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South Korea Table of Contents

South Korea


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. 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.

Against the background of ethnic homogeneity, however, 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 (see The Origins of the Korean Nation , ch. 1; fig. 2). 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 (see Students in 1980 , ch. 1; United States Forces in South Korea , ch. 5).

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 (see Traditional Social Structure , this ch.). 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.

Data as of June 1990