A Multicultural Korea: Inevitable or Impossible?

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.[1]

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.[2]

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.

Update:  For more on social dynamics in an increasingly multicultural country, check out Sarah Shaw’s writing here and here, and you can watch Al Jazeera’s take on multiculturalism in Korea  here.


[1] 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.

[2] A documentary focusing on how the South Korean education system is addressing multiculturalism titled Even the Rivers is currently in post-production.

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25 responses to “A Multicultural Korea: Inevitable or Impossible?

  1. This is an amazing, well thought out and informative article. I love it. I currently live in a rural area and can directly see the urbanization of rural women: my one room apartment building is almost exclusively single, middle aged males. I’ve also met some of the Filipino women from the area; one told me that her husband won’t allow her to teach their daughter Filipino. Even the Korean man in a multicultural marriage wants to ignore the fact as much as possible… some people really aren’t willing to embrace it.

    • Thanks for sharing your slice of this story. It will be so interesting to watch multiculturalism transform in Korea in the next decade.

  2. Interesting article. “The well-being of mankind, its peace and security are unattainable unless and until its unity is firmly established.”

    • I did, thanks for mentioning it here! I meant to embed a link but obviously forgot :/ Thanks to you and the Stream, I found out about Even the Rivers. Could you also post a link here to your article on being foreign in Korea? I’m sure readers would be interested in your take.

      Update: I have now included links above 🙂

  3. Tough stuff…and you’ve written really well about it. I can still distinctly remember my first encounters with racism in Korea and how shocked I was by its blatant appearance. Korea has a long way to go.

    • I’d like to think that the speed at which Korea is becoming more global in terms of technology and trade begins to affect the way that Korean citizens approach diversity. Here’s hoping!

      • frankly I like the bluntness of the Koreans. I hate the globalization of this country and the blatant effort of the media and the government to promote those things to the people who want nothing to do with them. Diversity is overrated and frankly brings in more harm than good.

      • I also find the frankness of many Korean people refreshing. It makes for a public discussion about what concerns the Korean public, including cultural beliefs and socio-political issues which are up for debate.

        I’d like you to elaborate on what you mean by globalization. Are you referring to the presence of companies like Starbucks and McDonalds? Or the presence of immigrants and expats? Or the awareness of non-Korean ways of being, thinking and living?

        Could you explain why diversity is overrated and what “harm” you are referring to?

        Your endorsement of cultural relativism is also worth challenging. If countries like North Korea want nothing to with democracy and the promotion of human rights, should people stop working toward – and talking about – social change there?

    • It’s more obvious when it happens because Koreans don’t hide it as well as American racism, but Korea is nothing like the U.S. if you compare. Meaning, Koreans aren’t killing black people in the streets and getting away with it like Trayvon and Mike Brown and Oscar Grant.

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  5. As an Australian I can say from observation that multiculturalism does not work…all that happens is that there is a progressive loss of the cultural values of the host nation. Non Koreans who choose to live in Korea should enculturate themselves, those Koreans who choose to live in another culture should enculturate themselves in their new culture…anything else will simply be dilution of their respective cultures.

    • First, I’d like to ask about your reference to Australia. In your view, would it have been better for non-aboriginal Australians to adapt to aboriginal ways of life? Or are you referring to the presence of Asian immigrants in Australia and the attempt to preserve certain cultural practices? Can you elaborate on which cultures have been diluted?

      I don’t believe that culture does not transform and adapt, nor that cultural values are not all inherently valuable. For example, female circumcision is a cultural practice in many countries, and yet few would agree that it shouldn’t be challenged. Perhaps it’s most important to look at whether there is severe harm being done, and to whom.

      It is possible to have a multicultural country in which all cultures have a social presence and traditional/ritualistic practices are upheld. Malaysia is a fantastic example. This does not mean that there is no tension between the different communities in such societies. Social problems still exist. But, in my opinion, it is comparable to the social problems that arise as a consequence of a homogeneous society in which citizens are pressured to conform to one definition of national identity.

      I’m not suggesting that visitors, immigrants and expats in Korea should expect residents to adapt to American, Filipino or any other cultures. What would perhaps provide for a more harmonious cohabitation is the acknowledgment of, and respect for, non-Korean ways of being. Equally important is the attempt by non-Koreans to learn about Korean ways of life and respect any cultural differences.

      At present, immigrants are often caught in a double-bind where they are expected to conform to the Korean way, and yet can never be fully recognised as Korean. The opening line of this post provides an example of that.

  6. I guess we are in agreement when it comes to appreciating the frankness of Koreans that allow for the honest public discussions that can take place here that you cannot have in multicultural societies in the West. I appreciate the fact that Koreans are not conditioned into being as politically correct as the Westerners who have no choice but to be that way do to how their demography is shaped and also do to historical factors. Believe me when i say that as soon as the the percentage of foreigners and mixed race children rise to more than 10 percent this sort of frankness that allows for honest discussions will be gone. This loss of honesty and implementation of political correctness is the curse and burden of being a multicultural society. It is simply a baggage that SK can’t afford to have when you look at the hostile relationship SK has with its neighbors. When I talk about globalization I mean the large influx of foreigners who have come into SK in recent years. I know that social changes occur at a rapid pace in SK but these changes are happening too quickly and the quality of foreigners (Chinese, SE Asians, Africans, and Muslims) less than desirable. SK needs to have a strong grip on immigration and slow down the immigration of these undesirables. They need to see these immigrants who cannot provide anything but cheap labor as disposable labor instead of seeing them as possible permanent residents. SK government must be picky with giving citizenship and long term visas only to gifted immigrants. You mentioned that SK needs immigration because of low birth rate. When has that ever worked in favor of the host country? These immigrants might provide short term solutions for country like SK but eventually long term they always become a burden on the system of the host country. The cost of integrating these people outweigh the tiny good that they might provide. It is foolish to believe that immigration will solve demographic decline without causing serious problems in a homogenuous country like SK. I don’s think SK people would mind if rich people from the West or even the Japanese came to live in SK. But even this sort of immigration needs to be kept in low numbers so as not to give them too much influence and power in SK. I hate the way how SK government and the media actively promotes globalization and multiculturalism as if it is something trendy and desirable. There is even an active effort to get rid of the concept of minjok and one race people from school books. This is extremely dangerous and unfair for the majority of Koreans since they are trying to redefine what it means to be Korean. It is similar to how the West promotes things like gay marriage and multiculturalism to society that mostly don’t want it. Using North Korea is a lousy choice. They are completely cut off from the rest of the world while South Korea is not. SK has an export based economy so they will always have to deal with different societies. But that doesn’t mean it should be swayed by outside forces or minorities over the needs of the majority.

