Race in ROK's constitutions

Racioethnic solidarity through compatriot love

By William Wetherall

First posted 20 June 2007
Last updated 28 August 2014

Korean-style ethnonationalismFrequency of 민족 (民族) in expressions of blood pride
ROK constitutions from 1948 to 1987The foundations of romantic racioethnic nationalism
1987 ROK ConstitutionCompatriot love, racioethnic solidarity, and racioethnic culture
Tan'gun romanticismSyngman Rhee's mythological legacy disowned by Park Chung Hee

Related articles
ROK's 1948 and 1998 nationality laws: Last bastion of Korean patriarchy falls
ROK's Compatriots Abroad Act: "nationals abroad" and "alien nationality compatriots"

Korean ethnonationalism

When I first came to Japan in 1970, armed with an undergraduate degree in Japanese Studies -- and all manner of stereotypes about Japan, acquired mostly in college -- I was prepared to believe that Japan was one of the most racially conscious nations and xenophobic places on earth. I certainly assumed it would be less "cosmopolitan" than the San Francisco Bay Area.

Funny thing, I did not have those impressions of Japan when I was there briefly as a medical laboratory technician at a US Army hospital in 1966. I may have been too stunned, too busy smiling away my alien clumsiness during my few off-base wanderings, to have noticed how people really regarded me. Today, though stunned by nothing, I still find smiling the best way to offset whatever anxieties others might have when shopping or in other close quarters.

Having never been to Korea, though invited a number of times, I cannot speak with any authority as to how that country would regard the likes of someone like me. But I have crossed paths with a number of Japan-resident Korean activists. And I have heard a Korean president speak before the Japanese Diet and followed developments in how Koreans in Korea, and in Japan, take about history and nationality issues.

And I have observed that highly racialized ethnonationalistic terms like 民族 and 同胞 are much more likely to be uttered or written by Koreans than by Japanese. Such terms are not used in laws in Japan -- and were rare even in Imperial Japanese laws. But they are keywords in the laws and policies of both the Republic of Korea and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

Both terms are also fairly important in the Republic of China and the People's Republic of China -- both of which, unlike either, and unlike Japan for that matter -- have been fairly forthright in their legal acknowledgment of racioethnic minorities within their state nationalities. Both Koreas, however, appear to be obsessed by the mission of reunification of what they regard as a single "Korean race".

Rabid blood-proud anti-Japanese nationalism in the Republic of Korea in the 2nd decade of the 21st century is provoking anti-Korean sentiments in Japan's own blood-proud elements, which similarly rely on appeals to pride in 日本民族 (Nippon minzoku) as a collective racioethnic nation. Reactionary 兼韓流 (ken Hanryū) or "dislike Korean-style" emotions run very high in sectors of Japanese popular culture and mass media opposed to what is perceived as "Japan bashing" in the Republic of Korea.


ROK constitutions from 1948 to 1987

The Republic of Korea was founded on 15 August 1948, which marked the third anniversary of the end of World War II and Korea's liberation from Japanese rule. ROK's constitution was adopted on 12 July 1948 and promulgated on 17 July 1948, somewhat in advance of the new state's formal founding. ROK has partly or wholly revised its constitution a number of times, most recently on 29 October 1987.

Foundations of romantic nationalism

The preamble of ROK's constitution dates the history and traditions of Korea to "time immemorial" -- translating 悠久 (eternity) -- a term used with equally romantic force by nationalists and in Japan past and present. The preamble also traces the origins of ROK to "the Provisional Republic of Korea Government born of the March First Independence Movement of 1919" -- a failed attempt by Koreans to overthrow Japanese rule a decade after the Empire of Japan formally annexed the Empire of Korea. The "Provisional Republic of Korea Government" (大韓民國臨時政府) was established in Shanghai.

"nationals" associated with an "ethnic race"

Of interest here is how ROK's constitution defines nationals -- and how it blurs the boundaries between "nationals" and an undefined "ethnic race".

Unlike Japan's Meiji and postwar constitutions, which defined subjects and nationals at the beginning of their chapters on rights and duties, ROK's constitution defines nationals in Article 2, immediately after declaring in Article 1 that sovereignty resides in nationals. Article 2 also obliges the state to protect nationals abroad.

In both the Preamble and an article, however, ROK's constitution associates an undefined "ethnic race" and "racioethnic culture" with "nationals". And in the Preamble, it uses a racioethnic metaphor for "compatriot".


1987 ROK Constitution
With commentary on terminology

The following table shows Korean texts of parts of interest in the Preamble, and of selected articles of interest, with a Japanese translation and two English translations. The Japanese translations reflect the phrasal and metaphorical structure of the Korean text very closely, as would be expected.

The received ("semi-official" or "standard") English translation shows the usual problems that result from total disregard for the meanings of key words. The structural English translation attempts to rectify these problems by rendering keywords consistently.

Korean text

The Korean text shown here is adapted from the mixed character version posted on the website of the Constitutional Court of the Republic of Korea (June 2007). The hangul, and some characters that slightly differ from their Japanese versions, have been converted into Unicode, and the text has been formatted to accommodate this presentation.

