National History and Individual Identity: The Case of Korean Han

The term regional history is preferred to national because nation-states are relatively new phenomena and represent too large a territory to categorize per se. One’s sense of national identity can vary substantially within its regional borders, such as in India or the United States, and current borders do not designate previous combined regions, such as Korea, or vice versa, the previous Germanys.

Following Dr. Dan McAdams, I argue for understanding personal identity through its narrative format: a life story.[1] A key component of one’s narrative identity formation is its historical setting. Jenny Hyun Chung Pak elaborates upon McAdams’ work relating it to her study of South Korean migrants, particularly fathers, who immigrated to the United States in the twentieth century.[2] A brief history of Korea will end in the particular pattern of han (unrealized hopes and thwarted dreams) expressed among some Koreans. Understanding ourselves in part depends on understanding what histories we have lived.

Historical Background of Korea

The history of Korea can be categorized into three periods: its prehistory until the Confucian state was established in 1392, its five hundred years under China’s influence, and its twentieth-century history.[3] In the land now formally known as Korea, Tan’gun, according to myth, founded the Choson Dynasty circa 2333 BCE. Centuries later, Emperor Wu of China (Han Dynasty) defeated the Choson Dynasty in 108 or 109 BCE. This event commenced a long history of occupation by its surrounding neighbors.

The three kingdoms of Shilla (originally Saro) in the south, Paekche, and Koguryo in the north remained from 57 BCE to 668 CE. Each of the kingdoms officially adopted Buddhism, beginning with Koguryo in 372 CE and ending with Shilla in 528. In the seventh century, Chinese tribes (e.g. Sui, Tang) invaded Korea until the three kingdoms were bloodily unified into the Korea of Shilla in 668. The first Confucian school was established in Korea in 682. [4] Features of the Shilla kingdom included the “bone-rank” system (a class system based on blood lineage), an educational system that was limited to nobility, the introduction of Confucian bureaucracy, and the widespread practice of slavery. During this time, growing dissension allowed a rebel leader, Wang Kon, to overthrow Shilla and establish Koryo, a kingdom characterized by Wang Kon’s diplomatic reign and slavery reform. The Koryo Period (918–1392) saw multiple invasions by the Khitans, Jurchens, and Mongols and ultimate Mongol domination until King Kongmin assumed the throne in 1365 as a result of General Song-gye Yi’s successful military tactics.[5]

General Yi succeeded the throne as King Taejo and established Hanyang (Seoul) as the new capital, commencing the Yi (Choson) Dynasty (1392–1910). His government adopted Confucianism as its official religion in 1394 (demoting Buddhism) and introduced the elaborate Chinese bureaucratic and civil service examination system.[6] This development gave rise to a rigid five-class system with slaves (nobi) accounting for one-third of the population.[7]

Korea suffered still more invasions by the Japanese and the Manchu in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries followed by two hundred years of relative peace.[8] By 1871 Korea had developed an isolationist policy to avoid domination by imperialistic powers (such as Russia, France, and the United States), a stance that earned it the name “The Hermit Kingdom.” Korea, however, was eventually forced to open trade with Japan and fell prey to its occupation (1910–1945). Notably for this study, during this time of annexation Japan attempted to erase the national identity of the Korean people by requiring subjects to take Japanese surnames, suppressing nationalistic movements for Korean independence, and conscripting Korean males to fight in World War II.[9] The well-documented injustices Korean people suffered in the Japanese colonization include the March 1st movement (1919), trade inequalities between the nations, conscripted slavery of males for labor and the military, and sexual slavery of females for the Japanese military.

While Korea was liberated after Japan’s defeat in WWII, it then fell under a new kind of domination. Korea was subjected to a three-year occupation by the Allied Powers and a division of its country into north and south, with the Soviet Union and the United States presiding over the two regions. Although the Allied Powers (which also included China and Britain) originally agreed that Korea would become “free and independent” (and at several points the occasion could have materialized), the plan for an independent Korea was ultimately stymied, lastly when the Soviet Union rejected the U.N.’s call to elect a new Korean government.[10] North Korea’s political ideology became communist, and South Korea’s became free-market democratic. Just five years later in 1950, North Korea, using Soviet artillery, invaded South Korea and began the Korean Conflict.

After the two sides signed an armistice in 1953, South Korea (the Republic of Korea) has flourished economically while North Korea (the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) has suffered political repression and economic hardship due in part to its dictatorial government, the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1990, and the floods and famine of 1995.[11] While North Korea’s dictators have been Kim Il-Sung and his son, Kim Jong-Il, South Korea has had its run of authoritarian presidents, namely Rhee Syngman (1948–1960), Park Chung-Hee (1961–79), and Chun Doo-Hwan (1981–88), with the latter two achieving power via military coup.

Paternal Han

Jenny Pak’s narrative analysis of Korean-American women shows the effects of paternal ambition on her participants. Each of their fathers had lived in Korea during Japan’s occupation, World War II, and the Korean Conflict. These men faced the meager economic prospects of the Korean Reconstruction (1946–1960) as well as the han that arose from this social climate; each left their homeland for opportunities abroad. Pak summarizes han as “a complicated concept born out of a long history of collective experiences of oppression.”[12] These Korean males met resistance as first-generation immigrants to the U.S., struggled with a new language and culture, and experienced marginalization in their occupations. Their frustrations influenced their daughters, and in response, their daughters dutifully pursued similar aims for professional success.[13]

Others, however, differ in the emphasized referent of han. Han connotes a deep angst, even depression, among primarily women over male oppression in a patriarchal society. Women in Confucian Korea were given very few rights and little access to education or literacy. In short, females had no voice in society but were meant to endure sacrificially. Kang argues that if han is only understood as minjung (social and economic deprivation), it neglects the han of women enduring sexual discrimination.[14]

The United States

This leads me to consider the national history of the United States and individuals’ psyches. Surely, this differs by participant and group. The history experienced by the white majority in the U.S. over our three centuries has formed a substantially different psyche from those ethnic minorities who experienced quite dissimilar histories within the U.S. I think of the indigenous native Americans, the Chinese immigrants during the 1860s building of the transcontinental railroad, the Japanese internment in the 1940s, or the longest lasting (and on that basis perhaps the most heinous)—the enslavement and segregation of African-Americans for two hundred years plus.

How do Americans characterize their psyches?

Confident? Religious? Independent? Civil? Faithful? Arrogant? On what bases?

***This is an adapted excerpt from Religious Identity and Cultural Negotiation. Narrative identity, migration, and self-understanding are discussed in chapters 2 and 3 .

[1] Dan McAdams, The Person, 409–13, 424–25.

[2] Jenny Pak, Korean American Women: Stories of Acculturation and Changing Selves. New York: Routledge, 2006.

[3] Michael Breen, Koreans, 75.

[4] Andrew Nahm, Historical Dictionary, xxi–xxvi.

[5] Breen, Koreans, 79–85; Walker, East Asia, 263.

[6] Nahm, Historical Dictionary, 9–10.

[7] Breen, Koreans, 86–87.

[8] During the early 1600s, Catholicism was introduced in Korea.

[9] Nahm, Historical Dictionary, xxxxiii, 48–49.

[10] The Soviet Union was not the only nation culpable as Nahm dutifully records. Ibid., 15–21.

[11] Adrian Buzo, Making of Modern Korea, 175–76.

[12] Ibid., 212.

[13] Pak, Korean American Women, 210–13.

[14] Namsoon Kang, “Han” in Dictionary of Feminist Theologies, 1996.


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