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Behind the Headlines: APA News Blog

Academic Version: Applying my personal experiences and academic research as a professor of Sociology and Asian American Studies to provide a more complete understanding of political, economic, and cultural issues and current events related to American race relations, and Asia/Asian America in particular.

Plain English: Trying to put my Ph.D. to good use.

November 12, 2009

Written by C.N.

Racial Attitudes and Discrimination in South Korea

Often, when I write about racism and anti-minority racial attitudes in the U.S., readers ask how such attitudes here in the U.S. compare with similar attitudes around the world. Frequently, the implication is, how bad do American racial minorities have it here, compared to other minorities around in other countries? This is often a very difficult question to answer because you have to make sure you’re comparing apples to apples.

In other words, just like in any kind of ‘scientific’ study or research, you need to make sure that other conditions or factors are the as similar as possible so that you can isolate the one or two variables that do differ between two sample populations, in this case countries. However, since very few countries share the same history, institutional dynamics, population demographics, etc., such direct cross-national comparisons are difficult to make.

Nonetheless, it can still be interesting to compare and contrast such racial attitudes across countries, as long as we don’t generalize too much about them and prematurely conclude that one country is “better” than another in terms of how racial minorities are treated. In fact, I’ve posted about racial attitudes in Japan and Australia. With that disclaimer in mind, the New York Times recently posted an article that looks at how anti-minority attitudes may be changing in South Korea:

South Korea, a country where until recently people were taught to take pride in their nation’s “ethnic homogeneity” . . . is struggling to embrace a new reality. In just the past seven years, the number of foreign residents has doubled, to 1.2 million, even as the country’s population of 48.7 million is expected to drop sharply in coming decades because of its low birth rate. Many of the foreigners come here to toil at sea or on farms or in factories, providing cheap labor in jobs shunned by South Koreans. . . .

In a report issued Oct. 21, Amnesty International criticized discrimination in South Korea against migrant workers, who mostly are from poor Asian countries, citing sexual abuse, racial slurs, inadequate safety training and the mandatory disclosure of H.I.V. status, a requirement not imposed on South Koreans in the same jobs. Citing local news media and rights advocates, it said that following last year’s financial downturn, “incidents of xenophobia are on the rise.” . . .

The Foreign Ministry supports an anti-discrimination law, said Kim Se-won, a ministry official. In 2007, the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination recommended that South Korea adopt such a law . . . But [Critics of the proposed legislation] charged that such a law would only encourage even more migrant workers to come to South Korea, pushing native workers out of jobs and creating crime-infested slums. They also said it was too difficult to define what was racially or culturally offensive.

“Our ethnic homogeneity is a blessing,” said one of the critics, Lee Sung-bok, a bricklayer who said his job was threatened by migrant workers. “If they keep flooding in, who can guarantee our country won’t be torn apart by ethnic war as in Sri Lanka?”

The first part of the New York Times article describes specific incidents of discrimination faced by non-Korean individuals in the country and are very telling — anyone who is both non-Korean and non-White generally face a lot of hostility, but non-Koreans who are White (generally American or European) are admired, although still not seen as equal to Koreans. As one example:

[A Korean woman’s] father and other relatives grilled her as to whether she was dating Mr. Hussain [an Indian working in South Korea]. But when a cousin recently married a German, “all my relatives envied her, as if her marriage was a boon to our family,” she said.

Another interesting issue in this larger dynamic relates to how Asian Americans and Korean Americans are treated in South Korea. This example illustrates some of the contradictions that they face in the country:

Tammy Chu, 34, a Korean-born film director who was adopted by Americans and grew up in New York State, said she had been “scolded and yelled at” in Seoul subways for speaking in English and thus “not being Korean enough.” Then, she said, her applications for a job as an English teacher were rejected on the grounds that she was “not white enough.”

It is indeed sad to see that fist, non-White non-Koreans seem to face persistent racial prejudice and discrimination in South Korea. Many people of color in the U.S. can certainly relate to their situation and regardless of the country involved, people from all backgrounds deserve to be treated equally.

Second, it is also sad to see that much of South Korea appears to be in denial about what it means to live in the 21st century. Specifically, with globalization and international migration taking place all around them and leading to inevitable demographic shifts in almost all developed countries around the world, many South Koreans appear to be clinging to age-old stereotypes that “foreigners” are automatically bad for their country and will lead to the destruction of their economy and culture.

What this kind of attitude fails to recognize is that larger institutional trends are what is responsible for their country being in dire conditions to begin with and that the influx of immigrants is just one symptom of these larger social forces, not the original cause of them. In fact, the immigrants in their country likely provide many unseen benefits to the country. Unfortunately, their contributions are easily overlooked due to their status as manual laborers, their non-Korean and non-White background, and the general economic instability that leads many Koreans to vent their frustrations onto immigrants who they perceive to be competitors for scarce resources.

In that sense, the situation in South Korea in terms of how racially-distinct immigrants are treated is very similar to that in many other countries, including the U.S.


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Copyright © 2001- by C.N. Le. Some rights reserved. Creative Commons License

Suggested reference: Le, C.N. . "Racial Attitudes and Discrimination in South Korea" Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America. <http://www.asian-nation.org/headlines/2009/11/racial-attitudes-discrimination-south-korea/> ().

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