A BBC poll from 2016 of various countries, asking what the most important factor in self identity was. South Korea has the highest proportion given for "race or culture" at 23%.[1]
A BBC poll from 2016 of various countries, asking what the most important factor in self identity was. South Korea has the highest proportion given for "race or culture" at 23%.[1]

Korean ethnic nationalism, or Korean racial nationalism,[2] is a racial, chauvinist and ethnosupremacist political ideology and a form of ethnic and racial identity that is widely prevalent by the Korean people in Korea, particularly in South Korea.[3][4][5][6] It is based on the belief that Koreans form a nation, a race, and an ethnic group that shares a unified bloodline and a distinct culture.[7] It is centered on the notion of the minjok (Korean민족; Hanja民族), a term that had been coined in Imperial Japan ("minzoku") in the early Meiji period. Minjok has been translated as "nation", "people", "ethnic group", "race", and "race-nation".[8][9][10][11]

This conception started to emerge among Korean intellectuals after the Japanese-imposed protectorate of 1905, leading to Korea's colonization by Japan.[12] The Japanese then tried to persuade the Koreans that both nations were of the same racial stock to assimilate them, similar to what they did with the Ainu and Ryukyuans. The notion of the Korean minjok was first made popular by essayist and historian Shin Chaeho in his New Reading of History (1908), a history of Korea from the mythical times of Dangun to the fall of Balhae in 926 CE. Shin portrayed the minjok as a warlike race that had fought bravely to preserve Korean identity, had later declined, and now needed to be reinvigorated.[13] During the period of Japanese rule (1910–1945), this belief in the uniqueness of the Korean minjok gave an impetus for resisting Japanese assimilation policies and historical scholarship.[14]

In contrast to Japan and Germany, where such mainstream race-based conceptions of the nation were discredited after the Second World War because they were associated with ultranationalism or Nazism (Blood and soil, Herrenvolk and the Völkisch movement), with such views leading to the Holocaust,[15] postwar North and South Korea continued to proclaim their ethnic homogeneity and pure bloodline.[16] In the 1960s, South Korean president Park Chung-hee strengthened this "ideology of racial purity" to legitimate his authoritarian rule.[17] Contemporary South Korean historians continue to write about the nation's "unique racial and cultural heritage", with some even going further to add that Koreans are generally more "superior" than other ethnic groups and nations.[18]

This shared conception of a racially defined Korea continues to shape Korean politics and foreign relations,[16] gives Koreans an impetus to national and racial pride,[19] and feeds hopes for the reunification of the two Koreas.[20] In recent decades, statistics has showed that South Korea is becoming an increasingly multi-ethnic society.[21] Nevertheless, the South Korean population continues to identify itself as "one people" (Korean: 단일민족; Hanja: 單一民族, danil minjok) joined by a common "bloodline".[22] As a result, renewed emphasis on the purity of the Korean "blood"[23] has caused tensions, leading to renewed debates on multi-ethnicity and racism both in South Korea and abroad by Koreans.[21] Korean racial nationalism has also been described as constituting a civic religion of sorts.[24]


See also: Korean nationalist historiography

Early usage and origins

Contemporary Korean ideology of a "pure Korean race" began in the early 20th century when the Japanese annexed Korea and launched a campaign to persuade them that they were of the same pure racial stock as the Japanese themselves.

In the colonial period, the Imperial Japanese's assimilation policy claimed that Koreans and Japanese were of common origin but the former always subordinate. The pure blood theory was used to justify colonialist policies and to replace Korean cultural traditions with Japanese ones in order to supposedly get rid of all distinctions and achieve equality between Koreans and Japanese.[16] As was previously done with the Ainu and Ryukyuans, Japan's extensive policy of cultural genocide included changing Korean names into Japanese, exclusive use of Japanese language, school instruction in the Japanese "ethical system", and Shinto worship.[16] Brian Reynolds Myers, a professor at Dongseo University, argues that seeing the failure of the pure assimilationist policy, Japanese imperial ideologues changed their policy into creating a Korean ethnic-patriotism on par with the Japanese one. They encouraged Koreans to take pride in their Koreanness, in their history, heritage, culture and "dialect" as a "brother nation" going back to a "common ancestry" with the Japanese.


