Author: Myoung-kyu Park (Professor, SNU)
From 1850 to 1950, when modern elementary concepts were mainly formulated in Korea, the concepts of “the nation”, “the people”, and “the citizen” include complex meanings which reflect a distinct time frame and spatiality in collision with disparate civilization. Min (民, the people) traditionally referred to the unspecialized subjugated class. However, it has changed to the modern concept, implying the political sovereign and human agent through a long history. In addition, it comprises the history of mentality regarding the way in which Western civilization and philosophy are being adopted as new concepts through translation. Change and rejection, tension and conflict, division and integration between different social groups in the process of difficult modern and contemporary Korean history is also inherent in the concept. Therefore, the concept is not only a mere reflection of reality, but also an intellectual weapon to enlarge the expectation toward realization of the future dream.
In a consideration of the future change of Korean society in terms of political, social, and cultural aspects, there will be a new momentum in the nation, the people, and the citizen concept. It has already been captured that there exist some trials to recompose the meaning of these concepts in accordance with rapid globalization and democratization. Hence, it is critical to re-adjust the distance between the public and the people, if the South and North Korean relationship becomes better. In a multi-cultural society, some endeavors in transforming the meaning between the citizen and the public, the public and the people has unfolded. Political progressivism and conservatism, the older and younger generations, global universality, and ethnic singularity will be heavily discussed in relation to the re-interpretation of these concepts.
Space-time specificity and horizon of expectations in the Nation, the People, the Citizen Concept
These three concepts incorporate a very complex space-time specificity, so that it is possible only when considering those aspects to fully understand the historical depth and width. Even for the same concept, it might be different in inherent implications, intellectual origin, and the related thought resources. Thus, it is important to note that this difference and change is closely related to Korean modern and contemporary history. In Korean society, these three concepts are the critical utopian concepts which enable the horizon of expectations. These concepts carry universality to be adopted in each agent and environment of all eras, which means that they can provide a vast range in the horizon of expectations.
Turning point of the Nation, the People, and the Citizen Concept
The very important, basic historical concept of a period of social acceptance and settling in, is what Koselleck refers to as Sattelzeit, or the “saddle-period.” For the Korean case, this turning point would be the late 19th century to the early 20th century. The complete transformation of this concept in the early 20th century is a unique historical transition of encountering Western culture through Japanese translations, and the disconnection and continuity of meaning that appeared during the process of adopting Western concepts can be seen. In the future, some research is needed for Korean society to analyze this period of transition with the complex meaning of relationships and the concept history.
The issue of language and translation
The issue of translation was very serious and important when Western thoughts and concepts were together adopted in the late 19th century. In most cases, concepts were first encountered through the Chinese characters of Japanese translations. Since Japanese writing includes Chinese characters that are well known in Korea, it was not difficult for scholars to learn the concepts. However, without independent translation, independent modernization is difficult.
In the context of East Asia, when analyzing how the same Chinese characters have been adopted, diffused, transformed, and re-structured, it can be seen that the process of adoption and transformation is not simple, when looking closely at the political implications of the concepts of words such as public, people, and citizen in Japan, China, and Korea. In addition, the socio-cultural distance between the eras deserves further research; one is when translation was done through Chinese characters, two is when translation was done through Korean characters.
Concept history of the Nation, the People, and the Citizen, and the formation of agents
The political agent of Korea has changed from the “ruled class” or “unspecified groups” to diversified agents with political rights. In the unique Korean modern and contemporary society, which is exemplified as a division between South and North Korea, as well as the ideological conflicts, the far distance between the people and the public is related to global cold war conflicts. The reason why the citizen concept, which has not been discussed for a long time, has recently been highlighted also reflects the personality of 21st century Korean society where democratization and pluralism is happening at the moment. Recent conflicts between the public and the nation have also originated from a divided country.
Unification of the Korean Peninsula, and political agents
Unification is the number one task in 21st century Korean society. Thus, the concepts of the public and the people are insularly used in South and North Korea. However, the concept of the citizen is not mentioned in North Korea. The citizen concept supports the individuality, diversity, and autonomy of social members not dependent or under control of the state. Also, the citizen concept is closely linked to democracy, pluralism, and liberalism.
Unification of South and North Korea has long been considered as the re-coherence of one nation, however, if taking the concept of the public, the people, and the citizen as related to these two different political systems, economic principles, and social customs, total re-composition is required in the process of unification. As the public in a unified country, as people holding human rights and equality, and as citizens who recognize each person’s individuality and autonomy are the conceptual framework for the Korean Peninsula, to create appropriate political agents and establish social identity along with new transformations.