave him one anyway.

When GNP Secretary-General Jang Kwang-keun said, “We hope you will take good care of the party’s budget,” President Lee answered, “Transcend political parties when you work.”

But it is hard to imagine an event so transcendent that Lee would only be recognized as a member of the GNP if he had his ID card.


The writer is a political journalist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Koo Hui-lyung [healing@joongang.co.kr]

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