Japanese translation

The Japanese translation is one of several practically identical versions published in various books and posted on various websites. Practically are Japanese translations of Korean texts are structural in that they reflect the phrasing of the Korean and utilize Sino-Japanese characters to represent Sino-Korean terms in Korean.

English translations

The structural English translation is mine.

The received English translation is reproduced as posted on the website of the Constitutional Court of the Republic of Korea (June 2007).


Some terms have been highlighted in color to facilitate glosses or commentary.

大韓民國憲法  대한민국헌벞  Constitution of the Republic of Korea
Compatriot love, racioethnic solidarity, and racioethnic culture

前文   Preamble

Observe that the Preamble addresses two entities of people -- "nationals" and an "ethnic race". The received English translation speaks only of two other entities -- "the people" and "citizens" -- and conflates the noun "ethnic race" with the attributive "national".

Also notice that, where the Preamble refers to "compatriot love" as an instrument of "solidification of the [Korean] ethnic race" -- in which "compatriot" reflects "same womb" as a metaphor for racioethnic sibling -- the received translation obscures the racialism with "brotherly love" as an instrument of "national unity".


우리 大韓國民



正義・人道와 同胞愛로써 民族의 團結을 공고히 하고
Japanese translation




English translation (structural)

We nationals of Great Korea

life of nationals

vote [ballot, referendum] by nationals

to strengthen solidarity of the ethnic race through justice, humanity and compatriot love
English translation (received)

We, the people of the Republic of Korea

life for all citizens

national referendum

to consolidate national unity with justice, humanitarianism and brotherly love

第9條   Article 9

The received translation distorts both the phrasing and metaphors of the original.


國家는 傳統文化의 계승・발전과 民族文化의 暢達에 노력하여야 한다.
Japanese translation

English translation (structural)

The State must endeavor in the succession and development of traditional culture and in the facilitation [propagation] of racioethnic culture.
English translation (received)

The State shall strive to sustain and develop the cultural heritage and to enhance national culture.

第69條   Article 69

Whatever "racioethnic culture" embraces, it is sufficiently important to warrant presidential assurances that it will be propagated.


大統領은 就任에 즈음하여 다음의 宣誓를 한다.

"나는 憲法을 준수하고 國家를 保衛하며 祖國의 平和的 統一과 國民의 自由와 福利의 增進 및 民族文化의 暢達에 노력하여 大統領으로서의 職責을 성실히 수행할 것을 國民 압에 엄숙히 宣誓함니다."
Japanese translation


English translation (structural)

The president, at the time of inauguration, shall make the following vow.

"I solemnly vow before nationals [the people (of the State)] that I shall faithfully carry out the responsibilities as president, to observe the constitution, to protect the State, and to endeavor in the peaceful unification of the fatherland and [in] the enhancement of the freedom and welfare of nationals and [in] the facilitation [propagation] of racioethnic culture."
English translation (received)

The President, at the time of his inauguration, shall take the following oath:

"I do solemnly swear before the people that I will . . . faithfully execute the duties of the President by observing the Constitution, defending the State, pursuing the peaceful unification of the homeland, promoting the freedom and welfare of the people and endeavoring to develop national culture."
Qualifications of nationals and protection of nationals abroad

第2條   Article 2

The law which determines who qualifies to be a national of ROK is the Nationality Law. Those who possess ROK's nationality are "nationals". Equivalents of "citizen" (such as 公民) appear no where in constitution or in the Nationality Law.

While ROK's constitution does not directly extend the meaning of "nationals abroad" to include "compatriots abroad", it refers to "compatriot love" as an instrument of "solidification of the [Korean] ethnic race", and to "[Korean] racioethnic culture" as an object of major (even presidential) concern. Arguably such references inspired the the 1999 Compatriots Abroad Act, which defines "compatriots abroad" as both "nationals abroad" and "alien nationality compatriots".

For further details and discussion, see ROK's 1948 and 1998 nationality laws: Plus the 1999 law on compatriots abroad.


① 大韓民國의國民이 되는 요건은 法律로 정한다.

國家는 法律이 정하는 바에 의하여 在外國民을 보호할 義務를 진다.
Japanese translation

① 大韓民国の国民となる要件は、法律で定める。

English translation (structural)

(1) The conditions for becoming a national of the Republic of Korea shall be determined by law.

(2) The State, in accordance with what law determines, shall bear the duty of protecting nationals abroad.
English translation (received)

(1) Nationality in the Republic of Korea shall be prescribed by Act.

(2) It shall be the duty of the State to protect citizens residing abroad as prescribed by Act.
International treaties and the status of aliens

第6條   Article 6

ROK's constitution specifically states that the status of aliens will be assured according to international law and and binding treaties. What this means in the actual administration of domestic law and regulations, however, is another matter.


① 憲法에 의하여 체결・公布된 條約과 一般的으로 승인된 國際法規는 國內法과 같은 效力을 가진다.

