In terms of ethnicity, the population of the Korean Peninsula is one of the world's most homogeneous. Descended from migratory groups who entered the Korean Peninsula from Siberia, Manchuria, and Inner Asia several thousands of years ago, the Korean people are distinguished from the neighboring populations of mainland Asia and Japan in terms of ethnicity, culture, and language, even though they share many cultural elements with these peoples. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993 *]

Koreans have maintained their own unique language, culture and customs for thousands of years. The Koreans are believed to be descended primarily from Tungusic peoples of the cold northern regions of Central Asia. Based on linguistic evidence, the first Koreans originated from the Altai region of Mongolia and Siberia — where the Turks, Hungarians and Finns also came from — and migrated from there to present-day Liaoshi and Manchuria (regions in China) and the Korean peninsula. There is still a large population of Koreans in China today.

Sometimes referred to as the "Irish of Asia," Koreans have a reputation for being rowdy, boisterous, friendly and emotional. According to some surveys, they drink more hard liquor than any other people in the world.

Chunghee Sarah Soh wrote in “”Countries and Their Cultures””: The phrase han p'it-chul ("one bloodline") often is used by Koreans at home and abroad to symbolize their shared identity as the members of a homogeneous nation. Blood and territory thus are the most frequently invoked metaphors associated with the nation. Before the 1945 national division of the peninsula and the subsequent establishment of the two political regimes of North and South Korea in 1948, Koreans identified themselves as the people of Choson. Tan'gun as the founding ancestor has had a symbolic meaning for Koreans throughout the nation's history. A temple erected in Tan'gun's honor in 1429 stood in Pyongyang until its destruction during the Korean War. In 1993, North Korea announced the discovery of Tan'gun's tomb and a few remains of his skeleton at a site close to Pyongyang. Some Korean calendars still print the Year of Tan'gun (Tan'gi ) along with the Gregorian calendar year, which the South Korean government officially adopted in 1962.” [Source: Chunghee Sarah Soh, “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

Koreans are also known as Choson and Han'guk According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “Because Korea is an ethnically homogeneous nation, there are no ethnonyms per se. There are, however, several alternative names used by outsiders as well as natives, all of which come from the names of previous states or dynasties. The name "Korea" comes from the Koryo dynasty (918-1392). "Han'guk" is an abbreviation of "Taehan Min'guk" (Republic of Korea), which is used exclusively by South Koreans. Its origin can be traced to "Taehan Che'guk" (Great Han Empire), the new name of the Yi dynasty (1392-1910) chosen in 1897. "Choson" originated from Old Choson (2333-194 b.c.) , the first Korean state that possessed a bronze culture. The Yi dynasty was also named "Choson" and North Korea prefixed it for the name of its regime, "Choson Minjuju-ui Inmin Konghwa'guk" (Democratic People's Republic of Korea). From "Choson," meaning "morning calm and freshness," Korea acquired the epithet by which it is known, the "land of the morning calm." [Source: Choong Soon Kim, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 5: East / Southeast Asia:” edited by Paul Hockings, 1993 |~|]

South Korean Homogeneity

Koreans pride themselves on the racial harmony, their culture, their food and their set of commonly held beliefs. South Korea's homogeneous population shares a common ethnic, cultural, and linguistic heritage. Almost 100 percent of the population is Korean. It is almost impossible for non-Koreans to obtain a naturalized citizenship in Korea. The legal status of people of other national origins in South Korea is mostly temporary.

Although a variety of different Asian peoples had migrated to the Korean Peninsula in past centuries, very few have remained permanently, so by 1990 both South Korea and North Korea were among the world's most ethnically homogeneous nations. The number of indigenous minorities was negligible. In South Korea, people of foreign origin, including Westerners, Chinese, and Japanese, were a small percentage of the population whose residence was generally temporary. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

Like their Japanese neighbors, Koreans tend to equate nationality or citizenship with membership in a single, homogeneous ethnic group or "race" (minjok, in Korean). A common language and culture also are viewed as important elements in Korean identity. The idea of multiracial or multiethnic nations, like India or the United States, strikes many Koreans as odd or even contradictory. Consciousness of homogeneity is a major reason why Koreans on both sides of the DMZ viewed their country's division as an unnatural and unnecessary tragedy. *

