Thoughts on Minjok and The Matrix


What do we mean by "race?"

As I teach my students, both at the high school and the university level, "race" – along with other concepts such as "gender" and "nation" – are all socially constructed categories that are not real. By this, I mean to say that such a "social construction" does not empirically exist outside of the social system that made it. Much as in The Matrix, the system and all of the meanings inside don't have any real meaning; but what I think makes that film – and the inherent social critiques it provides – work is the fact that despite the system having been constructed, it and everything within it becomes real because everyone within the system agrees on its reality. And if you die in the Matrix, you die in real life. I like that, because, as I explain to students, just because race is constructed as a social category doesn't mean it hurts any less when a cop is beating you with his billy club. Rodney King couldn't have stopped and said, "Please stop, good sirs! Remember that race and my very blackness is a social construction no more real than your constructed whiteness!" POW, POW.

But at the same time, we can't forget that the very social categories we are trained to use are never constructed outside of the context of maintaining social hierarchy, control, and the interests of the greater power structure. The Matrix takes this literally, as human beings are represented as being the source of the system's power, yet that system is also the source of the individual's enslavement. "Sweet," I thought when I first laid eyes on this spectacular film back in 1999. "Now I finally have an easy and cool way to explain ideology and social constructions."

The complete control of the Matrix works only and precisely because it essentially hides its very existence. In Gramscian and Chomskyian terms, I can now more easily explain to students that overt, forced coercion and control don't work; people inevitable resist, dictatorships eventually destroyed. Like a Lucasfilm ending, the Death Star always gets blown up in the end. But when you create a system of complete hegemony – a term overused and hardly understood by most undergraduates who use it to sound cool – you really got something.

"Hegemony" is something I define to my high school history students as "control not through coercion, but consent." If you fool people into desiring certain things, into believing that they actually made a choice about their present situation within a system of choices, people generally tend to accept their fate, their social position. That's why Chomsky talks about the need to "manufacture consent" in liberal democracies; indeed, he says, it is within such systems that it is so difficult to resist and challenge the power structure. The media sets the terms of the debate, people protest through socially acceptable channels, voters decide between two candidates from two political parties that are essentially the same, and the show just goes on. So, as the Oracle says in the secondMatrix film, everything is about choice. This is obvious from even the first film, when Neo is given the blue and red pills with which to make the symbolic choice to wake himself up from the Matrix – you have to choose to see the light; it can't be simply shown to you.


If you want to get deeper and talk about our ability to choose – what is known in critical theory as agency – the fact that Smith is the key factor that sets the whole Matrix off course and into the hands of Neo is a brilliant expression of this idea within the plot: Neo having accidentally overwritten part of his resistant nature onto Smith at the end of the first movie, when Neo apparently "destroyed" him, made Smith into a literal "free agent," able to operate and make choices – self-interested ones – outside of the system. As it stated in the third film, Neo and Smith are Alpha and Omega, the flip-sides of the same coin. The only question is that of whether Smith's viral form of "free will" will eventually spread and take away that of humanity's, or whether the consequences of Neo's choice – as obvious Christ-figure and inevitable sacrificial lamb when he uploads himself as the code that will destroy Smith – will give humanity back its freedom, it's agency.

See, as we found out in the conversation with the very Freudian Architect in the second film, the role of "The One" is actually as a function of the system's full knowledge that some people – a very small fraction – will reject the program (ideology, social constructs) and resist. "This is about Zion," Neo realizes. The system plans for this eventuality by making the Matrix as real as possible – full of pain and pleasure, joy and pain – and the element of choice. The Oracle was "the intuitive program" who figured that shit out. But there's still that niggardly (and oh, yes, I do assign a lot of meaning to the fact that there were indeed a lot of niggas in the Matrix films, a series about resistance to enslavement) problem of the people who don't accept the program and will unplug, organize, and fight. "The One" is the control key that will take the best resisters and restart Zion as the Machines hit restart on the Matrix. Smart – "keep your friends close and your enemies closer." Better to have a group of resistance fighters whom you created and controlled and can eventually destroy when the time comes, rather than a real group of rabble-rousers outside of the system that is more difficult to co-opt and control.

