UPDATE : 2020.2.21 금 10:43

[Vol. 73] Nations for Nations, Nationalism What They Really Mean

How Nationalism in Korean Came to Be and What It Tells Us 김준환 기자l승인2015.05.08l수정2015.05.08 19:41






Attack on U.S ambassador to South Korea in Seoul marked shocking news of the week at the beginning of the semester. Thorough investigation has been ordered by the president herself and many interesting incidents occurred during the investigation and prosecution. However, what is more interesting is how foreign media and Korean media covered the incidents and what lies behind those coverages.  Following the attack on U.S ambassador Mark Lippert, CNN reported in the initial report that it was a white terror conducted by extreme right activist. Although the attacker Kim ki jong is a strong supporter of nationalism, considering the situation and general public's acknowledgement of nationalism in Korea, it can be said that the report was incorrect. The attacker was identified as a progressive activist or a left wing activist by most of South Korea media and later investigations have placed him to be a member of NL(National Liberation) movement, one of the two core branches in Korea's left wing movement. Taking into account that most of the world's nationalist are considered to be conservatives or extreme right activists, it is not hard to assume that nationalism in Korea occupies a unique place. Therefore, it is necessary to go over how this came to be and how people should perceive this.


Nationalism worldwide and in Korea

Before going into the unique situation we face in our nation, it would be crucial to go over how the majority of the world sees nationalism. When it comes to nationalism, what most of the people nowadays see are two groups: Zionist and extreme right activists of Japan. First of all, the Zionists, or the Jewish nationalists, are the people claiming their biblical and historical right of their promised land. Their goal is to establish the Jewish homeland in Israel and consequently drive out the Palestinians. The Japanese extreme right activists, on the other hand, are more familiar to the Korean people. They deny the war crimes the Japanese empire had committed in the past and praise the era of Japanese imperialism. All these groups base their beliefs on nationalism. That is to say, rather than considering international relationship or acknowledging the rights of groups different from them, they prioritize the rights of their own group or their own people. While there are a lot of groups similar to those mentioned above, although they do not fully agree with the idea, most of them are categorically considered to be the right wing or conservatives in political context.


When it comes to nationalists in Korea, however, it becomes a totally different story. When nationalism is brought up to the table for debate, what people generally think about is disorganization of the Unified Progressive Party or the arrest of one of its members under the charge of espionage. People generally see the group of people who are not able to identify North Korea as our nation's enemy and who believe in the idea of communism. Such people are categorized as the left wing or radical progressives. It is true that some of the political figures from the progressive party shake hands with people who could be categorized as a nationalist, it would be a wrong assumption to consider them all together as nationalist. However, that is exactly what news in Korea is doing and what considerable amount of Korean people believe.


How did nationalist in Korea become lefts? 

Then how did nationalist in Korea get to be perceived as a left-wing? Among many factors ranging from historical background during the Japanese colonial era to ideological differences between left and right, two key reasons why this came to be would be the progressive party's stance in modern Korea and the Korean people's indifference toward politics. First of all, liability of nationalists being considered as the left lies in the lefts themselves. After the Korean war and many years of dictatorship that followed, the conservative party of South Korea quickly spread anti-communism and anti-North Korea thoughts.. Due to this, the left wing party who claimed the ideas that were easy to be mistaken as communism rapidly lost their political ground. In response to this and in order to expand their political influence and maintain their role as a political party, they turned to people with nationalist ideas. Although this was not a permanent union and certainly not an indicator that the left wing party decided to include nationalism as their main agenda, to the eyes of general public, it simply appeared otherwise. Which brings up the second reason : political indifference.


It is not uncommon for citizens of a developed country to lose interest in their own politic. However, what is critical about the Korean people's indifference is that they take pride in it. Through education, we learn that it is important to maintain political impartiality; however, what is more important is not mistaking indifference for impartiality. People often become indifferent as they attempt to stay politically neutral. Just like it not being fair for a person to be judged only by one action he took before it is not fair and incorrect for a political party to be judged by a stance they took supporting or attacking certain agenda. Rather they should be judged based on their political history and ideological background. While it may appear fair and neutral to make judgment only based on what is happening and what is being broadcasted, it is more of an indifference than impartiality because it does not take political ideology and belief behind what is happening in to account. And this indifference accompanied by action of the left wing party is what led Korean people to believe nationalists are lefts and lefts are nationalists.


How should people perceive this?

To most people this matter will not appear to be a big problem. After all, it is true that the left wing of Korean politics do sometimes work with and share idea with nationalists. However, looking at them all together as the same group poses a great problem because it eludes the idea of the progressive movement and rather spoils a fruitful debate that should be done between the conservatives and the progressives. In short, it takes away the chance for our political system to work. Therefore, if people were to perceive this correctly, they would learn how to make a distinction between the group of irrational people with outdated idea towards the nation and the group of people with progressive ideas towards how the nation should work.  

김준환 기자  moragre00@blue.knue.ac.kr
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