South Korean Cultural Identity

National self-image is, on one level, unambiguously defined by the convergence of territorial, ethnic, linguistic, and cultural identities. Yet intense feelings of nationalism, so evident in athletic events like the 1986 Asian Games and the 1988 Olympic Games held in Seoul, revealed anxiety as well as pride concerning South Korea's place in the world. More than Western peoples and even more than the Japanese, South Korean individuals are inclined to view themselves as a tightly knit national community with a common destiny. In a rapidly changing world, however, it is often difficult for them to define exactly what being a South Korean is. To outsiders, the intense concern with identity is perhaps difficult to understand; it reflects a history of subordinate relations to powerful foreign states and the tragedy of national division after World War II. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

Many modernized, urban-dwelling South Koreans embark on a search for the "essence" of their culture, which commonly expresses itself as hostility to foreign influences. For example, the poet Kim Chi-ha, whose opposition to the Park regime in the 1970s was a model for a younger generation of dissidents, attacked the government as much for its neglect of traditional values as for its antidemocratic tendencies. *

Seoul has not been slow to employ traditionalism for its own ends. In 1987 the government adopted guidelines for the revision of history textbooks instructing publishers to describe the foundation of the Korean nation by Tan'gun in 2333 B.C. as "a reflection of historical facts" rather than simply a myth. The legendary Tan'gun was, according to the myth, the son of god and a bear-woman. According to a Far Eastern Economic Review commentator, ". . . people ranging from reputable university scholars to chauvinist mystics regard Tan'gun as the personification of ethics and values that emphasize a native Korean identity against the foreign religions and philosophies of Buddhism, neo-Confucianism, Christianity and Marxism that have otherwise dominated Korean history and thought." Tangun's legendary kingdom is older than China's first legendary dynasty, the Xia (2205-1766 B.C.), and its antiquity asserts Korea's cultural autonomy in relation to its largest neighbor. There have been proposals that the government subsidize the rites of the numerically small community of believers in Taejonggyo and other cults that worship Tan'gun. *

Problems of cultural identity are closely connected to the tragedy of Korea's division into two hostile states. Many members of the younger generation of South Koreans born after the Korean War fervently embrace the cause of t'ongil, or reunification, and believe that it is the superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, who are to blame for Korea's national division. The South Korean government's dependence on the United States has been cited as one of the principal reasons for the lack of improvement in north-south ties. While a majority of South Koreans remains suspicious of the North Koreans, many South Koreans also share the sentiments expressed by Kim Chi-ha: "our name is division, and this soiled name, like an immovable destiny, oppresses all of us." When parts of the wall dividing East Berlin and West Berlin were knocked down in November 1989, Koreans reflected sadly that breaching the DMZ would not be such a simple task. *

Regional Difference in South Korea

Against the background of ethnic homogeneity, significant regional differences exist. Within South Korea, the most important regional difference is between the Kyongsang region, embracing North Kyongsang and South Kyongsang provinces in the southeast, and the Cholla region, embracing North Cholla and South Cholla provinces in the southwest. The two regions, separated by the Chiri Massif, nurture a rivalry said to reach back to the Three Kingdoms Period, which lasted from the fourth century to the seventh century A.D., when the kingdoms of Paekche and Silla struggled for control of the peninsula. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

South Koreans divide themselves into five groups: 1) southeasterners and people from Pusan, regarded as direct, manly and boastful; 2) northwesterners, considered honest and aggressive; and 3) northeasterners, thought of as tough and resilient. 4) People from the southwest are regarded as clever, skilled compromisers but unreliable and politically disruptive; and 5) people from Seoul and the central part of Korea are considered gentle, narrow-minded, busy and selfish.

Observers noted that interregional marriages are rare, and that as of 1990 a new fourlane highway completed in 1984 between Kwangju and Taegu, the capitals of South Cholla and North Kyongsang provinces, completed in 1984, had not been successful in promoting travel between the two areas. South Korea's political elite, including presidents Park Chung Hee, Chun Doo Hwan, and Roh Tae Woo, have come largely from the Kyongsang region. As a result, Kyongsang has been a special beneficiary of government development assistance. By contrast, the Cholla region has remained comparatively rural, undeveloped, and poor. Chronically disaffected, its people rightly or wrongly have a reputation for rebelliousness. Regional bitterness was intensified by the May 1980 Kwangju incident, in which about 200 and perhaps many more inhabitants of the capital of South Cholla Province were killed by government troops sent to quell an insurrection. Many of the troops reportedly were from the Kyongsang region. *