In the end, everything ends as the Machines would want, with the one new caveat that those who choose to live in the fantasy world are now actually doing so by real, albeit passive choice, as defined by the fact that if you want to wake up and unplug from the Matrix, you can do so and live truly free. Mankind gets its freedom - its agency – back because of Neo's original choice and ultimate sacrifice.

"Shit gets deeper."

Let's come back to Earth and the matter of our "matrix" of the social construct. Now, some Korean folks might say that such concepts are "Western" and don't apply to Korea. Well, that might be a good argument were it not for the fact that the very notions of "race" and "nation" and "history" itself were all first invented in the West and had great influence on the East. Does that mean that these concepts are inherently Western and that the East exists in a western mode? No. What I mean to say is that like any idea that spreads far beyond the borders of its origin point – this being the intellectual equivalent of the gene, the "meme" – such ideas continue spreading because of their own inherent merit, regardless of the place where they originated. And the further away it runs and evolves away from its original creation point, the less it is tinged with the specifics of the culture that produced it. So such memes such as "democracy" or "inalienable rights" may have started with the American constitution, but that doesn't mean such ideas remain uniquely American anymore.

Such is the case with Korean academia, which, for people academics and intellectuals who know something about the origins of the ideas in places such as history and anthropology, owes a great deal of its intellectual origins with Japan, China, the United States, and Europe – in that order of degree. The very idea of the use of a "nationalist historiography" to overtly create pride in the nation and a sense of national identity itself – one that Koreans trace back to Shin Chae Ho – goes back to its original Japanese architects, who were greatly influenced by Prussian ideas of "History" all the way back in Europe.

The fact that most Koreans really don't know much about Shin – except for what they read in tertiary sources (textbooks), which were themselves compiled by companies outsourced by the Korean Educational Development Institute, a government body directly supported by the Ministry of Education – illustrates this point.


Even if the general Korean wanted to wade through the Chinese characters Shin heavily utilized to write his works and knew about the great intellectual debts he had to Chinese and Japanese scholars, it would be still nearly impossible to get direct access to his collected works; they recently went out of print and I am desperately trying to find a copy of one of the three key volumes in the series. Such is the importance Korean society gives to its most vaunted historiographical founder; the collected works of the architect of Korean history itself is something that most Koreans can't read without assistance, and can't even buy.

Here's my point: most of the intellectual concepts with which anyone in the world uses as the bases of their national identity – in the Korean case minjok is the key organizing concept – is in itself little more than 100 years old. The myth of Korean history and people going back to 5,000 years depends on a self-defining concept of "us" that must be inherently de-historicized in order to work. Think back on Korean history; it is fraught with fighting kingdoms, battling "nations." They inherently thought of themselves as different from one another to fight with each other, and whatever identity one had was surely defined as different from that of the others. And yes, Korean "culture" has links to them all. But historical links do not a national identity make. Ask Shin Chae Ho or any other nationalist who has helped construct a national history – you need to actively build a national identity through myths and heroes, stories and fables. There must be central organizing concepts chosen to organize the others – the notion of minjok so close to Shin's heart was not naturally understood to be "real" before the 1900's – the construction of the modern notion of minjok and the nation is Shin's legacy. If it had existed before, why would historians remember him?

In the scan below, taken directly from the same stash of textbooks I lifted from my school and put in my bags before departing Korean in 1996, I have presented a section of the "Morals" textbook in the course of the same name that first-year middle school students are required to take.  And by the way, for the people complaining that the previous dictionary excerpts I presented were too "old" – my whole point in talking about these things is that is partially from such books and materials such as these that my former students – who are now in their early and mid-20's – form not only their own self-images, but images of others (non-Koreans) as well.

