Public policy

Baseball in Korea: The Malleability of Nationalism in Different Economic Climates

Fraser MUIR (2016) University of California, Berkeley, B.A. (Hons) Political Science.

The Korean Baseball Organisation (KBO) was introduced in the 1980s as part of a larger plan by the government to distract the people from wider socioeconomic issues and to encourage state nationalism. This, accompanied by the economic crisis of the 1990s, led to one of the most peculiar reactions to globalisation yet seen: the Korean’s reversal of loyalty to American Major League Baseball (MLB) after the International Monetary Fund’s intervention into the South Korean economy. The IMF’s intervention served to update, globalise and legitimise the South Korean economy, but in so doing, it destroyed a legacy of Korean nationalism the authoritarian regime had worked hard to promote. In this paper, I will argue that the switch of support from the KBO to MLB is a direct result of the South Korean’s search to find a brand of nationalism which remains appropriate to their political and economic status quo, especially throughout the turbulent 1980s and 1990s.

The early 1980s saw the imbalances of the late 1970s deepen, especially surrounding the rapid growth of the economy and the tightening stranglehold of the authoritarian government over the country. The introduction of the KBO served to tackle both these issues, it allowed a form of entertainment fuelled by the economic surplus whilst simultaneously distracting the people from the deeper, more divisive political issues (Cho (2008), 242). The economy’s tremendous growth was largely down to strict regulation and intervention by the authoritarian regime. The Korean economy looked completely different from how it had been in the 1960s. The 1970s and 1980s had seen a radical shift in domestic economic policy but, coupled with a burgeoning global market economy, began to change the consumer landscape in South Korea. For the first time, average Koreans were making more than just a living wage; they were becoming active consumers (Cho (2000), 415). The strict authoritarian model of governance employed by the South Korean regime did not gel well with this new consumer society which placed emphasis on free economic choices, consumption of imported goods and social mobility. There was a growing demand in South Korea to spend excess income on cultural and recreational activities (Yoon, 65). The government needed to find a way to satisfy this demand without allowing for the introduction of too many cultural abnormalities that could threaten the strength of the regime.

The growing strength of the economy was highly contrasted with the continued strict authoritarian regime. Even after the end of the Park regime in 1979, there was a wide call for democratisation and progressive reform, but sadly this was not granted. In 1980, the leader of the army seized the presidency for himself in a military coup, establishing another, now-familiar, militant authoritarian dictatorship (Cho (2008), 245). However, the discontent amongst the Korean people as to this continued hegemony was beginning to mount. The influx of global products had brought with it a huge change in the political literacy of the average Korean; they now understood the difference between a democracy with a free market and the rigorous, state-controlled system with which they were burdened. Facing this growing discontent, the government began a strategy of cultural intervention. Through the purchase of several commercial television networks, the deregulation of media publications and the reintroduction of heated political discourse, the government sought to combat the agitation of the people and remind them of the government’s role in their newly-won prosperity (Cho (2008), 245).

The launch of the KBO in 1982 was very much aligned with the political strategy employed by the government, but as part of a larger initiative, not as a stand-alone act. The KBO would likely have failed as an enterprise had the conditions in which it was born not been so ripe for change. The public’s desire for an outlet for their cultural expression, coupled with the economic development of the consumer market made sure that the introduction of the KBO would galvanise a response the like of which the regime could never have expected. That is not to say, however, that the government’s role in the implementation of the KBO was non-consequential; they were vital in its success. President Jeon was an avid believer in the power of sports to foster national unity and promote cultural prosperity. The phrase, “the prosperity of nation through sports” became a cornerstone to Jeon’s domestic policy (Cho (2008), 249). He increased the budget of the Division of Sport from 0.1% in the 1970s to 0.35% by 1985 (Yoon, 87). He also oversaw the setup of the KBO, personally overseeing the merger of different geographic regions with major Korean conglomerates. Each conglomerate would be required to set up its own franchise team to play in the KBO (Cho (2008), 246). This was a masterstroke because it directly engaged the largest companies in Korea with the KBO. The institutions most responsible for the continued economic growth of the country were now directly intertwined with the government’s latest attempt to appropriate culture. This would lend the KBO a legitimacy amongst the people that the government alone could not provide. This arrangement would benefit the government further in the future, as the symbiotic relationship between the government and these conglomerates – manifested in the KBO – could be used as a tool for control over the conglomerates as its popularity grew; the government could grant and revoke franchise licenses to conglomerates that either supported or opposed the regime (Miller, 121).