    • I find your reference to the “quality” of foreigners alarming, because it implies that some people are more valuable to Korean society than others. Equally disturbing are your comments about the inferiority of “Chinese, SE Asians, Africans, and Muslims” or “undesirables”, since you imply that they are only valuable as “disposable labor”. You’ve obviously ignored the fact that there are many kinds of people from these countries and cultures. I am a South African who is currently educating Korean university students. Jasmine Lee is a Filipino who is working to promote social justice in Korea. Assuming that migrant workers and foreign spouses are not worthy of living in Korea is to ignore the potential value of every human being in any society. Is one’s value measured only by their economic role?

      Apart from this, you assume the definition of Korean identity is so static that it is unable to adapt and include people of different races and cultures. Has the term minjok itself not transformed according to the convenience of those in power?

      With regards to the negative birth rate, I didn’t mean to suggest that immigration and multiculturalism are the only solutions to the problem. I only meant to note that the influx of foreigners in Korea is partly due to this. In a world where countries are communicating and trading with each other more increasingly, a form of multiculturalism in a country like Korea was inevitable.

      While the needs of the majority should be prioritised, this does not mean that the human rights and well being of minorities should be ignored.

      • This is exactly what I appreciate about Koreans and living in Korea when it comes to political correctness. Most Westerners are simply terrified of saying things like this because they know that left wing liberals would try to crucify them with cries of racism and xenophobia when they say something against immigration. I am simply taking on a logical stand against multiculturalism instead of an emotional stand for it. There are billions of people in developing nations who would love to move to a rich nation like SK. Whether these countries are tolerant of immigrants really don’t matter. This is why SK needs to have a cold, hard standard when it comes to immigration and strictly limit it. I know that sounds harsh but yes SK should one’s value measured only by their economic role. Of course most of these people who come from poor developing countries are only valuable as “disposable labor” for their host countries. What do you think most of them do when they move to rich developed nations like SK? More than 90% of “Chinese, SE Asians, Africans, and Muslims” or “undesirables” who come here are not educated and end up doing low wage labor that the locals don’t want to do. I never ignored the fact that there are many kinds of people from these countries and cultures. I did recognize that there is a tiny portion of gifted people from these poor countries who should get a chance at citizenship or long term visas. I think you are offended by what I said because you come from a poor developing country. From what I can tell from your picture and what you have said about your background I am assuming that you are one of the educated and privileged white African who won’t have to do cheap labor in a country like SK. I have met another woman like you from SA during my stay here and I do believe that she can provide something other than cheap labor to SK. I believe that you and her should be given given a chance at citizenship or long term visa here but that doesn’t mean that most people from your country are capable of being just as productive and would be good for Korea.

  7. I went to go watch the EDL (English defence legaue) march recently in London…well the march came to me….I think its unfortunate that they are painted as the bad guys before they even had a chance to speak. Having said that, once they did start talking it was unfortunate that they had no real argument. This debate has rational arguments (not necessarily correct) on one side and emotional appeals on the other. I’m completely conflicted on this issue. I believe that a group of people should be able to promote a set of values that exclude others but I understand the pain of being excluded. I’m a foreigner in the land I was born and the land of my parents!

    My contribution to the argument is this: perhaps the problem is not whether multiculturalism is ethical but rather whether the idea of a nation state is ethical. If I am free to move across borders the question of multiculturalism becomes mute. If I don’t want my genitals mutilated I’ll move over there. If I wish to honour god by mutilating my genitals then I’ll stay.
    Not sure if a) cultural relativism is a good thing and b) if humans will ever develop the economic/social system to make it possible.

    Thanks for the blog!

    • I agree that people should be allowed to participate in cultural practices that exclude others, but would hope that a government would allow for the existence of multiple cultures and ways of being.

      I also think the growing multiculturalism around the globe will eventually put pressure on the notion of the nation state (a concept we know to be historical rather than natural), but I don’t think the eradication of the concept would necessarily aid the minorities – particularly if they are oppressed. To me, it seems that most of us have so little choice regarding the culture we are immersed in, at least until adulthood. For example, I really don’t think there is any way for most adolescents to avoid cultural circumcision, regardless of their beliefs.

      As for cultural relativism, I think it’s valuable only until the point that harm is being done. In my opinion, oppression and abuse of any kind cannot be justified by cultural beliefs and should be challenged. Having said this, I think it’s extremely important to be sensitive to other cultures, and respect certain cultural practices, regardless of whether one agrees with them.

  8. Nicely thought out. I found your post because next Wednesday I have my students presenting team work reports on this topic. (Answering the question “Can Korea become a multicultural society?”) I’m really hoping for some interesting and thought provoking reports. Although, as a foreigner, I find teaching in Korean very exhausting (time to prepare), I love how it makes it easier for my students to present their thoughts.

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