Regional stereotypes, like regional dialects, have been breaking down under the influence of centralized education, nationwide media, and the several decades of population movement since the Korean War. Stereotypes remain important, however, in the eyes of many South Koreans. For example, the people of Kyonggi Province, surrounding Seoul, are often described as being cultured, and Ch'ungch'ong people, inhabiting the region embracing North Ch'ungch'ong and South Ch'ungch'ong provinces, are thought to be mild-mannered, manifesting true yangban virtues. The people of Kangwon Province in the northeast were viewed as poor and stolid, while Koreans from the northern provinces of P'yongang, Hwanghae, and Hamgyong, now in North Korea, are perceived as being diligent and aggressive. Cheju Island is famous for its strong-minded and independent women. *

Koreans and Japanese

National or ethnic groups often need an "other," a group of outsiders against whom they can define themselves. While Western countries with their individualistic and, from a Confucian perspective, self-centered ways of life provide important images of "otherness" for South Koreans, the principal source of such images for many years has been Japan. Attitudes toward Japan as an "other" are complex. On the most basic level, there is hostility fed by memories of invasion and colonial oppression, present-day economic frictions, and the Japanese government's inability or unwillingness to do anything about discriminatory treatment of the large Korean minority in Japan. The two countries have a long history of hostility. Admiral Yi Sun-sin, whose armor-plated boats eventually defeated the Japanese navy's damaging attacks in the 1590s, was South Korea's most revered national hero. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

The Japanese Ministry of Education, Science, and Culture's adoption in the 1980s of revised textbook guidelines, softening the language used to describe Japan's aggression during World War II, inspired outrage in South Korea as well as in other Asian countries. The textbook controversy was a major impetus for a national campaign to build an Independence Hall, located about 100 kilometers south of Seoul, to keep alive memories of Japanese colonial exploitation. Opened on August 15, 1987, the anniversary of Korea's liberation from Japan, the building houses grim exhibits depicting the atrocities of the Japanese military against Korean nationalists during the colonial period.

During the colonial period, and particularly during World War II, the Japanese initiated assimilation policies designed to turn Koreans into obedient subjects of the Japanese emperor. Under the slogan Nissen ittai (Japan and Korea as One), newspapers and magazines published in the Korean language were closed, the Korean Language Society was disbanded, and Korean writers were forced to publish only in Japanese. Students who spoke Korean in school were punished. There was pressure to speak Japanese at home, adopt Japanese family and given names, and worship at Shinto shrines, the religious basis for which had been transplanted from the home islands. Korean Christians who refused to show reverence to the emperor as a divinity were imprisoned or ostracized. In the words of historian Ki-baik Lee (called Yi Kibeck in Korean), "Japan's aim was to eradicate consciousness of Korean national identity, roots and all, and thus to obliterate the very existence of the Korean people from the face of the earth."

This shared historical experience has provoked not only hostility but also a desire to purge Korean culture of lingering Japanese influences. In the late 1980s, the government continued to prohibit the distribution of Japanese-made movies and popular music within the country in order to prevent unwanted contemporary influences from crossing the Korea Strait.

On a more polite level, depiction of Japan as the "other" involves contrasting the "essences" of the two countries' cultures. This process has spawned a popular literature that compares, among other things, the naturalness and "resonance" of Korean art and music and the alleged imitativeness and constriction of their Japanese counterparts; the "individualism" (of a non-Western sort) of Koreans and the "collectivism" or group consciousness of the Japanese; and the lyric contrast between the rose of Sharon, Korea's national flower, which blooms robustly all summer long, and the Japanese cherry blossom, which has the "beauty of frailty" in springtime.

The search for a cultural "essence" involves serious contradictions. The literature of Korean cultural distinction is strikingly similar to Japanese attempts to prove the "uniqueness" of their own cultural heritage, although "proof" of Japan's uniqueness is usually drawn from examples of Western countries (the significant "other" for modernized Japanese). Ironically, official and unofficial sponsorship of the Tangun myth, although a minor theme, bears an uncanny resemblance to pre World War II Japanese policies promoting historical interpretations of the nation's founding based on Shinto mythology.