Heaven Lake of Baekdu Mountain where Hwanung, Dangun's father, is said to have descended from heaven, constitutes a foundation for the legend of blood purity in Korean
Heaven Lake of Baekdu Mountain where Hwanung, Dangun's father, is said to have descended from heaven, constitutes a foundation for the legend of blood purity in Korean

Shin Chaeho (1880–1936), the founder of the nationalistic historiography of modern Korea and a Korean independence movement activist, published his influential book of reconstructed history Joseon Sanggosa (The Early History of Joseon) in 1924–25, proclaiming that Koreans are descendants of Dangun, the legendary ancestor of Korean people, who merged with Buyo of Manchuria to form the Goguryeo people.[25]

Borrowing from the Japanese theory of nation, Shin Chaeho located the martial roots of the Korean in Goguryeo, which he depicted as militarist and expansionist which turned out to inspire pride and confidence in the resistance against the Japanese.[25] In order to establish Korean uniqueness, he also replaced the story of Gija Joseon, whose founder (Gija) was the paternal uncle or brother of the Chinese Shang emperor Zhou, with the Dangun legend[26] and asserted that it was an important way to establish Korea's uniqueness.[25]

After independence in the late 1940s, despite the split between North and South Korea, neither side disputed the ethnic homogeneity of the Korean nation based on a firm conviction that they are purest descendant of a legendary progenitor and half-god figure called Dangun who founded Gojoseon in 2333 BCE based on the description of the Dongguk Tonggam (1485).[16][27]


In both Koreas, pure blood theory is a common belief,[28] with even some South Korean presidents subscribing to it.[29] The debates on this topic can be found sporadic in the South, whereas the public opinion in the North is hard to access. In a nationalistic view, to impugn or challenge the theory would have been tantamount to betraying Koreanness in the face of the challenge of an alien ethnic nation.[16]

Some Korean scholars observed that the pure blood theory served as a useful tool for the South Korean government to make its people obedient and easy to govern when the country was embroiled in ideological turmoil.[28] It was especially true in the dictatorial leaderships by former presidents Syngman Rhee and Park Chung-hee when nationalism was incorporated into anti-Communism.[28]

Role in contemporary South Korean society

In South Korea, the notion of "pure blood" results in discrimination toward people of both "foreign-blood" and "mixed blood".[21] Those with this "mixed blood" or "foreign blood" are sometimes referred to as Honhyeol (Korean혼혈; Hanja) in South Korea.[30]

The South Korean nationality law is based on jus sanguinis[16][31] instead of jus solis, which is a territorial principle that takes into account the place of birth when bestowing nationality. In this context, most South Koreans have stronger attachment to South Koreans residing in foreign countries and foreigners of South Korean descent, than to naturalized South Korean citizens and expatriates residing in South Korea.[16][31] In 2005, the opposition Grand National Party suggested a revision of the current South Korean nationality law to allow South Korean nationality to be bestowed to people who are born in South Korea regardless of the nationalities of their parents but it was discarded due to unfavorable public opinion against such a measure.[21]

According to Jon Huer, a columnist for the Korea Times:

In trying to understand [South] Korea and [South] Koreans, we must recognize how important blood is to [South] Korea. [South] 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, [South] Korea is quite fond of thinking of itself and its people in terms of blood...[32]

