Athletes from North and South Korea marched together during the opening ceremonies of the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea. (photo by Chang W. Lee/The New York Times)

Sport has important political power in contemporary culture. When North and South Korean athletes marched under a unified flag during the opening ceremonies of the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, it provided a powerful sign of cooperation between the two nations. Seeing the two Koreas marching together symbolized hope for reunification in the Korean peninsula. The 2018 Olympics, however, were only one chapter in a much longer story about the ways in which South Korea has invested substantial resources in attempts to foster a (global) Koreanness through success in sporting mega-events. In fact, cultural anthropologist Rachael Miyung Joo has argued that South Korea sees transnational sport as the most useful way to demonstrate the potential of a “global Korea.” Sport, in this respect, is used as a cultural apparatus to build a collective identity—what political scientist Benedict Anderson called an “imagined community.” Here, we aim to deconstruct South Korean sporting nationalism by analyzing how sport operates to establish and reinforce nationalism in South Korea.

Selective Nationalism and Korean Ice Hockey

South Korean media have often emphasized either athletes’ nationality (i.e., citizenship) or ethnicity (i.e., ancestry) in constructing a collective sense of Koreanness. When the media reported on the Olympic project of the Korean Ice Hockey Association (KIHA), naturalized athletes’ citizenship was heavily emphasized in building a sense of Koreanness. Since 2011, both the South Korean government and KIHA had been pursuing a strategy to strengthen the team leading up to the 2018 Olympics— a plan that included recruiting white players from North America. Notably, the South Korean government granted official citizenship to seven white players through a special case that enabled them to bypass the normal naturalization process, which would have included a requirement of at least five years of residence in South Korea. South Korean media quickly began to portray the newly recruited/naturalized players as Taegeuk warriors with blue eyes, highlighting their fast assimilation into Korean culture. Media emphasized the players’ love of spicy Korean food and ability to speak basic words in Korean. Favorable media representations of the naturalized players may have helped convince South Korean citizens of the players’ Koreanness despite of their lack of Korean ancestry. Their nationality as South Korean citizens signified Koreanness in this particular case.

Hines Ward, who grew up in the United States with a Korean mother and African American father, played 14 seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers. (photo from Naver Sports)

On the other hand, ethnicity was key in forming Koreanness in the case of Hines Ward, a former National Football League player who grew up in the United States with a Korean mother and African American father. When Ward was named MVP of Super Bowl XL, South Korean media celebrated his Korean ethnicity as well as his kinship with his Korean mother. Further, the media representations reflected a process in which racial and ethnic relations among South Koreans were being redefined. Despite the fact that he was an American citizen who had grown up in the U.S., the media framed Ward as a “proud” Korean who had demonstrated the power of a global and multicultural Korea (Ahn, 2011). In so doing, South Korean society accepted him into the boundary of “Koreans” regardless of his skin color or citizenship. The media representation of, and public reactions toward Ward illustrates a case in which Korean ancestry defined Koreanness.

These examples raise questions about the ways in which either citizenship or ancestry constructs and drives South Korean nationalism in particular instances. To provide more insight about this matter, we return to some recent examples from the sport of ice hockey. Although ice hockey is not particularly popular in South Korea, the media often spotlighted the sport in the years leading up to the 2018 Olympics. In 2017, Sang Wook Kim, a South Korean ice hockey player, won the Most Points Award in the Asia League Ice Hockey (ALIH). South Korean media were quick to write articles with titles such as “Kim became the first South Korean to earn a top rank in the ALIH.” Sang Wook’s athletic achievement was perceived as foreshadowing a bright future for South Korean men’s ice hockey, which was particularly meaningful with South Korea playing host at the 2018 Olympics. While his accomplishment was impressive, such headlines were misleading. Sang Wook was actually the second player with Korean ancestry to win the Most Points Award.

Alex Kim, a Korean-American, won the Asia League Ice Hockey Most Points Award in 2008 and 2010. (photo from the Chosunilbo)

The first player with Korean ancestry to win the Most Points Award was Alex Kim, a Korean-American player. He won the Most Points Award in both 2008 and 2010 while playing for Team High 1 in the ALIH. Alex Kim’s parents had migrated to Southern California in the United States, where he was born and raised. However, Alex still voiced strong “Korean pride” as a Korean-American. In an interview with a South Korean newspaper, he stated “[T]he name on the back of my uniform is special to me. I am Alex, an American, but at the same time, I am Kim, a Korean. During my career in the United States, I always tried to show that Koreans could be great hockey players.” Even though the comments emphasized his Koreanness, South Korean media seemed to downplay his Korean identity due to his U.S. citizenship. Despite Alex’s strong Korean pride, South Korean media outlets did not reciprocate this affection. Rather, the media identified Sang Wook as the first Korean player to win the award. This example illustrates the ways in which media representations demonstrate the complexities of ethnicity, race, and citizenship in South Korea. Comparing the cases of Sang Wook and Alex, it becomes evident that Korean nationalism operates in an obscure way, often as a selective apparatus.

As such, South Korean media selectively construct a discourse of Koreanness either through nationality or ancestry, implicitly framing whether an athlete should be considered “one of us.” For Alex Kim, despite his impressive performance on the ice, the media outlets did not portray him as “one of us”—in this case by drawing a line between Koreans with official citizenship and a Korean-American athlete without South Korean citizenship. Alex’s case may seem contradictory in comparison to the ways in which South Korean media framed Hines Ward as a symbol of global Koreanness. We interpret these contrasting cases as illustrating the ways in which South Korean media and society may be influenced by the broader (white) global society. In the case of Ward, he played in the highly-publicized and financially lucrative NFL, garnering substantial notoriety in the U.S. However, Alex Kim was lacking in global recognition from outside of South Korea. In this way, perceived hierarchy in the global sport context was embedded in the South Korean media representation of these players.

The acceptance of naturalized white hockey players, meanwhile, adds another layer of complexity to the South Korean media’s selective representation of players with respect to the production of nationalism. That the naturalized players did not possess Korean ancestry and could speak little Korean, yet were still embraced by the media, demonstrated the potentially racialized nature of citizenship and ethnicity in the sporting context. Because ice hockey is often thought to be a “white man’s sport,” the naturalized players were portrayed by South Korean media as saviors who were recruited to elevate the performance of South Korean ice hockey. South Korean media appeared willing to expand the boundary of “Koreanness” when there was a tangible benefit to the country—in this case, global sporting success. Ultimately, these examples help illustrate some of the ways in which whiteness is afforded privilege in South Korean society.

Doo Jae Park is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Kinesiology and Community Health at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His scholarly interests focus on physical culture in the context of North American sport, specifically the intersection of race, racialization, and whiteness. His work seeks to understand how socially constructed whiteness as normative (re)produces “otherness” of Asian Americans both within Asian American ideology and in wider societal realms.

Na Ri Shin is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Recreation, Sport, and Tourism at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The overall focus of her research agenda lies in the field of sport, physical culture and development, with an interest in globalization and cultural changes in particular. The aim of her research is to enhance an understanding of how globalization impacts the ways in which we manage sport, physical culture, and development. She is particularly interested in investigating sport as a cultural expansion from the West to the Tricontinental (Asia, Africa, and Latin America), and tracing the political and cultural trajectory of the expansion.