Kim Yu-Nationalism, Or How Middle Powers Assert Themselves in Global Politics


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Nothing verifies the claims of my last two posts about the jingoism and politicization of world sport as much as the national euphoria here that greeted Yuna Kim’s Olympics victory last week. Koreans reacted to her medal the same way Americans did to the US hockey’s team 1980 victory – it became a banner symbol of national greatness in world society. Kim has become not an image of skating beauty, but rather the latest capture of an unrelated event to serve Korea’s near obsessive effort to be noted in the world politics. This is how states reinforce themselves in the era of globalization, and this is how middle powers tell the world to pay attention to them.

Here are just a few headlines, to remind you that her victory is not just a gold medal, but a “world historic event,” as one Korean put it to me:

Yuna Becomes ‘Golden Queen’: Kim Yu-na’s Olympic triumph cements her status as the megastar of figure skating and the sport’s most transcendent personality since Germany’s Katarina Witt.”

Beyond Perfection: Fascinating the world with dazzling performance”

Kim Yu-na: Figure skating queen aids Korea’s Olympic dreams”

Olympic favorite Kim Yu-na delighted fans around the world

Korea Energized by Figure Skater’s Olympic Debut: Korea is ablaze with excitement”

This sort of purple rhetoric should convince anyone of the way the state instrumenatlizes sports for nationalist assertion. Kim is a fine athlete obviously. But the far more interesting story for a political scientist is the way her victory was ‘captured’ for the interest of state and nation. Indeed so fanatical have Koreans become about Kim, that she now practices mostly in Canada  in order to avoid the cult of personality that has grown up around her.

Maybe I’m Huntington’s flimsy de-nationalized globalist, but I can’t help but find this sort of adulation extremely discomforting, and not just as  foreigner living here. Aren’t modern, liberal states supposed to outgrow this sort of clannishness? Aren’t cults of personality, uncritical coverage of national ‘heroes,’ and jingoistic assertions of the ‘world’s joy’ over an athlete (?!) a sign of political immaturity and hard-edged nationalism, the sort of thing we associate with dictatorships banking on nationalism as a legitimizing ideology?

My sense is that if Korea really wants to be taken by the rest of the world as a serious, perhaps even leading, member of the G20, this sort of nationalism will need to fade. Like much of East Asia, Korea is torn between a deeply held nationalist narrative of its uniqueness (frequently drifting into racial blood-and-soil narratives of the minjok), and the desire to be cosmopolitan and open to world of globalization (‘Global Korea‘). (China too has the struggle, between the CCP’s growing racialization of Han ethnicity, and the need for Walmart and more FDI.) Yuna Kim embodies both of these trends, as she is both instrumentalized for Korean national purposes (carrying the flag everywhere, eg), yet also reasonbly fluent in English. It is not clear to me which way Koreans want to go.

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9 thoughts on “Kim Yu-Nationalism, Or How Middle Powers Assert Themselves in Global Politics

  1. “My sense is that if Korea really wants to be taken by the rest of the world as a serious, perhaps even leading, member of the G20, this sort of nationalism will need to fade.”

    Just wait until the Soccer World Cup in South Africa in June and Europe will be right there with S. Korea. Did you follow the last World Cup in Germany four years ago? The Soccer World Cup is the most watched and followed sporting event in the World (apart from the US). The Olympics is nothing compared to the World Cup.

    I still have fond memories of England vs. France, or England vs Germany while living in Europe. Just add Brazil (the BEST) in the mix and you have real fire works. Do you remember the final game between France and Italy in Germany 2006? The head butt by Materazzi (Italy) on French Algerian Zidane (playing for France). And the aftermath?

    Talk about nationalism. Even Algeria got in the mix.

    Actually we don’t even have to go that far back, a few months ago when Algeria played Egypt for the African World Cup finals qualifier war almost broke out between these two countries. They even had to close their borders. Algeria won and Egyptians went on a rampage beating up Algerians. This was back in November 2009.

  2. Sorry, I had it backwards, Materazzi muttered some ethnic provoking joke or something to Zidane, at which point Zidane headbutted Materazzi.

    I also forgot to mention France’s reaction after France won the World Cup in 2000. You would have thought that WWII just ended.

  3. So in brief, if anyone wants to see European Liberal Democracies exhibiting some of the most base and barbaric forms of National both on foreign soil in JoBurg and simultaneously in Europe, stay tuned to the World Cup in June.

    Maybe after this the FUND won’t be taken seriously anymore.

    More important is how South Africa and other African countries are spending all this money that they don’t have on sports. We are probably talking billions. Yet they beg for climate money. Those modern high tech multi-million dollar soccer stadiums that were built in South Africa will probably home to wildlife by September.

  4. ha ha… It’s funny how an American talks about “nationalism”…

    Most of the acclaim on Yuna is made by the world not Korea. Check your facts straight.

    Middle Power? Who’s a Middle Power?

    Are they not treating you well down there in Busan?

    If you don’t like Korea, please leave…

  5. “It’s funny how an American talks about “nationalism”…”

    That’s not relevant. Play the ball, not the man.

    And he’s right, it’s mostly Korea. The rest of us in the world are quite impressed, of course, but we’re not the ones appointing her to the godhead.

    South Korea is a Middle Power. What, you think you have the strategic heft of China, a global power? Why do you think South Korea is cosying to other Middle Powers in Asia, if not because we’re all in the same boat?

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