Changing attitudes

Emma Campbell from the Australian National University argues that the conceptions of South Korean nationalism are evolving among young people and that a new form is emerging that has globalised cultural characteristics.[33] These characteristics challenge the role of ethnicity in South Korean nationalism.[33] According to Campbell's study, for which she interviewed 150 South Koreans in their twenties, the desire for reunification is declining. However, these who are in favor of a Korean unification state reasons different from ethnic nationalism. The respondents stated that they only wanted unification if it would not disrupt life in the South or if North Korea achieves economic parity with the South. A small number of respondents further mentioned that they support a "unification on the condition that it did not take place in their lifetime."[33] Another reason stated for the wish for unification was the access to North Korea's natural resources and cheap labor.[33] This notion of evolving nationalism has been further elaborated by the meaning of uri nara (Korean: 우리나라 our country [sic!]) for young South Koreans, which only refers to South Korea for them instead to the whole Korean peninsula.[33] Campbell's interviews further showed that many young South Koreans have no problems to accepting foreigners as part of uri nara.[33]

A poll by the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in 2015 found that only 5.4% of South Koreans in their twenties saw North Koreans as people sharing the same bloodline with them. The poll also found that only 11% of South Koreans associated North Korea with Koreans, with most people associating them with words like military, war or nuclear weapons. It also found that most South Koreans expressed deeper feelings of "closeness" with Americans and Chinese than with North Koreans.[34]

According to a December 2017 survey released by the Korea Institute for National Unification, 72.1% of South Koreans in their 20s believe reunification is unnecessary.[35] Moreover, about 50% of men in their 20s see North Korea as an outright enemy that they want nothing to do with.[36]

Steven Denney from the University of Toronto said, "Younger South Koreans feel closer to North Korean migrants than, say, foreign workers, but they will feel closer to a native born child of non-Korean ethnicity than a former resident of North Korea."[37]


B. R. Myers noted in a 2010 New York Times editorial that there was relatively little public outrage in South Korea over the sinking of the ROKS Cheonan earlier that year, which he attributed partly to a feeling of sympathy towards North Korea among South Koreans, resulting from a closer identification with the Korean race than with the South Korean state.[38] Myers also stated that race nationalism in South Korea undermines the South Korean citizenry's patriotism towards South Korea by increasing sympathy towards North Korea, thus threatening the country's national security in the face of North Korean aggression, a sentiment shared by Korea Times columnist Jon Huer.[32] He stated that South Koreans' race nationalism "is no problem when you have a nation state like Japan or Denmark, but is a problem when you have a state divided."[39] Myers has also stated that conversely, North Korea does not suffer from this dilemma as by and large the North Korean people tend to equate the "Korean race" and the country of North Korea as being one and the same, unlike in South Korea where the "Korean race" and South Korea are largely seen as different entities.[40]

Social issues

American football player Hines Ward's visit to South Korea in 2006 has stirred debate if the country's society should be more accepting of "mixed blood" people.
American football player Hines Ward's visit to South Korea in 2006 has stirred debate if the country's society should be more accepting of "mixed blood" people.

As part of the deterioration of relations between North Korea and the Soviet Union in the early 1960s, North Korea forced its male citizens who had married Soviet and Eastern European women to divorce, whereupon the women, a few hundred, were expelled from the country.[41] North Korea is alleged to have abducted foreign women in the 1970s to marry to foreign men that immigrated to North Korea in order to keep these men from having children with North Korean women.[42] North Korea is accused of killing babies born to North Korean mothers and Chinese fathers.[43]

In 2006, American football player Hines Ward, who was born in Seoul to a South Korean mother and a black American father, became the first South Korean-born American to win the NFL Super Bowl's MVP award. This achievement threw him into the media spotlight in South Korea.[44] When he traveled to South Korea for the first time, he raised unprecedented attention to the acceptance of "mixed-blood" children. He also donated US$1 million to establish the "Hines Ward Helping Hands Foundation", which the media called "a foundation to help mixed-race children like himself in South Korea, where they have suffered discrimination."[45] Hines Ward was granted "honorary" South Korean citizenship.[46]

