Friday, June 14, 2013

Korea's Multicultural Future: The Long Road Ahead

About twenty years ago, Korea was a country that boasted, whether it was something that anyone ought to be proud of or not, of being an ethnically homogeneous country. Starting in the early 2000s, however, that began to change. Today, it is estimated that there are 1.5 million foreign nationals living in Korea; about 3% of the total population. This is a reflection of the economic growth that Korea enjoyed over the past decade. There aren’t many things that are nearly as flattering to any country as much as an increasing number of immigrants.

Of course, foreign nationals’ growing desire to emigrate to Korea is not unrequited; at least within certain sectors of Korea’s society. Due to reasons such as low birth rates among native Koreans and Korea’s rapidly aging population, Korea’s future survival, both economically and socially, depends on immigrants. Ready or not or willing or not, Koreans have no choice but to accept multiculturalism and start to familiarize themselves with a word that many Koreans probably have never heard before – ethnopolitics.

Therein, however, lies the problem. As Representative Jasmine B. Lee, the first non-ethnic Korean and naturalized Korean citizen to be elected to the National Assembly, said in an interview that she gave to Groove Korea Magazine in May 2013, as of right now, there is no real serious study or policy aimed at establishing and, more importantly, maintaining a multicultural society in Korea. According to the same interview that she gave, even the current legal definition of ‘multiculturalism’ appears to leave much to be desired. For instance, if a Korean and a non-Korean are married, they are legally a multicultural family. However, a married couple that does not include a Korean spouse is somehow not a multicultural family.


Regardless of the reasons or the excuses behind Korea’s odious lack of preparation for this significant change in demographics, however, lies the fact that the path toward multiculturalism will be anything but easy. For instance, based on a (somewhat dubious) history that stretches back thousands of years, Korean nationalism, at least in its current form, cannot be divorced from ethnic nationalism. For instance, most foreign nationals who have spent any amount of time with Koreans must have heard on numerous occasions Koreans say that the Korean language is ‘the most scientific’ language in the world without seeming to realize just how chauvinistic they sound.

And of course, racism is a problem in Korea. Anecdotal or otherwise, there are more than enough examples of Koreans behaving badly toward immigrants. A less anecdotal report can be found here.

Not only is multiculturalism desirable, it is necessary for Korea. The challenges are daunting and must be tackled. However, in that Groove Korea interview, Representative Lee stated that one of her concerns is not to be seen as moving too quickly in regards to multicultural issues so as to avoid blowback. Though she did not specify blowback from whom, I assume that it can only mean the ethnic majority Han Koreans. Representative Lee is wise to be cautious.

Though racism is without a doubt a problem in Korea, that is not the same as saying that racist attacks are a problem in Korea. Though there are certainly plenty of examples of unfriendliness, snide remarks, bullying, cyber-bullying, and such, there is, as yet, no evidence to suggest that the level of violent racist attacks against ethnic minorities is significantly higher in Korea than anywhere else. However, due to widely accepted ideas of ethnic nationalism, it is plausible that the number (and perhaps, intensity) of racist attacks could rise in the future.

It is important to remember, however, that latent racism is only animated to become overt racist attacks if the ethnic majority perceives, correctly or not, that the ethnic minority poses a threat. For example, if an ethnic group is perceived to be more prone to engage in criminal behavior, or if an ethnic group is perceived to be gaining political power at the expense of the established ethnic group, or if an ethnic group is perceived to be ‘stealing’ jobs – those will be perceived as threats.

Therefore, in order avoid this kind of blowback, Representative Lee and other multicultural warriors must slowly begin to seek alternative solutions to multicultural solutions – namely, economic solutions – for three reasons. The first is to avoid ethnic blowback. The second is to avoid tepid solutions that are no real solutions at all. The third reason is that only a rise in economic standards of traditionally poorer immigrants (that is not perceived to have come at the expense of others) – will help to bring about genuine acceptance.

Koreans themselves are the perfect example of this. Prior to the early 2000s, most foreign nationals thought of Korea as a country that was only good at producing cheap knock-off goods. Koreans in America were stereotyped as people who ran laundromats and small grocery stores; and if not, the 1992 Los Angeles Riots. And that was assuming that people had even heard of Korea. It wasn’t that long ago when most foreign nationals thought that East Asians comprised of only the Chinese and the Japanese.


