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Reviewed by:
  • Ethnic Nationalism in Korea: Genealogy, Politics, and Legacy
  • Robert Oppenheim (bio)
Ethnic Nationalism in Korea: Genealogy, Politics, and Legacy, by Gi-Wook Shin. Studies of the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006. Xiii, 307 pp. $24.95 paper.

When the multidisciplinary discussion of nationalism was in its heyday a decade or two ago, I remember some frustration that the Korean instance was not considered more prominently. Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities (1991) was anti-foundational and de-essentializing as a move in theory, but it and other books on nationalism often had the effect of centering academic debate on a particular set of paradigmatic examples, integrative historical dynamics, and even ethical imperatives of denunciation. Korean nationalisms seemed to present a hard and thus potentially productive case. What to do when protonationalism might be more than the retrospective fantasy it was regarded as by robustly modernist perspectives, when anticolonial nationalism transitioned to the ideological [End Page 107] cauterization of division, or when Pyongyang and Seoul, or students and state, have mutually spoken the language of nation? As nationalism theory not only traveled in the academy but took the VIP lane through customs, however, Korea regrettably tended to be ignored or relegated to exceptional status.

With Ethnic Nationalism in Korea, Gi-Wook Shin sets out to remedy this situation. The resulting combination of theoretical engagement and broad macro-historical and sociological perspective on the phenomenon of Korean identification based on notions of "bloodline and shared ancestry" (p. 2) makes the book perhaps the first text to recommend to those students or colleagues with comparative interests who will never ultimately be bothered to distinguish between Yi Kwangsu and Rhee Syngman. Korea specialists, on the other hand, will find Ethnic Nationalism in dialogue with work on intellectual responses to imperialism (e.g., Em 1999; Schmid 2002), colonial problematics of race and assimilation (Robinson 1988; Allen 1990; Ch'oe 1997; Pai 2000), agrarian antimodernism (Shin 1996), the ideological reconstruction of division nationalism (Cumings 1981, 1990; Pak 1996; Armstrong 2003), developmentalist and oppositional subjectivities (Abelmann 1996; Lee 2002; Jager 2003), and the role of nation in the futurology of reunification (Paik 1996; Grinker 1998), to name but several topics. Shin's book does not, of course, supplant such closely focused studies, but neither is it merely an overview. Ethnic Nationalism is at its best and most provocative when it uses its breadth to connect dynamics and historical moments in new ways. In one culminating example, Shin links and likens the instrumental nationalist appropriation of "civilization" at the turn of the last century, of "modernization" in its middle, and of "globalization" in the 1990s and since (pp. 220–21)—an argument, certainly, but one that nicely focuses the course of modern (South) Korean history.

In his introduction, Shin presents an analytical framework that grasps ethnic nationalism as "embedded in particular social relations and history," as "contingent" on its occurrence and specific character, and as "contested" in its content and relations to other identities and ideological claims (pp. 8–11, italics omitted). Although the blanket social and historical "embeddedness" of phenomena is a much more debatable point than usually realized, this is not on Shin's agenda, and as a result this exposition has rather the unfortunate character of boilerplate. A better vision of what is distinctive about the book comes through the recurring invocation of the Gramscian concept of a "war of position" (e.g., pp. 63, 167, 170): ethnic nationalism in Korea has not simply been an ideal proposition that may be compared to others but rather has been a force for making and destabilizing coalitions (i.e., potential hegemonies) within fields defined by other interests and mobilized ideologies. Nationalism did not predominate over pan-Asianism as a Korean intellectual position before 1905, but was thrust forward when the latter lost legitimacy with the Japanese takeover. The possibility of common ground between some nationalists and Communists [End Page 108] represented by the Sin'ganhoe was decisively broken by international Marxist equations of nationalism with fascism, pushing nationalists to greater unity; ethnicity as a point of emphasis was encouraged both by this development and by colonial assimilation policy. One...


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