However, while some South Koreans are fascinated by the biracial sportsman, the majority of ordinary mixed-race people and migrant workers face various forms of discrimination and prejudice.[21] In 2007, the "Korean pure blood theory" became an international issue when the U.N. Committee on the International Convention Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination urged better education on the pure blood theory is needed, especially for judicial workers such as police officers, lawyers, prosecutors and judges.[47][48] The suggestion received mixed reception in South Korea in which some raised a concern that foreigners will invade the South Korean culture and challenge national sovereignty.[31] Others say that the embrace of multiethnicism will diminish chances of reunifying the Korean Peninsula.[31]

In 2007, the South Korean government passed the Act on Treatment of Foreigners.[49][50][51] Later in 2007, the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination praised the Act on Treatment of Foreigners, but also expressed a number of concerns. The committee was concerned "about the persistence of widespread societal discrimination against foreigners, including migrant workers and children born from inter-ethnic unions, in all areas of life, including employment, marriage, housing, education and interpersonal relationships." It also noted that the terminology such as "pure blood" and "mixed blood" used in South Korea, including by the government, is widespread, and may reinforce concepts of racist superiority. The committee recommended improvement in the areas of treatment of migrant workers, abuse of and violence against foreign women married to South Korean citizens, and trafficking of foreign women for the purpose of sexual exploitation or domestic servitude.[52] It also noted that contrary to popular domestic perception, South Korea was no longer "ethnically homogenous".[53]

Another legislation aimed at improving the integration of ethnic minorities into South Korean society, the Support for Multicultural Families Act was passed in 2008[54] but revised in 2011.[51][55] According to 2009, statistics published by South Korean Ministry of Health and Welfare, there were 144,385 couples of international marriage in South Korea as of May 2008. 88.4% of immigrants were female, and 61.9% were from China.[56] Recently[when?] it has been argued that South Korean society had already become a multicultural society, although foreigners make up for 3.4% of the South Korean population.[57] As of 2011, ten ministries and agencies of South Korean government are supporting international couples and foreign workers in South Korea toward the cultural plurality.[58]

Existing provisions in South Korean criminal law may be used to punish acts of racial discrimination, but were never used for that purpose[52] until 2009, when the first case of a South Korean citizen verbally insulting a foreigner have been brought to court.[53]

In 2010, the South Korean government changed the oath of enlistment of Korean soldiers, so that they do not swear allegiance anymore to the Korean race.[4][8][59] Similarly, prior to 2007 the South Korean pledge of allegiance was towards the "Korean race" rather than towards the country of South Korea.[59]

A poll from 2015 found that Koreans tend to amalgamate Korean ethnic nationalism with classism, resulting in a "hierarchy", viewing immigrants from more affluent countries less negatively than those who came from poorer countries.[60]

In 2018, it was found that many Korean dramas and movies have portrayed Americans in negative light, which influences viewers to have anti-American views, thus reinforcing the ethnic Korean pure-blood nationalism.[61]

