Globalization vs nationalism in South Korea

   In both academic and popular discourses, globalization has become one of the catchwords of the 1990s.[1] Globalization is a term referring to processes of international interaction and integration arising from the interchange of worldviews, products, ideas and other aspects of culture among people, companies and governments of different nations.[2] By opening to a broader view of an interconnected and interdependent world, the boundaries of a nation-state become indefinite with the free flow of information, technology, goods, capital, services and culture across the national frontiers.

     Known as the “hermit kingdom” until nineteenth century, being one of the poorest countries in the world in the 1950s, and referred to as the “Miracle on the Han River” in the last decades, South Korea is emerging as one of the main players of the age of globalization in the twenty-first century. Although its participation in the globalization process roots in the late 1970s, South Korea has been playing a more active role economically and politically in building a borderless world community especially since the 1990s by strengthening exchanges and cooperation with the countries in Asia-Pacific, America and Europe. With the restoration of democracy in 1993, the ban on import of foreign cultural products, the censorship on art and restrictions on travel were abolished, and the Korean concept of globalization was formally introduced by the first popularly elected president Kim Young Sam in 1994 following the APEC summit meeting in Sydney, Australia. This declaration was the beginning of the globalization drive initiated by the government as a top-down strategic plan under the name of “segyehwa” (세계화 in Korean). Segyehwa was a slogan of Korean way of globalization used by the Kim Young Sam administration till 1998, and it represented economic, political, cultural, and social open-mindedness.[3] The segyehwa policy embodies efforts to eliminate the inefficiency and malpractice arising from protectionism and to ease regulations so that the private sector can maximize its creativity and fully exercise its initiative.[4] In parallel with segyehwa, culturally, Korean pop culture know as the “Korean wave” (한료 in Korean, Hallyu) has being spread to all over the world as a part of the dynamic process of globalization. While North Korea embraced Juche (주체 in Korean), which resembles a xenophobic self-reliance, as its official political ideology from the 1950s, the South Korean government adopted segyehwa policy as the official globalization policy to project a new Korean national identity in a newly industrialized and democratized country in the beginning of 1990s. In this way, a globalization fever began storming through the country. South Koreans were increasingly exposed to Western culture in the form of cinema, music, television, literature, sport, fashion and so forth. Although the ancient Confucian rules still had a great social influence, the social practices of other cultures, especially the ones from the United States (U.S.), have been interiorized by younger people very quickly. Furthermore, the opening of Korea resulted in an influx of workers from abroad that also brought different cultural ideals and tastes to the Korean society.

     Chaebols (South Korean form of family-owned and -managed business conglomerate such as Samsung, LG Corporation, Hyundai Group etc.) who dominated the South Korean economy beginning from the rapid economic growth of the 1960s, are still playing a very important role in South Korean economy, politics and society.[5] Although they were hit harshly in the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, and suffered significant declines during the late-2000s, the South Korean economy brought the downturn under control with the help of its heaven-sent measures and strong domestic consumption of products. Through all those crises, Korean companies have learned to sink or swim in the global economy, and they have expanded into information technology development while Seoul remained as a major player in the global arena.

Samsung as the biggest chaebol in the country (Photo:

  By adopting an outward-looking strategy and shifting toward high-technology industries, South Korea has transformed from a poor agrarian nation to a fast-industrialized developed one. Today, South Korea is well-known for its rapid economic growth based on the centrally planned, export-oriented economic policies, which makes its economy relying largely upon exports of finished products such as electronics, textiles, ships and automobiles. Even though its economy has suffered because of the recent financial crisis and the rise of new developing countries such as the BRIC nations, South Korea has the eleventh biggest economy in the world.[6] Its market economy ranks thirteenth by purchasing power parity, fifth as the largest exporter and ninth as the largest importer, identifying Korea as one of the G-20 major economies, and one of the world’s twenty largest economies in 2030.[7]

     When it comes to nationalism, it is a common belief among Koreans that their country was established when Dangun, the legendary son of the Heavenly God founded the first kingdom, the Gojoseon dating back to 2333 BC.[8] It is believed that Koreans share a single blood, a common ancestry, language, and geographical region, thus they belong to a unitary nation, an ethnically homogeneous and racially distinctive collectivity.[9] Nationalism is not only a myth or ideology, but also a moral imperative that Koreans must respect and adhere to.[10] That is to say, Koreans feel deeply bound up with their country, and they endeavor to improve it. Over the course of many years, Korean government has systematically fostered nationalistic feelings of Korean people through various propaganda techniques such as national education, commemoration of the history, international sports competitions and so on.

     In modern history, there are two incidents that shaped the characteristics of Korean nationalism: the colonization by the Japanese Empire and the Korean War.[11] Using these two traumatic milestones, South Korean government commenced its rapid economic growth with Park Chung-hee administration in the 1960s by actively promoting nationalism to create an absolute control of the people to develop the economy. The nationalistic sentiments also encouraged South Koreans to put an end to the military dictatorship in their country. Infuriated by the everlasting suppressive regime, people frequently organized street protests in the 1980s demanding political democratization. The fight for democratization ended up in 1987 when the military government renounced its ruling power. 1997 was a very difficult year for South Korea, not only because of economic hardship, but also because of a seriously damaged national pride. Being one of the most successful case of development along with other members of the Asian Tigers, the 1997 Financial Crisis and subsequently the IMF intervention were almost unbearable for the Korean proud, and led to the renewed rise of nationalism and patriotism.[12]

Korean people protesting the IMF intervention in 1997 (Photo:

  Today, South Korea is amidst an increasing flow of people, capital, commodity, information, and culture across the borders of nation states in the era of transnationalism and globalization. Hundreds of thousands of migratory laborers come from economically less developed nations; the number of international marriages is rapidly increasing; the movement of capital into and out of Korea is becoming more active; the contacts and communications of overseas Koreans with Korean society are swelling; and cultural exchange among nations is increasing.[13] South Korean society and culture are experiencing rapid changes in various aspects in accordance with this globalization and multiculturalism, and therefore, the general perception of nationalism and national identity in Korea has begun transforming as well. However, the nationalistic sentiment is still very powerful and omnipresent in South Korean’s everyday life. Korea’s new nationalism is based less on ethnicity and more on the increasing level of globality and confidence, especially in certain parts of the Korean population like in younger generations. As a result of the success of Seoul’s globalization policies, South Koreans are very confident in their country’s future in the world order. They are pretty sure that South Korea is a powerful and influential actor in the international community, and they expect in a decade, South Korea’s influence in global affairs will surpass Japan and become even to Russia.[14]

     In conclusion, South Korea has undergone a tremendous change in a short span of time, and transformed from an authoritarian and closed regime into a democracy and open market economy. Today, Korea is very well aware that globalization is a fact of modern life. Therefore, in order to keep up with the times, and to boost Korea’s competitiveness in the global arena, the South Korean government adopted globalization for its nationalist agenda, and called it “segyehwa”. In this way, the state is trying to “seize the opportunities that globalization presents, while minimizing the nation’s vulnerability to its risks”.[15] President Kim emphasized the close relationship between globalization and nationalism while explaining the main principle of segyehwa with the following words: “Koreans cannot become global citizens without a good understanding of their own culture and tradition…. Koreans should march out into the world on the strength of their unique culture and traditional values. Only when the national identity is maintained and intrinsic national spirit upheld will Koreans be able to successfully globalize”.[16] In this sense, the state has been playing a proactive role in shaping the globalization processes, accommodating global flows and turning them to their own national advantages.[17] Serving for nationalistic purposes, globalization has also revitalized Korean identity and culture. Because globalization has generally been perceived as a form of dominance and threat in the Korean society besides its opportunities, a strong nationalistic sentiment among Korean people emerged as a defense mechanism for the survival of their country against globalization.

[1] Kacowicz, Arie M. 1998. Regionalization, Globalization and Nationalism: Convergent, Divergent, or Overlapping? Indiana: Kellogg Institute, University of Notre Dame. p.5.

[2] Albrow, Martin and Elizabeth King. 1990. Globalization, Knowledge and Society. London: Sage. p.8.

[3] Kim, Samuel S. 2000. Korea and Globalization. New York: Columbia University. p.83.

[4] Greenberg, Maurice R. “Globalization in Korea and Asia”. Asian Society. May 9, 1996. Web <;. Accessed on 15 May 2016.

[5] Kim, Eun-mae. 2000. “Globalization of the South Korean Chaebol”. Korea’s Globalization. Cambridge Press: Cambridge. p.103.

[6] “World Economic Outlook Database”. International Monetary Fund. April 2016. Web <;. Accessed on 3 May 2016.

[7] “South Korea”. The Observatory of Economic Complexity. Web <;. Accessed on 16 May 2016.

International Trade Statistics 2015. World Trade Organization. 2015. Web < >. Accessed on 6 May 2016.

Smialek, Jeanna. “These Will Be The World’s 20 Largest Economies in 2030”. Bloomberg. April 10, 2015. Web<;. Accessed on 17 May 2016.

[8] Yin, Seow Jing. 2013. “Pride of the People: South Korea and Korean Nationalism”, ISIS. no.8. p.2.

[9] Shin, Gi-wook. 2003. The Paradox of Korean Globalization. Stanford: Stanford University. p.12.

[10] Cho, Younghan. 2007. Emergence of Individuated Nationalism Among the Major Baseball Fans in South Korea. Chapel Hill: University of North Caroline. p.38.

[11] Ibid. p.41.

[12] The gold collection movement in 1997 can be seen as the best example for this rise of nationalism:“The gold collection movement in 1997 of which purpose was to ease the foreign currency crisis by collecting gold from voluntary donators, is an important example of the patriotic reactions to the crisis. It was started firstly by the public prosecutor’s office, but soon joined by more than hundred non-government organizations. Within a few months more than one million donators joined the movement by donating their golden jewels, golden plates, even golden teeth and an Olympic gold medal. The total amount of collected gold was exceeding sixteen tons, worth 160 million US dollars.”

Yang, Jong-hoe. 2007. “Globalization, Nationalism, and Regionalization: The Case of Korean Popular Culture”. Development and Society. no.36. p.185.

[13] Yang, Young-kyun. 2004. “Nationalism, Transnationalism and Globalization in Korean Society”. The Review of Korean Studies. no.7. p.9.

[14] Denney, Steven. “Sino-NK 2013 Rewind: Saegyehwa Politics and South Korea in the Age of Globalization”. Sino-NK. December 13, 2013. Web <;. Accessed on 5 May 2016.

“South Korea in a Changing World: Foreign Affairs”. The Asan Institute for Policy Studies. 2012. Web <;. Accessed on 5 May 2016.

[15] Weiss, Linda. 1998. The Myth of the Powerless State. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. p.4.

[16] Kim, Young Sam. 1996. Korea’s Reform and Globalization. Seoul: Korean Overseas Information Service. p.15.

[17] Shin, Gi-wook. 2003. p.8.

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