Mixed in with feelings of hostility and competition, however, is genuine admiration for Japanese economic, technological, and social achievements. Japan has become an important market for South Korean manufactured products. Both countries have been targets of criticism by Western governments accusing them of unfair trading practices. Friendly interest in South Korea is growing among the Japanese public despite old prejudices, and large numbers of young Japanese and South Koreans visit each others' countries on school and college excursions. Like South Koreans, Japanese liberals have been disturbed by official attempts to revise wartime history.

First Koreans

Scholars assume that present-day Koreans did not descend from the Paleolithic humans that inhabited the Korean Peninsula half a million years ago, but may be linked to the Neolithic age (from 4,000-3,000 B.C.) humans who inhabited the area, identified archaeologically by the ground and polished stone tools and pottery they used. Around 2,000 B.C., a new pottery culture spread into Korea from China. These people practiced agriculture in a settled communal life, and are widely supposed to have had consanguineous clans as their basic social grouping. Korean historians in modern times sometimes assume that the clan leadership systems characterized by councils of nobles (hwabaek) that emerged in the subsequent Silla period can be traced back to these neolithic peoples, and that a mythical "child of the sn," an original Korean, also was born then. There is no hard evidence, however, to support such beginnings for the Korean people. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993]

Koreans descended from nomadic people from northwest Asia. Based on linguistic and DNA evidence, scholars suggest that the first Koreans descended from the Tungus people of the Altai region of Mongolia and Siberia — where the Turks, Hungarians, Mongolians and Finns also came from — and migrated from Central Asia to present-day Liaoshi and Manchuria (regions in China) and the Korean peninsula. There is still a large population of Koreans in China today.

Three Korean tribes — the Mahan, the Chinchan, and the Pynhan — settled in the river valleys and fertile plains of the south. A fourth tribe, the Koguryo settled in the colder north. Koreans generally trace their origin back to the Old Chosun culture (2333 to 194 B.C.), the first Korean state to possess bronze, which arose in northwestern Korea. Rice farming was introduced to Korea and Japan from China in the second millennium B.C., bronze metallurgy arrived around 1000 B.C., and iron making began around 400 B.C..

It is theorized that Koreans are descendents of a mix of the Mongolian peoples who migrated into Manchuria (the northeastern part of China continguous with the Korean peninsula) and later waves of Yue/ Tai/ Dai people who migrated northwards from Southeast Asia, roughly following the coast. It is plausible that the indigenous groups along this route weren't welcoming towards the migrants, and migrants continued northward until they found an unoccupied area they could claim for themselves. Another theory is that Koreans descend from a group which migrated from Siberia. Japanese originated from a similar mix of Ancient peoples.

Korean DNA

Studies of mtDNA, which relate to maternal line gene flow, and Y chromosome studies of male-mediated gene flow show slightly different patterns but have common haplotypes that show strong affiliations of both Japanese and Koreans to the Chinese and of Japanese to Koreans:

Population studies of genetic markers such as HLA variation and mitochondrial DNA have been used to understand human origins, demographic and migration history. Recently, diversity on the nonrecombining portion of the Y chromosome (NRY) has been applied to the study of human history. Since NRY is passed from father to son without recombination, polymorphisms in this region are valuable for investigating male-mediated gene flow and for complementing maternally based studies of mtDNA. Haplotypes constructed from Y-chromosome markers were used to trace the paternal origins of Korean. By using 38 Y chromosome single nucleotide polymorphism markers, the genetic structure of 195 Korean males was analyzed.

The Korean males were characterized by a diverse set of 4 haplogroups (Groups IV, V, VII, X) and 14 haplotypes that were also present in Chinese. The most frequent haplogroup in Korean was Group VII (82.6 percent). It was also the most frequent haplogroup in Chinese (95 percent) as well as in Japanese (45 percent). The frequencies of the haplogroups V, IV, and X were 15.4 percent, 1 percent, and 1 percent, respectively. The second most frequent haplogroup V in Korean was not present in Chinese, but its frequency was similar in Japanese. [Source: Sunghee Hong, Seong-Gene Lee, Yongsook Yoon, Kyuyoung Song, University of Ulsan College of Medicine, 388-1 Poongnap-dong, Songpa-ku, Seoul, Korea, Heritage of Japan website, heritageofjapan.wordpress.com |||]

