Written by Jon Bangsoy

South Korean national identity is about progress. In contemporary times, South Korean culture, economic prowess and soft power have developed a form of national identity related to South Korean Nationalism or ‘Minjok’. This blog piece is tasked with understanding South Korean Nationalism, how it affects their institutions, their populace, and how they express it through print media called Manhwa.


Originally, Korea was a nation which stood on the principle of ‘danil minjok’, a singular ethnic nation based on a united viewpoint of one Korea, one people. In the case of South Korea, their sense of nationalism, their identity, their ‘minjok’, comes from a combination of old and new, the post-Korean War and the 1990’s. Specifically the 1990’s generation was termed as the ‘isipdae,’ youth who grew up in South Korea’s progressive years of economic prosperity, democratic government, and overall stability. Moreover, their ties and interests towards their North Korean counterparts diminished, rarely recognizing relatives across the 38th Parallel or the significance of the Korean War. Instead, this is a generation proficient in technology, well-educated, travel oriented and fashion conscious. 

According to Shin Gi-Wook, Korean nationalism could be attributed to the factors of ethnicity and blood ties. These constitutive elements underpin Korean nationalism by which ethnic identity conflates with blood or ancestry to propagate a sense of oneness and belonging among the Korean people. Through this notion, reunification in the divided peninsula takes utmost precedence. However, the 1990’s altered this presumption because South Korea realized that it could survive on its own and develop an identity based on economic success and a peaceful government, without North Korea’s involvement,therefore, reunification becomes unnecessary. The older generation, those who maintained contact with relatives in the North, support immediate reunification. However, the 1990’s youth prefer gradual reunification because they argue that South Korea should be concerned with sustaining economic growthand maintaining a democratic government as opposed to reconciliation.

Approximately, the national identity for South Koreans has evolved dramatically. From a single, homogenous identity to a localized, regionalist one. Despite the idea of an ethnic driven, blood ties based nationalism, South Koreans are divided between generations, such as the traditionalists vying for reunification and the modern youth who repudiate it. This nationalism is expressed, projected, and internalized by South Koreans. The Hallyu wave, a global phenomenon of South Korea’s cultural economy exporting pop culture, entertainment, music, TV dramas and movies, best emphasizes this nationalist expression. Since numerous studies were conducted on the media forms which dominate this wave, attention will be placed on South Korean comics labelled as ,’Manhwa.


Essentially, Manhwa are domestic comics which were utilized by the South Korean government to spread Korean culture and build nationalist identity. Simultaneously, Manhwa became a medium for propaganda as Nationalists utilized it to diffuse narratives of South Korea as a successful, patriotic country. This is accomplished through revising or fabricating historical narratives such as the Manhwa called, ‘Nambul’, wherein South Korea is depicted as a strong, militarist country who intervenes in international conflicts accompanied by graphic pages of violence. In fiscal and cultural terms, Manhwa became a source of national pride not only because it generated substantial amounts of revenue for the industry and the country as a whole, but also in producing narratives which evoke patriotism and love for one’s nation. 

Modern Manhwa from the late 2010’s replicate the nationalistic spirit of the early 1990’s coinciding with the Hallyu Wave which gained immense popularity and global recognition in the 21stcentury. Similar to Japanization, South Korea developed their own brand of domestically produced, internationally recognized cultural products and personalities ranging from K-pop, smart phones, agriculture and food. Manhwa was not an exception, exploding in popularity alongside this trend, churning out best-selling titles such as: ‘Solo-Leveling‘Tower of God’, and ‘Re-Life’. This was accomplished by borrowing the popular elements of Manga and transferring it into the foundational framework ofManhwa. This implies that Manhwa is not an original creation, but a result of cultural hybridity and an amalgamation of different cultures that attempt to establish an original, distinct idea. Earliest example of this would be the conception of ‘Atomaus a creation by Lee Dong-Gi around 1993

Dismissive of the national character of Manhwa, Lee inadvertently exposes the foreign influences of American and Japanese culture that underpin the majority of classic and current Manhwa. In doing so, Lee expresses that Manhwa’s success is contingent not on locally constructed stories, or even national funding, but gathering successful elements of foreign comics and consolidating those aspects in Manhwa. This means that South Korean nationalism needs foreign influence for inspiration in writing captivating tales that increase nationalist sentiment. For example, early Manhwa stories were manufactured to be juxtaposed against the sex infested, gory filled, male dominated sphere of Manga in the 1960’s. To combat this, Manhwa production focused on limiting violence, propagating tales that celebrated female characters, and introspective stories which focused on lessons and values. Aware of the cultural trends which inform Manhwa, Lee showcases the apparent foreign features of his creation rather than proving it as an authentic product. This is emphasized in Atomaus depictions which range from famous Buddhist-Korean monk, Banga Sayusang, and his crucifixion on the Christian cross. 

In conclusion, the ethnic-cultural nature of South Korean nationalism was borne out of the benefits of capitalism and continued separation from their North Korean brethren. The spirit of Minjok manifests throughout generations with people born before the 1990’s economic boom as patriotic followers who advocate for reunification and the isipdae youth who enjoy economic freedom and reject the notion of One Korea. Furthermore, Manhwa strives to prove itself as an original idea, however, its production and origins clearly borrow cultural markers of other nations such as America and Japan revealing that similar to other Nationalisms, Manhwa is mere verisimilitude.

Featured Imagery: (1) Dongi Lee, Atomaus Eating Noodles, 2020 (2) Dongi Lee, Atomaus in the Shadows, 2008.


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