In this excerpt, the book asks why "we" would feel embarrassed to see a Korean behave recklessly in front of a foreigner, "our" face turning bright red in shame. Why would we feel like that? Because we all share the same "bloodline" and the same "consciousness" flows through that blood. I'll translate directly the paragraph I indicated in the text with a red star:

The minjok can be defined as having been passed down the same bloodline, using a common language, and that which has lived on between a common history and culture that is the basis of a consciousness of a community of 'us' that constitutes the group. Therefore – just like how we are constituted from the same blood as that of our ancestors – the minjok is made up of the concepts of family, ethnic group, or tribe, we sometimes point to the race and call it a large family. Just because a member of a large family lives far away doesn't mean that they stop being called family. In the same way, as a person born as a member of our race living in a foreign country, even if they have acquired another nationality, that person cannot come to the conclusion that they are not a part of our race.

 So it's not difficult to see why Koreans tend to be so essentialist about "race" and "nation" and "people" as they are conflated into the concept of minjok. When your school textbooks are busy defining the limits of the nation in such strict and blood-based ways, it is difficult to even try to imagine something else as being true; in fact, since so many people talk and think about minjok in this way that supports what the textbook says, where in everyday Korean culture could one find an alternative model of identity, a different way of imagining being Korean? Is it any surprise, then, that the news announcers actually talked about the "crisis" in the national blood supply? It's not that there's missing a certain rare type of blood, but it was a minor scandal in the early 1990's that "foreign" blood was "diluting" the "pure" Korean blood that would be given to transfusion patients. It sounds ridiculous to Western sensibilities, which are used to thinking about race in mostly genetic terms; but in a country obsessed with consanguinity, family lineage, and a Korean "blood quantum" (to borrow a term from Indian country), it makes a perverse sort of sense. Especially when your textbooks have been saying so for years.

It's a difficult thing to wrap one's mind around – since we were all born, raised, and educated to not only think of such concepts as "race" and "blood" as real; but remember that we were also trained to not question the origins of such notions. If we did that, then the whole fantasy would come tumbling down, like being unjacked from The Matrix; for this reason, no matter how much importance middle school textbooks place on the importance of the minjok, they will never, ever discuss the origins of the term itself. I don't think it's even a grand conspiracy theory – the textbook authors, as writers of a tertiary source, probably never even thought of this issue as they compiled information from the available secondary sources (books), and they almost certainly did not do original historical research themselves, consulting primary sources from the times. No one ever thinks to ask the questions:

"How old is the present concept of the minjok?"

"When did the modern notion of Korean identity itself begin?"

"What were earlier versions of identity that existed on this land we now call Korea?"

If such questions were asked – in any country – the results would be surprising. They would also reveal what most national propagandists are loathe to reveal – that the structure (albeit not the content) of national identity itself across all the nations in the world is more similar than it is different; in fact, it is almost the same. We all have different myths, symbols, and rationalizing ideologies, but the way in which we use them is exactly the same. If you want to check out Benedict Anderson's foundational work in the field of nationalism studies, you'll see that while it is somewhat centered on many European examples, the mechanics work, even in the cases of Asian nations, and especially in the case of Korea.

How dissimilar is Korea, really, from Anderson's explanation? Like most other nations in the world, what was required to create the present, modern notion of "Korea" was a national language, the spread of literacy, forms of mass media such as newspapers, the creations of "invented traditions" that perhaps pre-existed the nation but surely found new authority once the state gave them official sanction, etc. The list could go on, and there are always historically specific reasons parts of the Korean case doesn't fit into the Western model written in the 1980's. But when you look at modern Korean nationalism's founding moments from the 1880's and the colonial nightmare that gave them real power, or the appearance of Commodore Perry's black ships in the 1850's and the resultant "choice" of the Japanese to abandon their old ways and modernize from 1868, or the case of what is now France, Germany, the United States, or any other modern nation – the details and individual contenst differ, but the vessel is exactly the same.