Fast forward to 2013 and the world seems to have a greater recognition for Koreans. What was once considered a source of cheap knock-off goods, Korea is now known for Samsung’s smartphones and Hyundai cars, which by the way, are getting much better reviews these days than they did in the past. Korean movie directors and actors are making their mark in Hollywood. President Obama cited South Korea’s education policy and modern infrastructure as things that the United States ought to emulate and referred to South Korea as an important military ally and trading partner in his State of the Union address in 2011. And within the United States, Koreans are almost always cited as the ‘model minority.’

It is economic success that brings respect and silences bullies. Ethnic minorities in Korea must be given the opportunities to improve their own economic conditions. Only then will Koreans truly begin to reassess their racist tendencies.

To become economically independent, however, immigrants need help. Progressives have called for the creation and implementation of anti-discrimination laws. Besides other reasons as to why anti-discrimination laws are a bad idea, especially in the manner that it was proposed in February 2013, the other reason why going the route of an anti-discrimination law at this point in time is precisely what Representative Lee wishes to avoid – blowback.

Therefore, the government, on national and local levels, can and ought to help immigrants in the following two initial ways:
  1. Offer legal services to people with visa-related questions and connect them with local businesses, religious institutions, and community groups that are interested in hiring or helping them.
  2. Connect low-income immigrant and minority entrepreneurs with lenders who offer loans without collateral. Though their starts would be modest, this is an important first step because in the long-run, an accumulation of successful immigrants, low-wage or otherwise, pay taxes that help to defray the cost of government services.
However, as important as multiculturalism is for Korea’s future, people must not make the mistake of believing that an influx of foreign nationals, immigrants or otherwise, would automatically solve Korea’s economic problems. There is no such guarantee. That is because immigrants are the high-octane fuel that is needed to make an economy grow but they are not the engine of economic growth. Contrary to the popular image of the rugged pioneer who is willing to brave the harsh conditions of the Wild West, most immigrants have no desire to seek out harsh conditions when they can have the choice of living in relative comfort. The engine of economic growth is the economy itself.

John Wayne didn't really specify just HOW scary it can be.

In order to attract immigrants as well as make sure that they choose to stay in Korea, the government has to offer them a decent quality of life. It can do so by several means.
  1. Gradually wind down and replace Korea’s antiquated ethnic nationalist tendencies. The South Korean military, which has been one of the first to feel the pressure of an aging population with low birth rates, was the first government branch that quietly retired the phrase 민족 (min-jok), which implies ethnicity, and replaced it with 국민 (kook-min), which implies citizenship. The rest of the government must follow suit.
  2. As far as public schools are concerned, the Ministry of Education, Science, and, Technology has to offer classes that focus on teaching the Korean language to children of immigrants. Unless the government is willing to have multiple languages be considered national languages, much like the way Singapore does, which appears to be impossible in Korea, the children of immigrants must be taught to read, write, and speak Korean fluently. Languages exist to serve practical purposes and they serve those purposes better the more people in the same society speak the same language. Thus far, Korea has only offered English to be taught in schools as second languages. In order to become a more multicultural society, schools must offer a wider selection of second languages.
  3. Create an entrepreneur-friendly climate and keep taxes reasonable. The experience of Korean Americans show that when first-generation immigrants find success through private enterprise, that success allows them to give their children further opportunities in life, which will in turn help them to integrate into Korean society more quickly.
I myself used to be an immigrant. I was born and raised in Brunei but because I was the son of an immigrant, I was never granted citizenship. In fact, I was always reminded that I was an outsider and while I was there, one of the things I heard Bruneians say regularly was “Be grateful that we allow you to live here.” It made me feel like as though the only reason I was alive was because they allowed it.

When I attended college in Wisconsin, aside from a small number of individuals, no one made me feel unwelcome because I wasn’t American (and because I was in Central Wisconsin, neither was I made to feel unwelcome because I wasn’t Caucasian). Though I was not made to feel unwelcome, I was the token Asian friend. What even the most well-meaning friends in Wisconsin seemed to fail to realize was that I didn’t want my ethnicity to matter. I wanted it to be a non-issue. If I were to be respected or liked or despised or ignored, I wanted it to happen as a result of what other people saw in me; not what I looked like.

