Choi Jae Duk
Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies
Typically, traditional Korean culture brings to mind beauty and excitement, wisdom from ancestors, protected national treasures, and other such artifacts that point back to the roots of the Korean people. In the busy lives of contemporary Koreans, traditional Korean culture has also taken on the symbolic representation of rest and reprieve from their fast-paced realities. All of these representations ring true to Korean culture in their own ways. However, the question that remains now is whether traditional Korean culture can transcend these simple reflections of what Korean culture is to what kinds of significant roles it may play globally in the future.
Within the past 100 years, the greatest pain that the Korean nation has faced is its separation between the North and the South. It remains a sensitive issue and brings no small amount of grief to the Korean nation. But Korea is not alone in its grief. Possibly equals in sharing Korea’s grief are those overseas Koreans in China and Russia, who, although scattered during the Korean diaspora, are still united to their motherland at heart.
Taking a look back at history, it was in 1881, when members of the Korean Inspector’s Party (sinsayuramdan), such as Jae-Pil Seo, Ok-Gyun Kim, and Young-Hyo Park, returned from their journey to Japan and emphasized the necessity for the Korean nation to adopt the notion of “strenuous effort” (ja-gang). As Korea’s neighboring nations had noticeably been rapidly westernizing, these men realized that Korea could no longer remain in isolationism and bar their doors from the inevitable changes occurring worldwide. Especially in the face of Japan’s actively pioneering efforts in modernization which began with the Meiji Reformation, these men expected there to be major global political shifts that would unavoidably affect the Korean peninsula. However, King Kojong of the time and his nobles placed too much faith in the Qing Dynasty to protect the Korean peninsula from any such shifts, and led Korea to endure 35 years under Japanese colonial rule. During these years, independence activists, having carried the burden of their nation through humiliation and perseverance, finally fled to Manchuria and the Maritime Provinces. These activists had risked their lives for independence, yet were unable to return even after Korea’s liberation. It is their progeny that are scattered in Northeast China, known as Chinese Koreans, and Central Asia, known as Russian Koreans, while those who left the motherland to escape economic hardships in the wake of the Korean War are known as overseas Koreans.
In the past decades, it is evident that the international order of Korea has changed and is changing even to this day. Historically, the Korean peninsula has been the victim of sharp conflicts between China, US, Russia, Japan, and other countries wanting to extract resources and exploit benefits from Korean land, and has therefore been the central battlefield for many military forces throughout the years. Similarly, with the current-day rise of China, the conservative policies of Japan, the US’ returning interest back toward Asia, the escalating tensions between G1-G2, and Russia’s progress with its Far East Policy, it is undoubtable that Korea is once again to be affected in response to all of these dynamic changes in the international realm. Just as it is said in diplomacy that “there are no friends or enemies”; just as the water flowing through a particular point in a river is never the same water; and just as the wave that crashes onto the same part of the ocean is never the same wave as before, the Korean nation will not remain the same amidst the interactions between the great powers. Hence, it is crucial that Korea stays alert and reinvigorates its “strenuous effort” (ja-gang) to become a more powerful nation, reviving ja-gang from being some historical notion simply employed in the past to one that critically needs to be implemented today. Ja-gang of today looks of bringing together all Koreans who desire to be reunited as one nation, from North and South Koreans, to Chinese and Russian Koreans, to Koreans all over the world.
A reunified Korea means a reunified nation with diverse, yet reunified, capabilities. There is an overwhelming strength in combining North Korea’s cheap land and labor, abundant natural resources and growing tourism; South Korea’s advanced technology and capital; Chinese Koreans' high level of education that has received global attention; Russian Koreans' perseverance and faithfulness that have allowed them to civilize what used to be barren wasteland; and overseas Koreans’ hardworking ethos that has made them profitable all around the world. Becoming a great power that is no longer drastically swayed by the changes in the international environment does not seem quite as impossible for Korea in light of this potential strength.
How, then, is Korea to claim this strength of unity? Although in the past century, the generations have changed and cultures have diverged among Koreans of different nations, an inextinguishable commonality remains among all ethnic Koreans: a longing for their homeland. From the traditional melodies of Arirang sung by parents and grandparents alike, the memories of playing in the front-yard of traditional Korean han-ok houses, to the traditional Korean food prepared with families during the holidays, Koreans have kept alive a remembrance of their nation. Thus, traditional Korean culture is not simply a part of the past, but a basic foundation for progress and an active impetus to drive Koreans toward unity. Granted, there are many reasons why traditional Korean culture should be protected and developed in its traditional ways. However, there is currently a more imminent need for Koreans to develop a future-oriented view of traditional Korean culture as not solely signifying the things of the past, but as expressing Korea’s national roots and principles, essence and values, that can be proudly presented to the world. Traditional Korean culture is the home and symbolic place of rest for all Koreans, and the very stream of water combining the diverse capabilities of Koreans to become one great river. That is why it is possible for North and South Koreans, Chinese and Russian Koreans, and overseas Koreans in all nations to dream about the reunification of the Korean nation. It is possible in the harmony found within traditional Korean culture; the prospect of which is enough to overwhelm the heart in and of itself.
***The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent the opinions of NKR or Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies.
Translated by Hye In Arielle Oh