A Black Korean in Pyongyang

Ethnic identity is the latest issue to split the two Koreas.

This photo taken on July 5, 2018 shows players from North (red) and South Korea (blue) competing during a friendly men's basketball match at the Ryugyong Chung Ju-Yung Indoor Stadium in Pyongyang. (KIM WON-JIN/AFP/Getty Images)
This photo taken on July 5, 2018 shows players from North (red) and South Korea (blue) competing during a friendly men's basketball match at the Ryugyong Chung Ju-Yung Indoor Stadium in Pyongyang. (KIM WON-JIN/AFP/Getty Images)

For the 12,000 North Koreans packed into Pyongyang’s Chung Ju-yung Gymnasium earlier this month, South Korean athlete Ra Gun-ah must have been an unexpected sight. Ra is a 6-foot-8 power forward. He’s also black.

Ra, also known as Ricardo Ratliffe, first moved to South Korea from the United States in 2012 and became a South Korean citizen this January. That may seem surprising: South Korea has a long history of ethno-nationalism and laws that excluded outsiders and defined citizenship in racial terms. The Nationality Act, promulgated in 1948, specified that only children of an ethnically Korean father deserved nationality.

Revisions to the act, starting in the late 1990s, opened the naturalization process to children with foreign fathers, spouses of South Korean citizens, and incomers like Ratliffe, among other changes. Social attitudes have gradually followed the law. But while South Korean concepts of identity and belonging have radically changed, North Korea’s haven’t — and that could be a problem.

The basketball game, in which the North and South mixed their teams, calling one “peace” and the other “prosperity,” was part of an increase in inter-Korean cultural exchanges. As the barriers between the two countries begin to erode, a cloistered Korea will be meeting a global Korea.

What North and South Koreans think defines the Korean nation has diverged considerably. South Korea is global in a way and to an extent that it wasn’t when the two countries last interacted substantively over a decade ago. South Koreans have slowly started to embrace multiculturalism and increasingly diverse demographics, while North Korea still adheres to a ethno-national conception of “Koreanness.”

For example, one 2006 editorial in Rodong Sinmun, the official paper of the North Korean Workers’ Party, is titled, “The Idea of a Multinational, Multiracial Society Means Destruction of the Korean Nation.” The editorial goes on to explain how South Korea’s increasingly diverse and pluralistic society is a major source of national weakness and illustrate North Korea’s xenophobic commitment to blood-and-soil nationalism.

To be sure, South Korea — like all countries, even the most open and tolerant — has no shortage of anti-immigrant and xenophobic elements. The ongoing protest against Yemeni refugees is a case in point. However, South Korea no longer preaches ethnic homogeneity, nor do its citizens think ethnicity is the sine qua non of national membership. The Seoul-based East Asia Institute found in a 2015 national identity survey that, when given a choice between an ethnically homogenous or multicultural identity, only 39 percent of the 1,006 respondents said South Korea ought to be an ethnically homogeneous country. Fifty percent preferred a multicultural one. (The rest didn’t know.)

Although we don’t have comparable data on North Korea, there’s little doubt that opinions would differ sharply. The word for “race” and “nation” (minjok) is usually one and the same in North Korea and is seen as a commonality that trumps all else. “Other countries struggle because they don’t have a strong national identity,” one of us was told by a North Korean. Another Northerner used similar language: “All Koreans here, in the South and abroad are working tirelessly for unification.” This echoes the propaganda they’ve been exposed to their whole lives, in which unification is for “the prosperity of the race,” Kim Il Sung is the “sun of the Korean race,” and true patriotism is “loving the country and the race” (aeguk-aejok). The state and ethnicity are — or should be — coterminous.

Not long ago, most South Koreans would have used similar language on race and Koreanness. This is much less the case today.

New polling data shows how far South Korea has diverged from the North. A 2018 Ipsos national inclusiveness survey asked respondents in 27 countries what they think makes someone a “real” national. One question asked respondents whether immigrants who obtain citizenship and can speak the native language fluently are “real” nationals. In South Korea, 64 percent said yes. Another question asked whether an immigrant who married a native of the host country is a “real” national: 40 percent of South Koreans said yes.

These numbers are comparatively high. For example, in Canada, a country with a strong multicultural identity, 71 percent said obtaining citizenship and speaking a native language are sufficient for national inclusion, and 43 percent said marrying a native is enough. By contrast, in Japan, a country whose policies on immigration and nationality run closer to the South Korean past, these numbers are considerably lower at 25 percent and 15 percent.

The traditional Korean view places great importance on lineage. Many South Korean families maintain a jokbo, or genealogy book, stretching back hundreds of years. (North Korea did away with them.) For most of those centuries, Korea was a closed society. But over the last several decades, South Korea has become an open and globalized one, with over 2 million foreigners residing in the country as of 2016, making up 3.9 percent of the total population. North Korea has remained relatively closed.

That’s a problem for dreams of Korean reunification. Some have gone so far as to say that support for “one Korea,” the idea of a peninsula united by shared culture and ancestry, is withering. Even still, many South Koreans still see Northerners as their lost brethren. The emotional response to joint participation in international events, such as the 2018 Olympics, shows how images of a united Korea still have appeal — for now.

But race isn’t the only rift between the two nations. South Korea has a testy and pluralistic political culture and a cherished democracy. North Koreans still live under a single-party autocracy. Linguistically, even, North and South Korea are increasingly different. Shedding their North Korean dialect is something many resettled North Korean migrants feel is necessary to fit in.

If the Korean Peninsula keeps opening up, it could be that South Korea rolls back some of its liberalism on race in an attempt to find common cause with Northerners. Or it could be that North Koreans become attracted to South Korean attitudes about all sorts of things: work, hobbies, leisure, sex, relationships, and marriage.

South Korea’s multiculturalism could thus be positively introduced as part of a package of values that Northerners find attractive about Southerners. Or perhaps it ends up one more item on a long list of cultural differences that make both sides look at one another and think, “They’re so backwards,” or, “They’re not properly Korean, like us.”

Many of the basketball fans in Pyongyang may have thought, “What’s that guy doing there?” or, “Ra’s not really Korean.” And yet, he is. And in going to North Korea, he kick-started conversations about race and belonging. He also contributed an in-game slam dunk, something North Korean basketball fans don’t see much of either.


 Twitter: @StevenDenney86

Andray Abrahamian is the 2018-2019 Koret Fellow at APARC, Stanford University.