Ancient Koreans, Chinese and Japanese and Their DNA

Analysis of skull shapes and DNA has shown that modern Japanese are close genetic kin to Koreans and Chinese. Aileen Kawagoe wrote in Heritage of Japan: The DNA sequencing picture that emerges today shows the central Honshu people of Japan to be genetically just a little closer to Sino-Tibetan and Han Chinese (from the Jiangsu region who were possibly rice-farming immigrants during the Yayoi era) evidenced by the specific genetic Y markers found in Japanese today (ie O3a5, O3a and O1), in their mix than to modern-day Koreans whose ancestors contributed significantly to the Japanese gene pool probably during Koguryo and Paekche migrations into Japan of the Kofun era to Asuka eras around 2000 years ago. One surprising point that emerges from a look at both mtDNA and Y Haplogroups charts, is that the Koreans show an even closer genetic affinity to Okinawans (and therefore to the Jomon stock) than mainland Honshu Japanese do themselves…comprising 17.4 percent of their DNA sequence compared to the Japanese 16.1 percent of their DNA sequence. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, heritageofjapan.wordpress.com |||]

“Surprisingly, Japanese also display the highest frequency of haplogroup O3a5, which is a Han Chinese and Sino-Tibetan specific O3 branch. Japanese Haplogroup O3a5 (O3e) 10/47= 23 percent This frequency is about 5 percent higher than the frequency of O3a5 among Manchus, Koreans and other Northeast Asians. For North Koreans, the frequency of O3a5 is even lower than some Tungusic populations. Overall, the Koreanic haplogroup O3 were the least influenced by Sinitic populations. |||

“Whereas pure haplogroup C3 (M217-no subclade) was observed at a high frequency among Tungusic (20 percent) and Koreanic (16 percent) populations. The frequency of haplogroup C3 among Japanese was only 1 percent. This means that Japanese origins were not as prominently from Siberia as was commonly thought, since Japanese bear more of C1, whereas C3 is found only in northern populations of Japan. Haplogroup D was observed among Japanese (25 percent) and Tibetans (40 percent); it was also observed among Han Chinese, Mongolians and Koreans. |||

The DNA sequence SNP study done by Japanese researchers in 2005 (the biggest contributor of DNA of each East Asian people is bolded) showed the following results: 1) Korean DNA sequence is made up of: A) 40.6 percent Uniquely Korean; B) 21.9 percent Chinese; C) 1.6 percent Ainu; D) 17.4 percent Okinawan; E) 18.5 percent Unidentified. 2) Japanese DNA sequence is made up of: A) 4.8 percent Uniquely Japanese; B) 24.2 percent Korean; C) 25.8 percent Chinese; D) 8.1 percent Ainu; E) 16.1 percent Okinawan; and F) 21 percent Unidentified. 3) Chinese DNA sequence is made up of: A) 60.6 percent Uniquely Chinese; B) 1.5 percent Japanese; C) 10.6 percent Korean; E) 1.5 percent Ainu; F) 10.6 percent Okinawan; G) 15.2 percent Unidentified. The biggest components in Japanese are Chinese, Korean, Okinawan. Overall, Japanese are closest to Tibetans and Han Chinese, but only marginally more so than to the Koreans.

Genetic Data on the Migration of People from Korea to Japan

Kawagoe wrote: The Haplogroup O expansion A second immigration wave arrived in Japan 2,000-4,000 years ago, and was composed of Yayoi people who brought rice cultivation (as well as weaving and metal working) from Korea and North Eastern Asia. At this date, the land bridges to Japanese islands were submerged and sea-faring migrations must have been responsible for the spread of the Yayoi. Japanese are also carriers of O — subclade O3 is major branch represented in East Asia — which is connected to agricultural revolution in Neolithic Era. The Yayoi origins are estimated to have contributed approximately 52 percent of the current population, while the Jomon contribution is estimated at 40 percent. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, heritageofjapan.wordpress.com |||]

“Beside the O3 subclade, Yayoi have also been identified with the O2b1 subclade (SNP 47z). The analysis of haplotypes in the O2b1 subclade reveals a star-like network, which fits well with a model of a major or single founding lineage contributing to a Japanese population. The precursor to the O2b1 subclade, O2b (SNP SRY465), is also abundant in Japan. STR haplotyping in the O2b subclade shows a higher diversity in the Korean population versus the Japanese population, supporting an older age and probable origin in the Korean Peninsula."