Despite the authoritarian measures by which the KBO was born, it had the potential to be an extremely popular cultural outlet for the people of South Korea; it offered a glamour and prestige that could either be enjoyed in person at the games or on the television sets which were quickly beginning to occupy every home in the country (Cho (2000), 410). It also showcased the Korean potential as a modernised, industrialised country; a refreshing change to the production-driven image most Koreans held of their country. Despite its roots in governmental authoritarianism, the KBO had the potential to galvanise a very positive response in the hearts of the people, who were searching for an appropriate outlet for their new-found wealth, leisure time and political persuasions.

There were three main motivations for the government to operate and persuade Koreans to engage with the KBO: it diverted the attention of the people away from the real political issues facing the country, it gave the government a tool to direct the behaviour of its citizens and it fostered nationalism and a sense of pride. Baseball is, in its purest form, entertainment, and provided a mechanism by which the government could divert the attention of the people away from the issues it did not want scrutinised too closely. However, the KBO functioned in a subtler way than simply providing a glittering, shiny thing to look at and revere. It fostered inter-regional rivalries, intensifying the already competitive nature between the different regions represented in the KBO (Yoon, 68). Like most franchise systems, the KBO was regionally based, but unlike most franchise systems, this regionalist approach was far more extensive. During the draft, the entire first round of players picked for each franchise had to come from their respective regions. Resultantly, each franchise team largely consisted of players and coaches that hailed from the same region for which they played (Cho (2008), 250). This inter-regional conflict played upon deeply-held cultural beliefs and rivalries that echoed back over centuries. This was particularly clear when the southeast region of Yongnam and the southwest region of Honam were pitted against one another. The KBO expounded upon and exacerbated the prejudices held between these two regions, especially pertaining to the widely-held belief that eastern Korea had always enjoyed more political and economic prosperity than the West (Yoon, 121). By encouraging these semantic rivalries, the government could control the flow of discourse and debate, focussing it around these cultural issues and away from the hard-hitting political realities.

Another important role the KBO played in helping the government was by implementing a set of cultural norms that would discourage behaviours that could threaten the legitimacy of the government. It was a mechanism by which control could be exercised over the people, not solely by distracting their attention, but by instilling a set of beliefs and values that would discourage dissent and promote unity. This motivation was clearly seen in the KBO’s motto, “Dream for the Kids, Bright and Sound Leisure for People.” (Cho (2008), 249). The first part of this motto is particularly telling because of the influence the government wielded over the nation’s youth through the KBO. The government engaged in a series of policies to promote the practice of rationalised leisure, which did not threaten the state. This could be clearly seen in the arbitrary rules often employed in the games: a 13-inning limit on all KBO games, an end time of 4 hours or by 10:30pm, whichever came first and tie games ruled as no decisions (Cho (2008), 248). These rules were implemented partly to discourage any night-time disturbances that could result if the competitiveness between fans grew too fever-pitched, but also out of the government’s desire to limit and set rules on the behaviour of its citizens. By imposing these arbitrary rules, it was implied that the government wanted to have its people at home, in bed at night, not roaming the streets after a long baseball game. This was yet another sinister side to the KBO, through which the government was attempting to exercise more and more control over its people.

