m a r k a n d e y a

The Politics of Uri

Posted by Brian on December 6, 2003

A few weeks ago, several Korea bloggers were discussing “Uri Party,” and the connotations of the word “uri” when used by Koreans. At the time, I wanted to post an old article I had on the topic, but I didn’t have access to my computer so I couldn’t. But I do now, so here it is…

This piece was written by Robert Fouser, a scholar in Japan who writes on Korean and Japanese issues. I’ve been saving this article for years because I consider it essential for understanding how Koreans see themselves and the world around them. In fact, if one were putting together an Idiots Guide to Understanding Koreans, I’d make this Chapter One. And if you’re an English teacher, I’ve found it’s a great topic for discussion. So, without further ado…

The Politics of “Uri”

“Uri” (we/our/us) is one of the easiest Korean words for foreigners to learn because it is so common. Koreans use “uri” to refer affectionately to family members and members of the same group. Politicians and the media use “uri” to promote nationalistic feeling among the Korean people. As the political season enters high gear, politicians will invoke the nationalist references of “uri” to raise their standing among the voters.

Korean-English dictionaries define “uri” in a neutral way as “we, us, I, me, our, my, mine.” Dictionaries refer to the different usage between Korean and English by giving examples of “uri” used with a kinship term, as in “uri aboji,” which they translate as “my father.” Other examples, however, describe the use of “uri” to refer to the Korea (uri nara) or the Korean language (uri mal).

The use of “uri” with kinship terms comes from the rural and communitarian tradition in Korean culture. Until the late 1970s, Korea was predominantly a rural society that valued extended families and cooperation at the village level. Poverty and the demands of farming fostered cooperation in families and villages that made it natural for people to identify with a group rather than with the self.

Appropriating “uri” for political and nationalistic discourse, as in “uri nara” implies that Korea is a family state, an “us,” and that other nations and peoples are a “them.” By extension, this turns all interaction with the outside world into a game of “us versus them.” In one-on-one interactions with foreigners, “uri” turns the participants into representatives of their respective nation-states, which prevents Koreans from seeing foreigners as individuals with their own ideas and beliefs.

Examples of how “uri” impedes cross-cultural understanding in Korea abound. In discussing relations between Korea and other nations, the Korean media refers to South Korea as “our side” and the other nation (except for North Korea) by its name. The word “our side” implies that Koreans are united behind a particular policy and that citizens of the other country are united behind the policy of their government. With sensitive issues, such as American trade pressure, Koreans often assume that individual Americans are familiar with the issues involved and support the policies of their government.

The use of “uri” to refer to Korean history and culture negates the importance of diverse influences on Korean history and culture.

The word “uri kimchi,” for example, implies that the kimchi that is so popular today is a “pure Korean” food, even though red pepper, a key ingredient, came to Korea via the Japanese who got it from the Portuguese in the 16th century. Red peppers did not become widespread in Korean food until the 18th century. The idea of a “pure Korean” culture leads to a cultural isolationism that makes it difficult for Koreans to see how their culture fits into broader historical and cultural trends. In the process, Korean culture loses its power to influence other cultures.

Likewise, the use of “uri mal” to refer to the Korean language creates a close connection between language and nation state that warps Korean understanding of language. Domestically, the media and scholars focus on the influence of foreign languages in Korean, such as Chinese characters and foreignisms from English and Japanese, but become complacent about other areas of language policy, such writing education and standards of style for editing. Internationally, the idea of national possession over language leads to a focus on teaching Korean to ethnic Koreans, rather than promoting it as a cultural product on the world stage as do other nations, such as France, Germany and Japan.

Despite increased trade and contact with the outside world, the use of “uri” in the media and public discourse has increased since the 1970s. Since then, the right and left have used “uri” to mobilize public opinion in their favor. Rumor has it that President Park Chung Hee encouraged the use of “uri nara” to unite the nation behind his dictatorship. Since the late 1980s, the nationalistic left has used “uri” to promote interest in reunification and resistance to foreign political and cultural influence. In the 1990s, “uri” is as rampant in scholarly writing as it is in the media and public discourse.

The idea of the nation as a family serves the cause of political mobilization well, but it masks important differences within the nation. For all the talk of cultural unity, Korea is a diverse society. Korea has a strong local culture despite the concentration of power in Seoul. Nearly all the world’s major religions and philosophies claim followers in Korea. Differences among generations, social classes, and between rural and urban Koreans are sharp because of the rapid changes in Korean society over the last 30 years.

Politicians will no doubt get drunk on the word “uri” this fall as they try to use nationalism to get votes. Appropriating “uri” for political mobilization is not the worst thing a politician can do, but the media has a responsibility to report on the language games politicians play. The use of “uri” to refer to a family nation united behind a leader is an antidemocratic language game of times past.


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