“In addition to the other O subclades, the O2a subclade is found in Japan and was also probably introduced at a more recent date with the expansion of rice cultivation. O2a is however associated with Southern East Asia and with speakers of Austro-Asiatic languages (non Austro-Asiatic groups also have good levels of O2a ~ 15 percent). (O2a is also very abundant in India, and another proposed as the ancestral home of this Y-chromosome type) but the frequency of O2a (97 percent) peaks in the unique population of the Mang. A study of the Mang population who live near the border between China and Vietnam in SEAS found only 3 haplogroups: O2a (SNP M95), O3a3b (SNP M7) and O3a3c (SNP M134). The genetic signature is unique and suggests that this is an indigenous population. The Mang have a short stature, live by foraging and have a language related to Mon Khmer. |||

“Because the Yayoi spread from south to north – their highest influence is in Kyushu, which lies closest to the Korean Peninsula. However, the Haplogroup O genetic signature of the Yayoi is not found in Hokkaido, the northernmost island. The geographically separate southern Ryukyu Islands (the largest island is Okinawa) were also spared the domination by Yayoi. Essentially, the distribution of Haplogroup O (highest central location) is the reciprocal of Haplogroup D (highest in north and south). Thus, the island archipelago structure helped to create barriers and genetic structure throughout Japan. New research establishes that native Okinawans and Hokkaido's Ainu share genetic characteristics that pre'date Yayoi arrivals. |||

Origins of the Korean Nation

As is true of all countries, Korea's geography was a major factor in shaping its history; geography also influenced the manner in which the inhabitants of the peninsula emerged as a people sharing the common feeling of being Koreans. The Korean Peninsula protrudes southward from the northeastern corner of the Asian continent and is surrounded on three sides by large expanses of water. Although Japan is not far from the southern tip of this landmass, in ancient times events on the peninsula were affected far more by the civilizations and political developments on the contiguous Asian continent than by those in Japan. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990*]

Because the Yalu and Tumen rivers have long been recognized as the border between Korea and China, it is easy to assume that these rivers have always constituted Korea's northern limits. But such was not the case in the ancient period. Neither of the rivers was considered to be sacrosanct by the ancient tribes that dotted the plains of Manchuria and the Korean Peninsula. Because the rivers freeze in the winter, large armies were able to traverse them with ease. Even when the rivers were not frozen, armies equipped with iron tools could easily build ships to cross them.

The Korean people trace their origins to the founding of the state of Chosun. Chosun rose on the banks of the Taedong River in the northwestern corner of the peninsula and prospered as a civilization possessing a code of law and a bronze culture. The Chosun people gradually extended their influence not only over other tribes in the vicinity, but also to the north, conquering most of the Liaodong Basin. However, the rising power of the feudal state of Yen in northern China (1122-225 B.C.) not only checked Chosun's growth, but eventually pushed it back to the territory south of the Ch'ongch'on River, located midway between the Yalu and Taedong rivers. The Chinese had discovered iron by this time and used it extensively in farming and warfare; the Chosun people were not able to match them. Yen became established in the territory vacated by Chosun.

Koreans are Getting Taller and Korean Physical Characteristics

In South Korea in the 1990s, 14-year-old children were 4½ inches taller that their counterparts in 1954. According to another study between 1962 and 1996 the average height of women rose from 5-foot-1-inches to 5-foot-3-inches and men rose from 5-foot-5-inches to 5-foot-8-inches.

Most scientist attribute the increase to nutritional changes, such as more milk and meat in the Korean diet and more food period. Since 1954 rice consumption has increased by 40 percent and the caloric intake of the average Korean has increased by a third. Others have proposed more far-fetched theories for the height increase. One researcher suggested that the switch from sitting on the floor to sitting Western-style chairs has straightened out the backs of Koreans and made them taller.

Some people — especially other Asians — think that Koreans have wider faces and broader, stockier bodies than other Asians. Koreans have a reputation for being physically tough. They are very good at boxing and martial arts and have an expression to describe their strength: "small peppers are hot."

Almost all Koreans are born with a Mongolian birthmark, a small patch of brown pigment located on their butt and/or lower back. The mark disappears when they are one or two years old. Japanese, Mongolians, some Chinese, Hungarians and Bushmen or the Kalahari have a similar mark.

About 95 percent of all Koreans are lactase deficient. This means they have problems digesting milk products.