This pervasive implementation of values and behaviours on the Korean people could also be seen in the interaction between the KBO and the youth of the country. The Education Department was swift to stamp out any of the unsavoury aspects of relationships with baseball. For example, elementary school children were forbidden from wearing the team jersey of one particular team at school (Yoon, 65). The mass media was also responsible for the continued narrative of moderation on the topic of baseball. The media would espouse criticisms of what the government thought were the threatening aspects of the KBO’s popularity: its late night broadcasting schedule, player violence during the games and any discontent that grew too extreme between the fans. Simultaneously, it would commend the moral fortitude and resilience of the players and reinforce the clearly-defined standards of morality expected by good citizens of a good society. Moderation, tolerance and polite engagement with the sport became the highly-encouraged societal norms by which the people were expected to live, not only in terms of their relationship with baseball, but in all parts of life (Cho (2000), 407). The KBO was being used as the cultural yardstick by which the regime wanted the rest of society to measure up to.

The final role the government wanted the KBO to play was as a galvanising force to promote national pride and instil an overarching feeling of state nationalism. Building off the ideals the KBO was trying to promote within every Korean, the regime wanted to use the KBO to highlight these cultural similarities and demonstrate how they were ostensibly Korean. It was hoped that this sense of national unity would offset the crumbling legitimacy of the military government in the face of the growing popularity of the imported ideas of democracy and free market economics (Yoon, 232). Although the KBO was still just an organisation that proffered a cultural distraction, and therefore could not totally whip the public into a state of fevered nationalism, it still played an important role by espousing the cultural norms and values that were to be seen as inherently Korean. By demonstrating the cross-national love of the game, the KBO highlighted how similar all Koreans were to one another and how they all valued the same cultural ideals. Also, because this hugely popular enterprise was launched by the state government, it highlighted the importance of the state and promoted the relevance of the nation-state. Because the KBO was Korea’s first major, professional sports league, it was a dramatic signifier to the people that the country was entering a period of international relevance and prosperity, on the same level as the United States and much of Europe. This prospect deeply excited the people who were just beginning to enjoy the fruits of international trade and a burgeoning consumer market. Of course, because the government was responsible for the launch of the KBO, it could claim all credit associated with the elevation of Korea onto this global stage of international players. It was this elevation, however, that would prove so instrumental in the conversion towards the MLB that took place during the IMF intervention of the 1990s.

The KBO reached its peak popularity in 1995 when spectators that year reached around 5.4 million (Cho (2008), 250). However, this popularity decreased rapidly and by 1998 it was down to 2.6 million (Cho (2008), 250). The economic crisis of the 1990s had deeply affected the ability of Koreans to attend baseball games, but this was not the only factor that explained the decreasing popularity of the KBO. There was a fantastic growth in popularity of Major League Baseball from the United States, which began in 1997 and lasted until 2000, mapping almost exactly onto the IMF intervention (Cho (2000), 407). The intervention was caused by a lack of foreign funds to operate the Korean economy, which relied heavily on global trade. It was a time of great depression and national frustration; the government was impotent to dictate economic policy, a number of major conglomerates filed for bankruptcy and thousands of people were made redundant. The IMF implemented strict economic measures on the Korean government, requiring them to undertake a massive structural adjustment in order to open up the markets for foreign investment, increase the plasticity of the labour market, cut public spending and decentralise the financial sector. This was a disaster for the government, whose shaky credibility now lay in tatters. The intervention demonstrated how the government could be directed by outside agencies, like the IMF and transnational corporations. Eventually, the regime was able to regain part of its autonomy by acquiescing to the structural readjustment and co-opting the various transnationals and Korean conglomerates and renegotiating with the IMF (Rowe, 282).

The crisis had left many of the ideals espoused by the KBO in ruins. The IMF intervention had been interpreted by the Korean people as a failure of the nation-state to provide for their wellbeing, and resultantly the people began to throw off the ideals of fierce nationalism that had been repeatedly pounded upon by the government, which now seemed irrelevant. National development was no longer seen as related to individual promotion, and therefore the rhetoric that had surrounded the KBO which so closely linked the betterment of the country with the betterment of the individual, lost all credibility (Rowe, 283).