Though I cannot speak for every person who has ever been a member of an ethnic minority group, I am sure enough to say that I believe that I am not the only one who feels this way – and this includes the immigrants and the non-immigrant foreigners who are currently residing in Korea.

In a country where ethnicity is taken as seriously as it is in Korea, the goal of living in a post-ethnic society appears far fetched. To achieve it, would require the hardest moral and intellectual battle. But isn’t that a magnificent goal to fight for?



  1. Great read! One comment though: do Koreans really refer to themselves as "Han Koreans"? I always thought Koreans referred to themselves as "Hanguk"...reason why I bring this up is to help avoid confusion with the ethnic Han people of China (which they may be partially related to genetically, but both sides would agree that they are different from another).

    1. The Han River is a very important river in and around Seoul. Also, "han" is a shortened version of "hana," the Korean number "one" used for counting things. Most old, homogenous cultures get their name from a word for "one people" or "the people," implying that they're the only ones who matter.

      I'm not sure if either (or both) of these is the reason for the Koreans calling themselves Han Koreans, but if I were a betting gal I'd probably put some money on the river and the people both having been named this way.

    2. Koreans do NOT call themselves "Han Koreans"
      The character for HAN in Hanguk / Hangeul/ Hanbok and other cases where Han refers to Korea is not the same as the character for Han in the name of the river. The meaning is totally different. Han as in one is NEITHER the same as Han in Hanguk or the same as Han in Han River. Way to write from ignorance.

      Koreans refer to themselves as Hangukin or Hanguksaram (Korean people in both cases).

    3. I've been here 10 1/2 years, and I have never heard the term before. So I guess the answer is NO.

  2. Thank you for reading and for commenting.

    To answer your question, no, Koreans do not generally refer to themselves as "Han Koreans." And "Han Guk" is the abbreviated name of the South Korea (the full name is Dae Han Min Guk). To be precise, Koreans refer to themselves as "Han Guk In." I chose to say "Han Koreans" solely for the sake of clarity in the English language because in this day and age, a Korean citizen is not necessarily an ethnic Han Korean.

    And you are absolutely right that that there are the ethnic Han people of China who are different from the ethnic Han people of Korea. Now, I'm not a sociologist or an anthropologist so I cannot give you a definitive answer in regards to the two being related besides amateur guesses. I think it is entirely possible that Han Koreans and Han Chinese are related; especially when we take into consideration that both countries were once conquered by the Mongols.

    For clarification, the Chinese character for the ethnic Han Chinese is 漢 whereas the Chinese character for ethnic Han Koreans is 韓.

  3. the groove magazine issue is available online here. The article starts on page 26-27.

    1. Thank you for that. For some reason, I couldn't find that link. You'd think that anyone who knows anything about the internet would know how to do a simple Google search, right?

  4. I am 42 years Bangladeshi; working in Korea for last 3 years with E-9 visa. On last 2013-09-03 I have applied for F-6 visa in Suwon immigration office. It's already about 95 days. At present in Bangladesh my elder brother is severely ill. My elder brother and all of my relatives want me to visit Bangladesh as soon as possible.
    But until I receive my F-6 Registration card I am not allowed to leave this country, In this reason can I apply for divorce to the court and can go back to Bangladesh.
    I think, the reason of delay for receiving my registration card is complexity of the immigration law.
    I have nothing to do with the Immigration law.
    I was thinking that the law is for human. But I come to know that the law is not for human. The human is for the law. In this case I have no alternative option without divorce.
    So, I am seeking your kind assistance and attention in this regards.
    Please suggest me what can I do in this critical situation.
    Your kind response will be highly appreciated.
    Abdur Rouf, 01086913227,

    1. Hello, Abdur. I am very sorry to hear about your family problems.

      However, I must make myself clear about this one point: I am NOT a lawyer. And it seems to me that you need a lawyer's advice.

      Though I have never met this lawyer personally, this is the only man that I currently know about. I think he should be able to help you much more than I can.

      Sean C. Hayes
      Co-Chair, Korea Practice & Entertainment Law teams
      (NY Attorney-at-Law)
      Mobile: +82-10-8981-9518
      Office: +82-70-7847-9050 (English)
      Office: +82-2-585-5253 (한국어)
      Fax: +82-2-585-5256;

      I wish you the best of luck, Abdur.