Korea is a nation surrounded by dominant global giants such as America, Russia, Japan, and China. As if that wasn’t bad enough, North Korea also occupies half of Korea’s territory. This closed environment caused already-bonded-Koreans to place a higher value on blood and nationalism. Especially after being a colony of Japan, a great hatred against western culture and people was formed in the peninsula, causing Koreans to refuse to accept foreigners in their country for a long time.
When growth of the economy was highly accelerated through the manufacturing industry in the late 1990s, The Korean government began accepting foreigners suddenly to attract more labor. The influx of the foreign laborers is expected to be over 5 million in the coming future. International marriages in Korea reach almost 10%. To younger generations, the existence of foreigners in their country is becoming familiar.
Even though Korea is no longer a racially homogeneous nation, the extreme nationalism has not been alleviated perfectly yet, and there is not a single policy regarding foreigners who form multi-cultural families. The UN once expressed a concern to the Korean government, saying “The atmosphere which overly emphasizes Korean nationalism can be an obstacle for citizens in understanding other ethnic groups”. Many Koreans actually find it hard to be with foreigners who have different cultures and races. However, a proper education on the value of multiculturalism has not been performed yet. This is why Korea fails to notice the fact that all cultures are worth sharing and equal, thus perpetuating racism in Korea.
I would like to take two specific examples to explain how racism in Korea affects society.
First, White supremacy is a representative example of racism.
No one knows what exactly caused this notion. Many Korean celebrities risk plastic surgeries to have clear-cut features like white foreigners. You always hear English words in drama or song lyrics. Some parents teach only English to their children. An extremist Korean group worships white supremacy and resent that they are not white.
It is even easier for white foreigners to obtain jobs in Korea than people of other races. The most common job for foreigners in Korea is an English teacher. English language schools in Korea mostly hire white foreigners, and sometimes even state ‘Hire only White’ in job advertisements. Regardless of foreigners’ language ability or qualifications, non-whites are discriminated in workplaces. It recently happened that a language school in Seoul dismissed a black foreigner who graduated MIT right before he was ready to take an interview. A lot of people, including white foreigners, were enraged by this event which showed the difference in treatment based on one’s race, and reported it through media all over the globe.
Schools have an only-whites policy because the students’ parents prefer them to! It is not possible to rationally explain why most of them believe that ”White people speak better English with a nice accent, teach well, are good and trustworthy”, even though they all know how wrong it is to judge one based on their race.
Then, discrimination against mixed-blood people is another huge problem.
Immigrants from Southeast Asia came to Korea through marriage or for labor mostly. Those who came because of marriage are all women. A lot of them try to find and marry unmarried Korean men through certain agencies. They chose to come not because love, but to survive, since Korean men actually pay the women to be their wives. 47% of these women confessed that they have experienced racism and human rights violations. Their foreign appearance and low economic status of their original countries are reasons for them to be despised by their new families and society. Even their husbands and mothers in law do not accept them as an integral part of the family. Some of these women have gone so far so as to end their lives.
When news agencies revealed that 17,4% of those mixed-raced children are experiencing bullying in school because of their skin color, everyone wondered why the government decided to remain silent, realizing that officials do not even keep record on the number of these children who attend school.
People have suggested several solutions: Classes on the Korean language for these women should be taught more actively. The Government and local stakeholders should create a system offering subsidies and places where they will be able to learn about the Korean culture through meeting more Koreans too.
More importantly, an educational reform is desperately needed. Education about multiculturalism is not present in schoolhouses and most Koreans are not even aware of the racism on their soil. In some places, however, notably local academies, teachers voluntarily offer teaching classes on racism for children, which is a good start at least.
I have heard a student in my class ask: “Why do we need to welcome them? Is it [that] important to take care of them?” The answers were very diverse: “Because Korea can be a connecting link between developing countries and developed ones” or “Different ideas from people from different backgrounds can help Korea in its own development”. They were all truthful answers, really, but when we teach about multiculturalism, human rights and foreigners’ rights that need to be respected, we must start from the absolute truth; “They are people like us, who have rights, they are our brothers and sisters in this giant, global, village.”