外國人는 國際法과 條約이 정하는 바에 의하여 그 地位가 보장된다.
Japanese translation

① この憲法に基づいて締結、公布された条約及び一般的に承認された国際法規は、国内法と同等の効力を有する。

English translation (structural)

(1) Treaties concluded and promulgated on the basis of this constitution and generally recognized international law and regulations, shall have the same efficacy as domestic laws.

(2) As for aliens, in accordance with what international law and treaties determine, their status shall be guaranteed.
English translation (received)

(1) Treaties duly concluded and promulgated under the Constitution and the generally recognized rules of international law shall have the same effect as the domestic laws of the Republic of Korea.

(2) The status of aliens shall be guaranteed as prescribed by international law and treaties.
Equality of nationals and discrimination

第11條   Article 11

This entire article is like Article 14 in Japan's 1947 Constitution -- except that ROK's constitution makes no mention of "race". The phrase "a system of social special classes" (社會的 特殊階級) appears to underscore Article 1, which defines ROK as a "democratic republic" (民主共和國) and invests sovereignty in nationals -- rather than in the head of a special class such as an imperial family.


모든 國民은 法 압에 平等하다. 누구든지 性別・宗敎 또는 社會的 身分에 의하여 政治的・經濟的・社會的・文化的 生活의 모든 領域에 있어서 차별을 받지 아니한다.

社會的 特殊階級의 制度는 인정되지 아니하며, 어떠한 形態로도 이를 創設할 수 없다.

③ 勳章등의 榮典은 이를 받은 者에게만 效力이 있고, 어떠한 特權도 이에 따르지 아니한다.
Japanese translation



③ 勲章その他の栄典は、これを受けた者に限りその効力があり、いかなる特権もこれに伴わない。
English translation (structural)

1. All nationals are equal before the law. No person shall receive discrimination in any area of political, economic, social, or cultural life, on account of sex, religion or social status.

2. A system of social special classes shall not be recognized, and it shall not be possible to establish one in any form.

3. As for decorations and other honors, their effects shall exist only for [i.e., be limited to] those who receive them, and no privileges shall accompany them.
English translation (received)

(1) All citizens shall be equal before the law, and there shall be no discrimination in political, economic, social or cultural life on account of sex, religion or social status.

(2) No privileged caste shall be recognized or ever established in any form.

(3) The awarding of decorations or distinctions of honor in any form shall be effective only for recipients, and no privileges shall ensue therefrom.


Tan'gun romanticism

The Republic of Korea was founded on 15 August 1948. The year was "Tan'gi 4281 nyŏn" (檀紀4281年) in terms of years since Tan'gun (檀君), the mythical progenitor of the Korean racioethnic nation, is supposed to have founded the first Korean state in antiquity.

The Tan'gi system of representing years had been legally adopted for public use on 25 September 1948 under President Syngman Rhee (李承晩 Yi/Ri Sŭngman 1875-1965). It was abolished on 2 December 1961 (Tan'gi 4294) by President Park Chung Hee (朴正熙 Pak Chŏng Hŭi 1917-1979), and its public use has been prohibited since 1 January 1962.

Use of the Tan'gi system carried the message that Korea was some 1600 years older than Japan. Ironically Park, not Rhee, had been most directly exposed to the Japanese system of counting imperial years from the date Emperor Jinmu is said to have founded the Yamato nation. While the Christian and most of the secular world celebrated 1940, Japan celebrated Kigen 2600 nen (紀元2600年) -- the 2600th year since the purported founding of the Yamato dynasty in 660 BC.

Syngman Rhee was significantly educated in the United States, where he adopted the manner of writing his name. He was a Christian, and even lived and worked in Korea, as a missionary, for a couple of years after it had become part of Japan. Rhee left Korea, however, and staunchly opposed Japanese imperialism from other countries, mostly the United States. At times he posed as the president of a Korean government in exile -- though under international law, he was a Japanese national.

Park Chung Hee, also a Japanese national when Korea was part of Japan, embraced Japanese militarism as Takaki Masao (高木正雄). He trained first at a Japanese military academy in Manchuria, then at an imperial army academy in Tokyo. He served as an officer, first in the Kwantung Army, then in the Manchurian Imperial Army.

Historical nationalism

Christian Rhee embraced the Tan'gi system, while Park, once a loyal subject of Japan's 124th emperor, abolished the nationalist system of counting years.

Tan'gun's purported mausoleum, near Pyongyang, is the focus of national foundation day celebrations in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. Tan'gun cults in the Republic of Korea have to protect statues of Tan'gun from vandalism by Christians.

Because Tan'gun and his clan migrated into the peninsula from what is today part of China -- and since several early Korean kingdoms were tributary states of China -- some historians in the People's Republic of China have viewed Korea as an offspring of China's geographic, demographic, and cultural womb.

Such views have drawn strong criticism from Korean historians. Some Korean nationalists view Northeast China as part of Korea. For them, Koreans who migrated north of the Yalu, when Korea was part of Japan, were simply returning to their ancestral hearth.