Kim Ye-ryu will never be Korean. Although the nine-year-old lives in Paju with his Zambian mother and South Korean father, and Korean is his first language, his dark skin has made him the subject of frequent bullying by other children and the prejudice of adults. If he spends his life in Korea, he will always be treated differently because of the way he looks. The current definition of Korean simply doesn’t accommodate multiracial people.
South Korea has a self-promoted reputation of being one of the most homogenous countries in the world. Extremely proud of its heritage, food, corporate success and cultural norms, it also sees itself as ethnically united as minjok (민족). The concept of tanil minjok (단일민족) or “a single people” is the basis of national identity that prioritises bloodlines and a singular, distinct culture.
Because of this, like Kim Ye-ryu, not everyone born in the country is considered Korean. Nor are those that become naturalised citizens and permanent residents. As Prof. Timothy Lim explains, “To be “truly” Korean, one must not only have Korean blood, but must also embody the values, the mores, and the mind-set of Korean society”.
This fervent establishment of, and commitment to, a national identity was originally a means to combat Japan’s attempt to colonise Korea in the early twentieth century, and a unifying tool during the post-war period of rapid industrialisation.
One of the side-effects of such an ideology is the exclusion of those deemed non-Korean. With the steady increase of expats, international marriages and migrant labourers in the country, Koreans are facing two sets of conflicting values. At this point, minjok doesn’t acknowledge the complexity of Korean heritage, and yet the country’s low birth rate and ageing population has meant that immigration is a necessary economic solution.
According to the Korea Herald’s reading of government data, there has been “a sharp increase in the number of foreigners in Korea, which topped 1.5 million last year, up a whopping 50 percent from 2007”. Almost half of the foreign residents are Asian migrant workers, and a further 30% are married to Korean citizens.
Similarly, there has been a 60% increase in the number of multicultural families (다문화가정) since 2008. Most of these families are formed through marriages between South East Asian women and Korean men in agricultural areas. Approximately 40% of marriages in these areas are international, partly due to the increased urbanisation of Korean women born in agricultural districts. With the contemporary emphasis on educational level as a determiner of status, men living in agricultural areas fall short of social expectations and turn to international marriage brokers as a solution.
South Korea’s long tradition of matchmaking is perhaps at the root of the prevalence of mail-order brides in the country. Arranged international marriages were supported by the government, and have bolstered the country’s ailing birth rate. Despite this, there is disdain for South East Asian wives of Korean men, as many of these women come from low-income backgrounds and are uneducated.
With a national identity that is premised on exclusion, a bumpy road to globalisation and multiculturalism was inevitable. A 2012 study showed that immigration worries most Koreans, while other citizens are simply intolerant. Xenophobic protests and civil groups have made it clear that tanil minjok is their greatest priority.
This discrimination extends to multiracial children such as Kim Ye-ryu, who are often treated as outcasts. While multicultural schools do exist, their segregation of these children can only treat the symptoms of discrimination rather than its cause.
Hopes for a peaceful transition can perhaps be pinned on Jasmine Lee, a Filipina-born Korean politician and lawmaker who has become a spokesperson for migrant wives as part of her work for Waterdrop – an organisation formed by foreign spouses of Koreans. She has also faced discrimination, and is working to change the exclusionary nature of Korea’s national identity.
The government has been the primary agent of change in this regard, with a string of laws and policies coming into play from about 2006. In his look at Korean multiculturalism, Prof. Andrew Eungi Kim provides an overview. The so-called “Grand Plan”, “a policy that marks a turning point in the government policy in dealing with foreigners”, came into effect in 2007. It entailed “a social integration of foreign wives and an attainment of a multicultural society”. Its major policies include:
- The regulation of international marriage agencies;
- The provision of Korean language and cultural programs for newly arriving migrant brides;
- The support of multicultural children in schools through the implementation of programs to prevent racism and a revision of contents in textbooks which are insensitive to racial issues;
- Raising public awareness of multicultural issues.
Further enactments of laws and policies since then have included: the “Basic Law Regarding the Better Treatment of Foreign Residents in Korea” (2007), the “Multicultural Families Act” (2008), and the “First Basic Plan for Immigration Policy” (2008). The Korea Herald reported on the most recent changes in 2012, describing the five goals that government set for 2017: “economic vitalization and securing talent; social integration by common values; discrimination prevention and respect for cultural diversity; safe society for all; co-prosperity with the international community.”
Although a huge leap toward social harmony, these laws and policies tend to endorse a specific brand of multiculturalism, in which foreigners are pressured to conform to local cultural norms. The Korean Immigration and Integration Program, for instance, consists of Korean language training and Korean culture studies. Their website is in Korean only. The Ministry of Justice’s new policy requires foreign spouses to prove their Korean language ability and income level before obtaining a visa. There appears to be no regard for the Korean spouse’s ability to speak another language.
As Lee says, a multicultural Korea would not entail teaching “foreigners” how to fit in, but rather teaching the public how to tolerate and respect difference. Ultimately, the definition of “Korean” needs widening, and it’s still an uncomfortable stretch for many.
While it is important to approach multiculturalism within a Korean context, philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah’s theory of global cosmopolitanism seems relevant here:
“What’s distinctive about the cosmopolitan attitude is that it comes with a recognition that encounters with other people aren’t about making them like us. Cosmopolitans accept and indeed like the fact that people live in different ways.”
Perhaps what is needed is an approach that lies somewhere between the current brand of multiculturalism in Korea – in which foreigners are urged to conform – and Appiah’s vision of radical acceptance. This could begin with an emphasis on equality, in which all residents of Korea are treated with respect regardless of their culture or race. Lee hopes for a future in which discussions around multiculturalism are unnecessary and Korea’s national identity is based on citizenship rather than ethnicity. “The multicultural society of Korea is all 50 million of us. You can’t say that [foreign nationals] are part of the multicultural society and that [ethnic Koreans] are of Korean society. It does not work that way”, she says.
 It must be noted that discrimination against westernised foreigners does exist, with the most notable case being the mandatory HIV testing required for teaching visas. However, westerners are generally treated with more respect by the Korean public, as they are perceived to be more educated and from a higher social class. Sarah Shaw’s article on western, white and English privilege in Korea takes a look at this phenomenon.