Korean Blood, Real and Imagined
By Jon Huer
Korea Times columnist
Truly advanced nations value more "modern" or even "post-modern" qualities in their social system and substance than referents to blood-connections. These nations encourage "functions," "roles," "institutions," "rules," "education," "diversity," "competition," "openness," "achievements," and so on as important ingredients in modern societies.
They recognize that it is in their advantage to be free from their ancestral, tribal-bound origins, and accept the criteria of technical competence and functional imperatives. In other words, they try to advance to a higher level of modernization by shedding their blood-based origins and by accepting more merit-based competition and openness to diversity.
In trying to understand Korea and Koreans, we must recognize how important blood is to Korea. Koreans love blood, both in the real sense and metaphorically. They like to shed blood, sometimes their own in cut fingers and sometimes animal blood, in protest.
They hold "blood relations" as supreme, above other links and connections. They often add "flesh" and "bone" to their rhetorical statements and preferences.
In short, Korea is quite fond of thinking of itself and its people in terms of blood, flesh and bones, all primeval referents that most modern nations left far behind during their advancement.
In this sense, we see Korea still mired in some faraway land of its ancestry and mythical one-ness testified in thickness and authenticity of their blood. This is best exemplified by its strange emotional responses to North Korea.
Korea's reluctance to open itself to this new modern imperative is striking. Korea may produce ultra-modern automobiles and computers, but its mental outlook is bound by the thickness of its blood, by the one-ness of its flesh, and by the density of its bones, as if it never left the call of its pre-modern ancestors.
Not too long ago, the Korea Times reported the then-Unification Minister's remark that said, "South Koreans basically think of North Korea as our brother."
Although slightly modified under the Lee Myung-bak administration, thinking of North Koreans as their "brother" forms the core article of faith in the South Korean subconscious and the guiding national policy for the South's government.
This feeling of brotherhood is stronger in the subconscious than merely as a necessary ingredient in geopolitical diplomacy or business calculation. It is in the very heart of Korea's one-blood nationalism and in the soul of every South Korean who eyes the North. They are tied by blood.
Many foreign visitors, unfamiliar with Korean one-blood nationalism, are puzzled by South Korea's deep-seated ardor, which borders on obsession, in this one-blood connection with North Korea. The Unification Minister's sentiment expressed above is a good example of this emotional ardor that defies everything we know of the South-North relations defined chiefly by the two-million-armed-men standoff at the DMZ and their half-century history. What explains this "two Koreas as brothers" ardor and emotionalism, and why is it so odd? The idea of blood is significant.
The most common explanation given to foreigners, when asked why South Korea carries on with its unrequited, one-sided love affair with its northern counterpart, is that they are a "single-blood tribe" (in Korean "dong-il min-jok). Because the two Koreas are made up of a single-blood tribe, the explanation goes, brotherhood in the literal sense is their destiny. This is an interesting perspective because it says so much about what tugs at the South Korean heart most deeply and effectively and about the importance and significance of blood on Korea's mind.
Some may object to this sentiment at the physical level. Is Korea really made up of one-blood tribe? These critics would point out that the Han Tribe has been mixed with many other tribes through numerous invasions and intermingling of different tribes, namely, from the Mongols, the Chinese, the Japanese, and to a minor extent from other non-Asian nations.
For these critics, to say that the Korean blood is purely "Korean" is sheer fantasy. A recent DNA analysis shows that 60 percent of Koreans have "foreign" blood. The very idea of forging a nation's destiny and identity on the basis of ethnic blood seems not only atavistic but also dangerous.
It is atavistic because modern nations are increasingly made up of different groups and tribes, and dangerous because it is the cause of racism and xenophobic tendencies. To most Koreans, however, this assumption of one blood is very logical and reasonable.
On the more sociological level, the critique of one-bloodedness gets more serious.
One might ask where is the logic in saying that because the two Koreas share the "same blood" that reunification is their reason for existence?
Americans are generally disbelieving. They say that the United States in its early stage shared everything with Great Britain but fought a war to become separated from the latter.
The U.S. and most of Canada speak the same language and share the Anglo-Saxon heritage but no one would urgently suggest that the two nations become one.
Most English-speaking, Anglo-Saxon-derived nations (namely, Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada) maintain cordial relations, to be sure, but hardly a brotherly one, as they disagree among themselves frequently, their alliance being more practical than blood-based.
Indians and Pakistanis are sworn enemies in spite of their blood relations. The trend among all nations who may share the same "blood" is not re-unification on the basis of some common ethnicity, but separate existences, each ethnic or political group attempting to become more independent from its "mother" nation.
Naturally, this fairly objective-modernistic argument falls on deaf ears in Korea.
Most Koreans do recognize that the future trend of international alliance is through trade benefits that unite different nations as one bloc, not through the common blood (even if this is physically true) or language or ethnic origin.
As the situation involving the two Koreas stands, the two Koreas have virtually nothing in common as two neighboring nations. Politically, culturally, psychologically, sociologically, economically, and in every other conceivable way, the two Koreas have become strangers to each other.
They neither think alike nor act alike. Few people know and fewer care to know exactly what the two sides talk about when the separated families meet for three days. What seems to be certain is that, after three days or so of carefully-controlled reunion, they part company in great deal of mutual incomprehension as to how they had become such strangers to one another.
In spite of the media-inspired sentimentality, likewise, most Korean kids adopted by American families do not reconnect to their blood relations in Korea when they visit them. All this evidence of bloodlines not being as strong as socialization and nurture seems make very little difference in the Korean heart. It only recognizes blood, and blood is certainly thicker than water.
As Korea becomes a multicultural society, at least in its demography, with the influx of so many foreign wives in its midst, this blood obsession might ease eventually. But the "eventually" (such a comforting word) may never come unless it starts now. Not referring to blood, flesh or bones so much in their cultural and political referents might be a good start. It makes Korea seem decidedly pre-20th century in outlook.