Korea: a Homogeneously Neo Confucian Society?

Many norms and mores of Korean society are rooted in the tenets of Confucianism, a system of ethics developed in China around 500 B.C.. Confucianism emphasizes devotion and respect towards elders, parents, family and people in positions of authority. Many Koreans attribute their country's remarkable success in recent decades to these values. In modern Korean society, Confucianism is most noticeable in relations between people. The Five Relationships prescribe behavior between ruler and subject, father and son, husband and wife, old and young, and between friends. If you fall outside any of these relationships, you do not effectively exist. [Source: Cities of the World, The Gale Group Inc., 2002]

Neo-Confucianism, the dominant value system of the Chosun Dynasty (1392-1910), combines the social ethics of the classical Chinese philosophers Confucius (Kong Zi, 551-479 B.C.) and Mencius (Meng Zi, 372-289 B.C.) with Buddhist and Daoist metaphysics. One of neo-Confucianism's basic ideas is that the institutions and practices of a properly ordered human community express the immutable principles or laws that govern the cosmos. Through correct social practice, as defined by Confucian sages and their commentators, individuals can achieve self-cultivation and a kind of spiritual unity with heaven (although this was rarely described in mystic or ecstatic terms). Neo-Confucianism defines formal social relations on all levels of society. Social relations are not conceived in terms of the happiness or satisfaction of the individuals involved, but in terms of the harmonious integration of individuals into a collective whole, which, like the properly cultivated individual, mirrors the harmony of the natural order. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993 *]

During the Chosun Dynasty, Korean kings made the Neo-Confucian doctrine of the Chinese philosopher Zhu Xi (1130-1200) their state ideology. Although it was a foreign philosophy, Korean neo-Confucian scholars, of whom the most important was Yi Hwang, also known as Yi T'oe-gye (1501-70), played a role in adapting Zhu Xi's teachings to Korean conditions. This was done without denying the cultural superiority of China as the homeland of civilized thought and forms of life.

Neo-Confucianism in Korea became quite rigid and conservative by the mid-sixteenth century. In practice, the doctrine emphasized hierarchy in human relations and self-control for the individual. The Five Relationships (o ryun in Korean; wu lun in Chinese), formulated by classical Chinese thinkers such as Mencius and subsequently sanctified by Zhu Xi and other neo-Confucianist metaphysicians, governed proper human relations: that "between father and son there should be affection; between ruler and minister there should be righteousness; between husband and wife there should be attention to their separate functions; between old and young there should be proper order; and between friends there should be faithfulness." Only the last was a relationship between equals; the others were based on authority and subordination.

Throughout traditional Korean society, from the royal palace and central government offices in the capital to the humblest household in the countryside, the themes of hierarchy and inequality were pervasive. There was no concept of the rights of the individual. In the context of the wider society, a welldefined elite of scholar-officials versed in neo-Confucian orthodoxy was legitimized in terms of the traditional ethical distinction between the educated "superior man" or "gentleman," who seeks righteousness, and the "small man," who seeks only profit. This theme was central in the writings of both Confucius and Mencius. Confucianism and neo-Confucianism as political philosophies proposed a benevolent paternalism: the masses had no role in government, but the scholar-officials were supposed to look after them as fathers look after their children. In the Chosun Dynasty, status and power inequalities, defined precisely within a vertical hierarchy, were generally considered both natural and good. The hierarchy extended from the household relationships of fathers and children through the intermediary relationships of ruler and ruled within the kingdom, to Korea's subordinate status as a tributary of China.

There is a danger, however, in overstressing the idea of Korea as a homogeneously Confucian society, even during the Chosun Dynasty. Foreign observers have been impressed with the diversity of the Korean character as expressed in day-to-day human relations. There is, on the one hand, the image of Koreans as self-controlled, deferential, and meticulous in the fulfillment of their social obligations; on the other hand, there is the Korean reputation for volatility and emotionalism. The ecstasy and euphoria of shamanistic religious practices, one of Korea's most characteristic cultural expressions, contrast sharply with the austere self-control idealized by Confucianists. Although relatively minor themes in the history of Korean ethics and social thought, the concepts of equality and respect for individuals are not entirely lacking. The doctrines of Ch'ndogyo, an indigenous religion that arose in the nineteenth century and combined elements of Buddhism, Daoism, shamanism, Confucianism, and Catholicism, taught that every human being "bears divinity" and that one must "treat man as god."