See also


  1. ^ "Global Citizenship a growing sentiment among citizens of emerging economies: Global Poll" (PDF). GlobeScan. 2016-04-27. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2016-10-21. Retrieved 2016-10-20.
  2. ^ Gi-Wook Shin, Ethnic Nationalism in Korea: Genealogy, Politics, and Legacy (Stanford University Press, 2006), p. 223.
  3. ^ Koo, Se-woong (July 2018). "Opinion - South Korea's Enduring Racism". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 2018-07-09. Retrieved 9 July 2018.
  4. ^ a b Kelly, Robert E. (4 June 2015). "Why South Korea is So Obsessed with Japan". Real Clear Defense.
  5. ^ Denney, Steven (February 2014). "Political Attitudes and National Identity in an Era of Strength and Prosperity" (PDF). A Primer on a New Nationalism in South Korea. Dominion of Canada: Department of Political Science of the University of Toronto. South Koreans do ascribe a relatively higher value to race than do other nations.
  6. ^ Denney, Steven (1 April 2015). "Workers, Immigration, and Racialized Hierarchy". SinoNK. Archived from the original on January 3, 2016. Racism is as much, if not more, a problem in South Korea as it is in the United States.
  7. ^ Gi-wook Shin, Ethnic Nationalism in Korea: Genealogy, Politics, and Legacy (Stanford University Press, 2006), p. 2.
  8. ^ a b Doolan, Yuri W. (June 2012). Being Amerasian in South Korea: Purebloodness, Multiculturalism, and Living Alongside the U.S. Military Empire (Thesis). The Ohio State University. p. 63. hdl:1811/52015.
  9. ^ Lee, Jin-seo (2016). North Korean Prison Camps. Radio Free Asia. p. 26. ISBN 9781632180230. Retrieved 3 March 2016.
  10. ^ Em, Henry H. (2013). The Great Enterprise: Sovereignty and Historiography in Modern Korea, Part 2. p. 77. ISBN 978-0822353720. As noted earlier, the word minjok (read as minzoku in Japanese) was a neologism created in Meiji Japan. When Korean (and Chinese and Japanese) nationalists wrote in English in the first half of the twentieth century, the English word they generally utilized for minjok was 'race.'
  11. ^ Choi, Hee-an (2015). A Postcolonial Self: Korean Immigrant Theology and Church. p. 24. ISBN 9781438457352. The word minjok (민족,民族) translates as race.
  12. ^ Andre Schmid, Korea Between Empires, 1895-1919 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), p. 174.
  13. ^ Sheila Miyoshi Jager, Narratives of Nation Building in Korea (2003), pp. 15-16; Andre Schmid, "Rediscovering Manchuria" (1997), p. 32.
  14. ^ Hyung-il Pai, Constructing "Korean" Origins: A Critical Review of Archaeology, Historiography, and Racial Myth in Korean State-Formation Theories. Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, distributed by Harvard University Press, 2000), p. 1.
  15. ^ Comparison with Japanese "ultranationalism": Andre Schmid, Korea Between Empires, 1895-1919 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), p. 277. Comparison with Germany and Nazism: Shin Gi-wook, Ethnic Nationalism in Korea: Genealogy, Politics, and Legacy (2006), p. 19.
  16. ^ a b c d e f g h Ethnic pride source of prejudice, discrimination Archived 2011-07-20 at the Wayback Machine, Gi-Wook Shin, Asia-Pacific Research Center of Stanford University, 2 August 2006
  17. ^ Nadia Y. Kim, Imperial Citizens: Koreans and Race from Seoul to L.A. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008), p. 25.
  18. ^ Hyung-il Pai, Constructing "Korean" Origins (2000), p. 6.
  19. ^ Gi-wook Shin, Ethnic Nationalism in Korea: Genealogy, Politics, and Legacy (2006), pp. 1-3.
  20. ^ Gi-wook Shin, Ethnic Nationalism in Korea: Genealogy, Politics, and Legacy, chapter 10: "Ethnic Identity and National Unification" (pp. 185-203).
  21. ^ a b c d e Park, Chung-a (August 14, 2006). "Myth of Pure-Blood Nationalism Blocks Multi-Ethnic Society". The Korea Times. Archived from the original on July 25, 2011. Retrieved July 25, 2011.
  22. ^ Pai, Hyung Il (2000). Constructing "Korean" origins: a critical review of archaeology, historiography, and racial myth in Korean state-formation theories. Harvard University Asia Center. p. 256. ISBN 978-0-674-00244-9. The idea of racial unity and continuity is embodied in the concept of tanil minjok (pure race), which holds that all Koreans have successfully maintained their "Korean-ness" by fighting off foreign invaders since the formation of the nation in prehistoric times.
