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Capsule Review

The Great East Asian War and the Birth of the Korean Nation; South Korea’s New Nationalism: The End of “One Korea”?

In This Review

The Great East Asian War and the Birth of the Korean Nation
The Great East Asian War and the Birth of the Korean Nation
By JaHyun Kim Haboush. Edited by William J. Haboush and Jisoo Kim
Columbia University Press, 2016, 240 pp. Purchase
South Korea’s New Nationalism: The End of “One Korea”?
South Korea’s New Nationalism: The End of “One Korea”?
By Emma Campbell
Lynne Rienner, 2016, 228 pp. Purchase

Three decades ago, new thinking about constructed identities was spurred by the historian and political scientist Benedict Anderson’s book Imagined Communities. Anderson’s insights continue to inspire a stream of research that has grown ever more relevant in a period of rising nationalism around the world. In her final book—completed by her husband and former students after her death—the late Haboush shows that Korean identity, despite its seeming permanence, is just as historically contingent as any other. She places its origins further back than other constructivists have, tracing them to the Imjin War (1592–98), when Koreans rose up to resist an invasion from Japan. Until then, the inhabitants of the Korean Peninsula had thought of themselves as junior members of a universalistic Confucian cultural sphere. But during the war, Haboush argues, local elites invented a new rhetoric of ethnic identity in order to levy a volunteer resistance army. In order to defeat surveillance by the invaders, they started to use vernacular Korean as a medium of public communication, shifting away from the use of classical Chinese, which they had relied on until then. Haboush’s innovative research shows how Korea emerged as one of the first imagined communities, and one of the most enduring. 

Still, according to Campbell, South Korean identity is now changing again owing to the impact of globalization and the separation from North Korea. Her lively account shows how South Korea’s engagement with the outside world has led young Koreans to think of themselves in terms of their cosmopolitan educations, their high-end consumption habits, and their pride in their country’s economic success. They have begun to look down on, rather than identify with, their “backward” cousins from North Korea and the ethnic Korean region of China. Although Campbell does not discuss it, North Korea has undergone the opposite process: its isolation has intensified a sense of racial purity. To be sure, reunification remains the announced policy of both Korean governments. But Campbell believes that the South Korean public is increasingly willing to accept the division of the peninsula as permanent.

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