In this way, one can't find any such thing as a "natural" national identity that isn't enforced by unnatural concepts instilled by unnatural institutions such as schools, national media, and invented traditions. People who live in what is now the "United States of America" still considered themselves English citizens up even until early 1776, even after the shooting war already started. How many times has the basic conception of "German" changed even in a single century? Germans alive in 1942 had a completely different notion of who was and wasn't a citizen – a true German – and the basis for inclusion within the group was based on notions of racialized pseudo-science which created concepts that the state wanted. Before that, there was a previous republic and before that "German" identity was centered around villages and provinces organized around the whims of royalty.

Look at the present notions of identity between even the two Koreas. What streak of historical continuity do the two Korea's really have in common between them? Yes, the two modern nations are "cultural cognates" of one another, but they are far more different than they are similar to one another. Historians always think in terms of the two competing concepts of historical "continuity and change" and try to trace historical connections to the past against historical breaks that mark the introduction of something new. One of the arrogant fantasies of South Koreans is that they share a lot in common with their "brethren" in north by these constructed notions of "blood" and consanguinuity; but I think it will come as a huge shock if and when the two Koreas come together to see that the differences of even a little more than half a century make for two really different peoples. Notions of social responsibility, the government's role in the life of the individual, and the fact of two hugely different economic/social ideologies of blind capitalism vs. authoritorian communism is going to make for two very different peoples coming together. Next to that, the rosy notion of minjok doesn't stand a chance.

Don't believe me? Let history play out – wait and see. See if the following doesn't come true:

– In the South Korean economy and society, North Korean men will become the most desired unskilled laborers, as they replace the undesirable foreign workers (because they are a threat to the "purity" of the Korean race) and will become available at whatever price the South Korean economy wants to pay them. They will be mostly based in the North, where the majority of South Korean factories will be, and on a limited basis as the result of special work visas that will be issued to them if they work in the South. These North Korean males will be shunned as marriage partners for South Korean women, and most South Korean families will 반대 the marriage of their daughters to North Korean men.

– North Korean women, however, will be the #1 hot commodity for South Korean men, as the recent disgusting media display of public (male) salivation over "North Korean beauties" and the re-popularization of the old saying of "남남북녀" (southern men for northern girls) indicate. Considering the fact that advertisements for "Marrying Vietnamese Virgins" are a common sight all over any Korean city – because of the ever-present problem of the male-tilted gender disparity caused by pre-natal screening that leads to the increasingly higher rate of abortions of girls as a couple without a son heads towards 2nd, 3rd, and 4th children – who better to marry than someone within "our" own minjok? I wonder which will win out – the dropping birth rate and the increasing expense of raising kids leading to less children overall and increased use of pre-natal screening to exterminate would-be daughters, or the inevitable (and positive) decreasing importance of gender itself in South Korean society. Hopefully the latter factor will grow such as to decrease the power of the former one, but only time will tell. But considering the myriad ways that women's bodies are already commodified as objects of consumption in South Korean society, North Korean women, with their lack of economic and social power, don't have much bright to look forward to in South Korea.

A movie with the popular saying as the title.

Yes, there will be famous examples of prominent and successful former North Koreans on formerly South Korean televisions, and in movies, newspapers, and other places in the public eye. But mark my words, the Korean notion of "minjok" will be utilized – as it has for a little more than 100 years – to accomplish the goals of the state and the elite that is largely in control of it. Images of reunited families and touching stories will abound on Korean televisions after any big national reunification. But that is, ladies and gentlemen, will be simply the beginning of another sad story, even as it will seem like the ending to one previous. Ideologies of nationalism shift and change with the times, but their utility to the group in power does not. I know many people won't agree, but see if this little chart of social hierarchy doesn't seem like it won't make sense, even before the fact:

– South Korean man 
– South Korean woman 
– North Korean woman 
– North Korean man


Key Realted Readings:

  1. Schmid, A. (2002). Korea between empires, 1895-1919. New York, Columbia University Press.

  2. Shin, G.-W. (2006). Ethnic nationalism in Korea : genealogy, politics, and legacy. Stanford, Calif., Stanford University Press.