South Korea’s Efforts to Boost Its Image

In the late 2000s, the South Korea government that South Korea was not appreciated and spent millions of dollars on developing a national brand. Reporting from Seoul, John M. Glionna wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “In the world popularity contest, South Korea feels a little like the ugly duckling that wants everyone to know it's really a swan. Citizens flinch on hearing their country ridiculed as a place where politicians throw punches. They despair over a recent poll of foreigners in which four in 10 cited the nation's lack of "charm." Then there's the outlaw cousin to the north. When much of the world hears "Korea," it envisions Kim Jong Il and his hermit state of North Korea, not the democratic nation that has long been a trusted U.S. ally. [Source: John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, May 3, 2009]

“Well, South Korea isn't going to take it anymore. The image-obsessed country intends to repair its maligned reputation by spending millions of dollars to develop a national brand. In a campaign that has many scratching their heads, South Korea is convinced that it must match the efforts of companies such as Hyundai, LG and Samsung to promote its public identity. So it's taking part in an international ranking system to compete against other nations on first impressions of outsiders.

“Early results are not encouraging. According to one recent Nation Brands Index, South Korea ranked 33rd among 50 nations -- behind countries that officials here whisper are lesser than their own, including Poland and the Czech Republic. The United States ranked seventh. Germany was No. 1. President Lee Myung-bak has formed a Presidential Council on Nation Branding and has announced the goal of moving to 15th place by 2013. "Korea is the world's 13th-largest economy with some $20,000 in per capita income but ranks only 33rd in the global brand index," reporters here quoted Lee as saying. "This is a big problem."

“Some find it refreshing that the nation cares about what others think about it. Others hint that it's a bit neurotic. "Korea's problem is that it doesn't have an Eiffel Tower. Paris doesn't need a slogan -- it's Paris," said public relations executive Phillip Raskin, a branding committee advisor. "Paris would be attractive even if its slogan was 'Go to hell.' In fact, it might actually be that." Analysts say South Korea has been dealt a bad hand. "One unfortunate thing is that South Korea shares its name with a rogue state," said Simon Anholt, a British government advisor who devised the ranking system. "The link to North Korea is bad news. It gets painted with the same brush."

South Korean Brand: “Way Better than You Think it Is”?

“Despite its ancient culture, South Korea is a relatively new player on the modern stage. "It just hasn't been a significant country for very long," Anholt said. "Other nations have been sending a stream of cultural or political ambassadors into global consumption for many years. Korea hasn't been doing that." [Source: John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, May 3, 2009]

But the ambitious Lee wants to change that, introducing programs to promote the South Korean martial art tae kwon do and pitching the nation as an environmentally friendly "Green Korea." The centerpiece of his agenda is food. The government has announced a plan to globalize Korean cuisine, vowing to put it among the world's top five by 2017. Every day, newspapers carry articles about image boosting: Should the nation build a robotics museum and compete with Japan in that emerging field? How about building some of the world's tallest skyscrapers, or opening a nude beach on a popular island?

“The branding czar talks of a new volunteer program modeled after the U.S. Peace Corps and of "Rainbow Korea," a catchphrase for the nation's so-called expanding multiculturalism. "I am frustrated that people don't appreciate our culture," said Euh Yoon-dae, head of the Presidential Council on Nation Branding. "For so long, Korea has been sandwiched culturally and economically between Japan and China." Euh distinguished his plan from a mere marketing or tourism effort. "We're trying to advance the identity of Korea," he said. "It's the substance rather than the brand itself. We want to walk the walk rather than just talk up some new advertising campaign."

“Still, newspapers and bloggers have poked fun. "It's just mind-boggling. A country isn't like some product you can just promote overnight," said Jon Huer, a sociologist and Seoul newspaper columnist. "Korea's image has always been a bit harsh. It's not a Nepal or a Thailand — both tourist-friendly places. It takes time and patience to get to know the place and its people." Many here have some advice for South Korea: Relax. "Korea is stuck in this way of thinking that it has to outdance, outspend and out-palace other countries," said Michael Hurt, a local blogger, photographer and branding committee member. "It's never been about that. Korea is a quirky taste." Euh acknowledged that South Korea has a long way to go: "It takes time to change the image of a country."

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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