This is relevant to the increased popularity of MLB because throughout this national realisation of the failings of the central government to provide for their wellbeing and the lending of prosperity from a global institution, there had been a change in baseball as well. A Korean baseball player had come to prominence in the MLB, playing for the Los Angeles Dodgers. His name was Chan-Ho Park, and he was named one of the best pitchers in MLB in 1997, right at the beginning of the IMF intervention (Cho (2008), 246). Shortly after this announcement, Korean network television began broadcasting all games in which Park played, with all interviews he gave and awards he received gaining significant news coverage back in Korea. Park gave the Korean people a reason to be proud, especially during such a time of national depression and was, not surprisingly, quickly hailed as a national hero. Park’s success began to symbolise Korea’s competitive advantage on the global stage and ushered in a new form of nationalism (Miller, 12). Rather than the previous, state-centred approach to nationalism, where unity within the country was cherished and a certain set of cultural ideals promoted, this new nationalism placed emphasis on the interaction of Korea with global entities. Park’s success began to embody the hope that Korea could overcome the national crisis and reinvent itself as a global player, one that could play along with the best of them (Miller, 14).

The soaring popularity of MLB could be seen as representative of the changing approach of Koreans toward their national identity. The IMF intervention engendered a definitive change in the way in which Koreans viewed their national relevance, it was a stark reminder that Korea was a nation that depended on foreign trade and investment to maintain the lifestyle to which it had become accustomed. This bitter realisation ousted the more traditional ideals put forth by the KBO as obsolete and irrelevant; the idea of Korean nationalism being centred on a homogenised set of beliefs and practices seemed woefully ignorant by 1997. At their lowest point, Koreans looked for a way to redeem their national pride, and they found it embodied in Park and MLB. The idea of national pride in a figure that played on a global stage like the MLB offered Koreans the exact type of nationalism they needed during the IMF intervention, which had felt like an encroachment on the national sovereignty of Korea by international forces. It was a way for Koreans to feel relevant again in this new and changing global landscape, something they desperately needed (Rowe, 289).

In conclusion, the transformation away from the nationalism promoted by the KBO towards that which would be embodied by MLB is very telling to the political and economic status of Korea. The idea of Korean nationalism can be very clearly mapped onto baseball, and although the popularity of the KBO was in large part due to the orchestrations of the authoritarian regime of the 1980s whilst the move towards MLB was more spontaneous, both events demonstrate a great deal about how Koreans viewed their national identity. Whereas the government attempted to promote a sense of national unity around a strong, central state and a shared set of cultural norms, this could only be maintained so long as the economic status quo remained constant. The KBO was designed to distract the people from the very real political problems South Korea faced, and it succeeded until the government could not distract its people any longer. The economic crisis of the 1990s and the resultant IMF intervention woke all of Korea up to the government’s ineptitude in economic matters. Once that had happened, the instrument the regime had employed as its cultural bullhorn fell silent and was disregarded. The state-promoted brand of nationalism embodied within the KBO was ignored, because the legitimacy of the government had fallen to pieces. The growing popularity of MLB served as the redeeming salve to the collective bruised pride of the Korean people; it was the brand of nationalism they chose, not the one to which they had been subjected.


Cho, Y. (2000). “The structure of the South Korean developmental regime and its transformation— Statist Mobilization and Authoritarian Integration in the Anti-communist Regimentation.” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, 1(3), 408-426.

Cho, Y. (2008). “Broadcasting major league baseball as a governmental instrument in South Korea.” Journal of Sport & Social Issues 32(3), 240-254.

Miller, T., Lawrence, G., MacKay, J., & Rowe, D. (2001). Globalization and Sport: Playing the World. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage

Rowe, D. (2003). “Sport and the Repudiation of the Global.” International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 38(3), 281-294.

Yoon, K. (2000). Theoretical trends in modern Korea (H. Jang, Trans.). Seoul, South Korea: Dangdae

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