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Korea, the only country in the world to be officially acknowledged as a ‘divided nation’, is broken into two halves as North and South Korea. This universally accepted status of a divided nation comes from the fact that both Koreas have their respective representatives in the United Nations Council, unlike China for example where Taiwan claims and is an independent country, but has no official recognition. Divided along the 38th parallel in 1945 as a repercussion of WWII, with the U.S supporting the South and the Soviet Union siding with the North, Korea was not only physically but also ideologically divided, where only the Northern half of the peninsula was influenced by communism.

Both the countries claim to be the legitimate sovereign of the Korean peninsula, which is the primary reason for the constant vigilance from both sides in fear of one taking over the other. However, this disunion only stands politically and ideologically, beyond all the conflicts, the Koreans display strong Korean ethnic nationalism believing in essence, to be ‘one people’.

The History That Binds

    The idea of the Koreans being one distinct people of one blood has always been unconsciously present in the society. This oneness only congealed to bring the Koreans to a unanimous stand in defiance to Japanese colonial rule from 1910 to 1945. Revolutionaries rejuvenated the ‘Dangun myth’, using it to provide the people with a legitimate base for Koreans to be a race distinct from the Japanese people. The myth explicated that Dangun, the ‘son of heaven’ was the founder of the Korean race in 2333 BC, therefore the Koreans are bound by ‘one blood’. This evoked the strong sense of nationalism that is ingrained in every Korean even today, with the usage of one language ‘hangul’ and one script ‘hanja’ binding the people further into one group. This sense of collectiveness diffused across the border can be seen in the actions of the South Korean government (biggest donors) when they provided food and aid to North Korea when it was facing hard times. 

Consequently, all the overseas Korean people are also considered as a part of ‘the one big family’ without much distinction, as compared to total foreigners not containing any blood of Korean descent. These overseas Koreans, who have migrated, sometimes forced to under various circumstances, and have settled in other parts of the world, are comparatively considered as belonging to the same race by the South Koreans than people without an iota of East Asian essence. However, when nationalism is at question especially the feelings towards the Japanese considering the colonial period oppressions, South Koreans see the Zainichis (Koreans settled in Japan) as the ones to have betrayed their country by choosing Japan as their homes, when to be fair, most were forced to migrate there. A Joseonjok (Koreans settled in China), a Kareisky (Koreans settled in Russia), or a Gyopo (overseas Koreans) otherwise Dongpo (meaning brethren or people from the same ancestry) for that matter, would be considerably more incorporable in the race. 

Role of Religion

Religion has played an extensive role in fashioning the society’s mindset of collectivism. Confucianism originating in China, was a way of life assimilated by most East Asian countries influenced by China. Not a religion per se, it taught the people how to live abiding by the rules that helped to maintain social harmony. This ‘way of life’ was largely based on a hierarchical system, but the principles were successful in maintaining peace and order in the preceding empirical kingdoms. Korea had extensively adopted Confucianism starting from the Gogoryo (37 BCE- 668 CE) times, but with Buddhism gaining increasing popularity in Korea in later times, with the individualistic approach it promoted, Buddhism rose as a threat in opposition to the existing collectiveness of Confucianism in the imperial governments. Recognizing the manifestation of this threat, the last imperial dynasty of Korea, the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) sought to impose Neo-Confucianism as the primary ideology amongst the scholars to maintain the social harmony and keep the sense of collectivism alive in Korea.

Manifestations In Society

   Collectivism in the Korean society manifests in many different domains, however it is most evident in the ‘Uri-ness/our-ness’- extended collectiveness in the society. South Koreans express the shared connectedness of the Korean race by the usage of ‘uri’ in many words, such as uri- nara (country), eomma (mother), khajog (family), which denotes more than ‘my’, extended rather to ‘our’. This relationship explains the bond, the responsibility that comes with it, between the self and a larger whole. This establishes the duty due, “what is good for the group is also good for the self, which by definition is ‘a part’ of the group” by an individual to the family or extended society.

A South Korean family, for example, considers the dignity of the family more important than the needs or freedom of an individual member. The children of the family are governed by the needs of their elders to ‘maintain their honour’ in society. Women particularly, for example, are forced to get married and have children to maintain the face of their parents, which resulted in the current feminist movement in Korea where women annulled or refused to get married in the first place, resulting in a low birth rate and a concerning decline in population. For men, getting prestigious jobs became the definition of success, making merit a subordinate factor in comparison to getting a recommendation. Graduating from the best ‘well-known’ universities, became the first criteria of selection. Of course, the name can only be considered after the success of a good product, but eventually, it all became more about the brand name than the product itself. Family genealogy maintained throughout centuries, now proved to be beneficial to the people coming from the same clan, as identified by their surnames to receive clan benefits. A ‘Kim-ssi’ for example, someone from the Kim family was likely to make sure that another Kim from the same clan got as many benefits, as it meant to be benefiting the ‘Kim’ clan on the whole.

   The sense of collectivism in South Korea closely knits society into one big group. The nationalist feeling in every Korean binds the people of one blood into one race, but consequently, the individual’s freedom and rights are subsequently overstepped making this collectivism detached from the individual’s growth. Naturally the nation’s- ‘the greater whole’s’ growth and achievement is considered more successful than only one individual’s growth in the society, but the greater whole can really be considered successful only when every individual proves to be successful in contributing whole-heartedly to the nation. And every individual’s whole-hearted contribution can occur better when the individual freedom and rights are also respected, only then the pre-existing collectivism can be made to manifest as meaningful and successful collectivism in South Korea.

Sources

 우리(URI) – THE KOREAN NOTION OF THE COLLECTIVE SELF by Main

WHAT ABOUT SOUTH KOREA? – HOFSTEDE INSIGHTS

Transformation of Korean culture from collectivism to egotism – Park Sang-seek

Culture and Customs of Korea – Donald N.Clark

Korean Diaspora: Comparing the Chosunjok and Zainichi Koreans on their Political Statuses in China and Japan by SUHAN SHIM

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The author is presently pursuing post-graduation in East Asian Studies, from University of Delhi. Fascinated with new languages, cultures and societies, her long-standing interest lies in the understanding of East Asia in particular.

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