  23. ^ Kim, Nadia Y. (2008). Imperial citizens: Koreans and race from Seoul to LA. Stanford University Press. p. 24. ISBN 978-0-8047-5887-1. Koreans' beloved trope of tanil minjok—'the single ethnic nation'— would soon come into its own (see Shin 1998). The centrality of "blood" has been revived in more current times as well.
  24. ^ Myers, Brian Reynolds (2017). "What North Korea Wants". Reuters War College. Soundcloud. Retrieved 2 November 2018. The South needs to retire the conventional civic religion here, which is anti-Japanese pan-Korean nationalism in favor of a collective identification of civic principles.
  25. ^ a b c The Koguryo Controversy, National Identity, and Sino-Korean Relations Today [1] Archived 2017-08-09 at the Wayback Machine, Peter Hays Gries, Institute for US-China Issues, The University of Oklahoma
  26. ^ Andre Schmid, "Rediscovering Manchuria: Som Cj’aeho and the Politics of Territorial History in Korea," in The Journal of Asian Studies, 56, no. 1 February 1997
  27. ^ Old Choson and the Culture of the Mandolin-shaped Bronze Dagger, Kim Jung-bae
  28. ^ a b c Kim Sok-soo, professor at Kyungpook National University, cited in Park Chung-a, "Myth of Pure-Blood Nationalism Blocks Multi-Ethnic Society Archived 2011-07-25 at the Wayback Machine," The Korea Times, August 14, 2006.
  29. ^ Myers, B.R. (September 2017). "What the West gets wrong about North Korea's motives, and why some South Koreans admire the North". The Conversation. Archived from the original on 2017-09-16.((cite news)): CS1 maint: bot: original URL status unknown (link)
  30. ^ Lim, Timothy (2010). "Rethinking Belongingness in Korea: Transnational Migration, 'Migrant Marriages,' and the Politics of Multiculturalism". Pacific Affairs. 83 (1): 51–71. doi:10.5509/201083151.
  31. ^ a b c d Korea: How Much Should One Ethnicity be Emphasized? Global Voices, 2007
  32. ^ a b "Korean Blood, Real and Imagined". 3 July 2009.
  33. ^ a b c d e f Campbell, Emma (22 June 2015). "The end of ethnic nationalism? Changing conceptions of national identity and belonging among young South Koreans". Nations and Nationalism. 21 (3): 483–502. doi:10.1111/nana.12120.
  34. ^ Cheng, Jonathan (2015-01-26). "In South Korea, Reunification Call Misses the Jackpot". WSJ. Retrieved 2019-07-31.
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  39. ^ "(Yonhap Feature) Brian Myers: Korea's most dangerous writer? - YONHAP NEWS". english.yonhapnews.co.kr. 2011-08-10. This is no problem when you have a nation state like Japan or Denmark, but is a problem when you have a state divided.
  40. ^ "Propaganda in the age of Kim Jong-Un: A discussion with Professor B.R. Myers". freekorea.us. August 2017.
  41. ^ Andrei Lankov, The Real North Korea: Life and politics in the failed Stalinist utopia (Oxford 2015) page 20.
  42. ^ Kirby, Michael Donald; Biserko, Sonja; Darusman, Marzuki (7 February 2014). "Report of the detailed findings of the commission of inquiry on human rights in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea - A/HRC/25/CRP.1". Archived from the original on February 27, 2014. ((cite journal)): Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  43. ^ "BBC NEWS - Asia-Pacific - N Korea 'kills detainees' babies'". 2003-10-22. Retrieved 7 October 2014.
  44. ^ Chuck Finder (2006-04-09). "Hines Ward scores big for social change". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
  45. ^ "Ward kicks off his new charity". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Associated Press. 2006-05-30.
  46. ^ "MVP Ward Visit Exposes Korean Racism - OhmyNews International". english.ohmynews.com.
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  59. ^ a b "New Pledge of Allegiance to Reflect Growing Multiculturalism". The Chosun Ilbo. South Korea. 18 April 2011. Archived from the original on April 20, 2011. Retrieved 20 April 2011. The military has decided to omit the word 'minjok,' which refers to the Korean race, from the oath of enlistment for officers and soldiers, and replace it with 'the citizen.' The measure reflects the growing number of foreigners who gain Korean citizenship and of children from mixed marriages entering military service.
  60. ^ "South Korea as (Sub)Empire: Workers, Immigration, and Racialized Hierarchy". Sino-NK. 2015-04-01. Retrieved 2019-07-29.
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Further reading