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The Peninsula

Multiculturalism in Korea

Published June 23, 2014
Category: South Korea

By Kenneth Lee

Sixty years ago, virtually no one knew of Korea and the few that did would have described it as a war-ravaged backwater of a country. Now, Korea is slowly becoming recognized as a modern and prosperous country.  Companies like Samsung and Hyundai are now household names in the West; while Korea’s accomplishments in the field of sports and entertainment have brought the country an unprecedented degree of global prestige.  Needless to say, Koreans are very proud of these accomplishments and Korea is working to not only export their influence, but also looking to attract foreigners into Korea.  However, to what extent and exactly who Koreans are willing to share their country with is unclear; and with the number of expats steadily increasing, Koreans are now beginning to reevaluate their traditional notion of national identity and question what it really means to be “Korean”.

According to a study conducted by the Korea Development Institute, the estimated number of foreigners living in Korea was around 800,000 in 2001, roughly 0.8 percent of the population. By 2012, that number rose to over 1.5 million and according to the Ministry of Security and Public Administration, foreigners account for 2.8 percent of Korea’s population (2013).  The two biggest expat communities in Korea are from China (including ethnic Korean-Chinese) and the United States, followed by Vietnam, Japan and the Philippines.

An overwhelming majority of expats living in Korea are migrant workers followed by marriage migrants. As in many other countries, migrant workers in Korea face racial and societal discrimination. These unskilled laborers usually take on the so called “3D” – dirty, difficult and dangerous jobs typically in factories and other industrial sectors. The majority of these workers are not permitted to settle permanently in Korea and many foreign workers eventually become illegal workers.

Marriage migrants, colloquially known as “mail-order brides,” are a relativity recent phenomenon in Korea. Like foreign laborers, marriage migrants usually come from China, Southeast Asia, or developing countries throughout the world. Poverty and the lack of employment are the two main reasons why most women choose to become a foreign bride and, as such, international marriages in Korea are more of a financial contract than a union of love. Most marriages are arranged by marriage brokers and very stringent contract terms are placed on the brides by the groom as “payment” for bringing them to Korea. However, the situations of these women do not improve much when they arrive in Korea. Most of the men in these marriages are in the lower socio-economic bracket of Korean society and are substantially older than their wives. Besides the age difference, international marriages in Korea have a high divorce rate due to cultural differences and language barriers. According to a recent article by The Diplomat, some 69 percent of foreign brides say they have experienced some form of abuse including physical, mental or sexual abuse by their spouse. Even successful international marriages are not without problems or societal stigmas.  Multiethnic children, who now number in the low 100,000s, often report being bullied at school and discriminated by teachers and other authority figures. In addition, Koreans generally view children with multicultural backgrounds as less favorably since the majority of their parents come from developing countries that are poorer than Korea.

Ironically, societal discrimination in Korea is not the same for all foreigners. While Korean’s sentiment towards Southeast Asians are generally negative, perception towards Westerners and people of Caucasian heritage are generally more favorable. A 2009 research project conducted by Ewha Womans University’s Department of Psychology showed that when comparing racial affinity in Korean and foreign students, Korean student’s generally prefer Koreans, Caucasian, blacks and Southeastern Asians, while foreigners prefer Caucasians, Koreans, blacks and Southeast Asians.  Another experiment conducted by SBS in 2013 demonstrated how Koreans treat Westerners and Southeastern Asians. In the experiment, two males-one Caucasian and one Southeastern Asian, were instructed to ask Koreans for help in finding directions. The overwhelming majority of people were more willing to help the Caucasian, but very few people even acknowledged the Southeasterner. Another example of racial favoritism can be seen in the case of Jasmine Lee, who was born in the Philippines, but obtained Korean citizenship through marriage. She became the first-ever naturalized Korean to win a seat in the National Assembly in 2012.  However, Korean nationalists and even the opposition party criticized Lee by making defamatory comments and racial remarks. By contrast, prominent western expats such John Linton are generally accepted into Korean society with open arms.

Korea has a long reputation for being the “hermit kingdom”-unwilling to accept foreign influence, while trying to preserve its own unique culture and traditions. This isolationism is understandable when considering Korea was subject to numerous foreign invasions.  Furthermore, ethnic and cultural diversity was and is still virtually non-existent in Korea and most Koreans view themselves as a “homogenous race”. The idea of a homogenous race or dan-il minjok is a relativity unique socio-political identity that combines the idea of race and ethnicity to form a national identity.  The term minjok can be translated to mean “race” or “nation” and the two words are always fused together when Koreans identify their personal and national identity. Simply put, in order for one to be “truly Korean” you must be pureblooded and be born and raised in Korea.

The current Park Guen-Hye administration has taken steps to handle Korea’s growing xenophobia.  Even before President Park took office in 2013, one of her campaign promises was to setup various projects and institutions to help foreigners and multicultural families integrate into Korean society. According to former Prime Minister Kim Hwang-Sik, President Park’s administration hopes to launch 86 multicultural projects in the next five years.  The Korean public is also becoming more aware of multicultural families and their challenges through weekly documentary shows such as “Love in Asia” and through changes in school curriculums where students are taught that Korea is no longer a homogonous society, but becoming a multiethnic and multicultural society.

As a result, Koreans are slowly becoming more liberal with the notion of “being Korean”.  In January 2013, the Asan Institute conducted a poll in which they asked people if “being born in Korea”, “having a Korean bloodline”, and “living in Korea for most of one’s life” were important preconditions of being Korean.  The result showed that approximately 69.0 percent, 65.8 percent, and 66.1 percent of the sample believed that these three factors are important preconditions.  At a glance, the results suggest that Koreans have a stringent prerequisite on what it means to be Korean, but when comparing these numbers to results obtained in 2005 which showed that 81.9 percent, 80.9 percent, and 64.9 percent of the sample pool answered the respective preconditions as being important, Koreans are seemingly becoming more lenient in defining their identity.

Korea has crossed the Rubicon and immigrants, for better or worse, will come to Korea as long as the country continues to prosper.  Also, with plummeting birthrates and a growing need for laborers, Koreans cannot afford to stay isolated for much longer.  If isolationism is no longer a option, the country must figure out how to coexist and incorporate outsiders into Korea’s national identity; inevitably this would mean that Koreans will have to change some of their ideals and traditions, but this can  also be great opportunity for Korea to become a true globalized country as well.

Kenneth Lee received his Bachelors in Political Science from New York University and his Masters in International Relations from Seoul National University. His interests include: East Asian Security, Military Security and Inter-Korean Security. The views expressed here are his own.

Photo from US Navy Korea’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons. 

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