Korea's Multicultural Future?
Image Credit: Craig Nagy

Korea's Multicultural Future?

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The permanent settlement of foreigners is an emerging reality that South Korea is now acknowledging. With over 150,000 migrant wives and over 500,000 migrant workers, the government is scrambling to find a multicultural vision that will prevent looming racial and social discord. But with a fragmented multicultural policy and intergovernmental wrangling, as well as a society that still holds immature views of its supposed ethnic homogeneity, South Korea is facing a future it may not be ready for.

Currently, a third of all marriages occurring in South Korea’s rural areas involve migrant wives—mostly from China and Southeast Asia—who have been matched with South Korean men. An increasing gender imbalance tilting toward males ensures this phenomenon will continue, with jarring implications for the myth of Korean ethnic homogeneity.

In June, the government announced that the number of children with at least one parent of non-Korean heritage reached 150,000 this year, a number that has increased fourfold over the last four years. They are expected to number over 1.6 million by 2020, with a third of all children born that year the offspring of international unions.

Aside from the serious problems of familial and racial discrimination, as well as the high rates of domestic violence already affecting migrant wives, a larger social policy problem brewing is the issue of successfully integrating these children. Due to discrimination, poorer language proficiency, and limited school support, they are facing below national average dropout rates of 20 percent in middle school and 40 percent in high school. This, along with a lack of social capital, suggests these children face a future as the country’s permanent, racialized underclass.

Also involved in South Korea’s multicultural journey are hundreds of thousands of migrant workers from developing countries, some who have been in the country since the early 1990s, when South Korea first opened its labour market. Government policy still limits migrants’ work period to five years, and prohibits migrant workers from ever attaining permanent legal residence, despite South Korea being the most rapidly aging society in the world – and one in the midst of a growing blue collar labour shortage.

The policy is seen as limiting the growth of small and medium-sized companies, also beset with quota restrictions on overseas labour. Moreover, it results in a continuing influx of migrant workers who eventually overstay their visas, becoming de facto permanent residents – rarely unemployed, but living as disenfranchised members of society. Numbers vary widely, but official estimates of illegal foreign residents number over 160,000, with many civic organizations citing the number as higher than 200,000, or more than one-third of the migrant worker population.

Some commentators argue that the threat of impending North Korean collapse, which would open up a significant market of cheap labour, prevents the South from ever granting citizenship to migrant workers. Yet the government is reeling in its efforts to integrate 21,700 North Korean defectors, unfamiliar with the capitalist South, who are plagued with high unemployment rates and near-identical issues of discrimination. Whether they are non-Koreans or North Koreans, the country will need to deal with the same problems of integration. But the longer the two Koreas remain separated, the more difficult the process of unification will be; in the meantime, the migrant worker population will continually increase.

How successfully South Korea handles its marginalized populations will demonstrate not only its ability to achieve a multicultural society, but also a successful model of modernization. The first hurdle is institutional. Despite a modest budget of $84 million, which is a 74-fold increase from five years ago, the government’s immigration system is widely criticized as fragmented. The country’s budget and policy mandates are spread out over 11 different ministries—including justice, labour, and gender equality and family—who wrangle over funds and priorities. During a visit to Seoul this year, International Organization for Migration Director General William Swing stressed the need for a ‘control tower’ or an independent agency that deals coherently with migrant policy and its social, economic, and human rights implications.

The second hurdle is more troubling. Long boastful of its nation’s apparent ethnic homogeneity, such blood-based nationalism rejected the nation’s ethnic Chinese as fellow countrymen and ostracized its half-American ‘mixed-bloods’ from society. No matter how reformed South Korea’s institutions may become, the spectre of institutional racism, excluding those not fully ‘Korean’ from equal opportunities for social and economic advancement, looms.

Still, scholars like Lee Byoung-ha, a Yonsei University researcher of migrant policies, are optimistic. Seeing hope in modern South Korea’s democratic identity, formed through the struggle for their civic rights, he argues that South Koreans see legitimacy in minority groups’ struggles. Eventually, he says, multicultural children will rightfully demand a say in how their country sees itself and how it is run.

Such a shift from a national identity based on ethnicity toward one based on civic values may be the key South Korea needs to unlock a modern, multicultural future.

Faustino John Lim is a graduate of the Yonsei Graduate School of International Studies.

Comments
29
Sharon
August 3, 2012 at 20:50

I am a Korean-Canadian born and raised in Toronto.  Toronto is an excellent example of a functioning multicultural city.  That is not to say there are not challenges and areas to improve.  However, I am truly hoping Korea learns from the Canadian model of multicultualism and embraces and respect all the beautiful cultures around the world. It would not only help with the aging population situation, but will improve the image of Korea around the world.  I am proud of my Korean heritage – however, I feel staunch Koreans need to be more open minded to different cultures and share the wealth S. Korea has accumulated.  S. Korea will face a very grim future if it does not learn to adapt and embrace multurculturalism in and improve it's social welfare net.  
Also, regarding the statement made by Steven above…he really needs to chill out!  How can multiculturalistm be a tool or the weapon of the enemy?  He sounds absolutely paranoid & irrational!  Multiculturalism will help Korea to continue to prosper and solve many of the problems that will occur with an aging population & low birth rate.  Look how successful Singapore is – it is multicultural, Asian society that embraces multiculturalism.  I also feel HK has an edge over S. Korea because HK is far more open to multiculturalism and immigration.  
STEVEN – please open up your mind more and visit different cities around the world.  I encourage you to come to Toronto, Canada and see what a wonderful city it is that embraces multiculturalism.  I wish Seoul to adapt this model…it will make Seoul an even greater and more dynamic city!

Sharon
August 3, 2012 at 20:47

I am a Korean-Canadian born and raised in Toronto.  Toronto is an excellent example of a functioning multicultural city.  That is not to say there are not challenges and areas to improve.  However, I am truly hoping Korea learns from the Canadian model of multicultualism and embraces and respect all the beautiful cultures around the world. It would not only help with the aging population situation, but will improve the image of Korea around the world.  I am proud of my Korean heritage – however, I feel Korean need to be more open minded to different cultures and share the wealth S. Korea has accumulated.  S. Korea will face a very grim future if it does not learn to adapt and embrace multurculturalism and improve it's social welfare net.  
Also, regarding the statement made by Steven above…he really needs to chill out!  How can multiculturalistm be a tool or the weapon of the enemy?  He sounds absolutely paranoid & irrational!  Multiculturalism will help Korea to continue to prosper and solve many of the problems that will occur with an aging population & low birth rate.  Look how successful Singapore is – it is multicultural, Asian society that embraces multiculturalism.  I also feel HK has an edge over S. Korea because HK is far more open to multiculturalism and immigration.  
STEVEN – please open up your mind more and visit different cities around the world.  I encourage you to come to Toronto, Canada and see what a wonderful city it is that embraces multiculturalism.  I wish Seoul to adapt this model…it will make Seoul an even greater and more dynamic city!

Steven
October 14, 2011 at 01:49

The entire premise of multi-culturalism will not only destroy South Korea, but all nations where it is practiced. Integration and ‘Koreanizing’ the non-Koreans will not be allowed. The main task of an enemy is to destroy you. The Koreans have been occupied for over 100 years – first by Japan, and then the USA who took their place. Multi-culturalism is just one tool and weapon of the enemy.

Aaron
August 30, 2011 at 07:02

Let’s get this out of the way right now. Considering all the times the Korean peninsula has been invaded or occupied over the last few hundred years, to really think Korea’s “one, pure blood” myth is real is either stubbornness or a terrible case of naivety. Unfortunately, that idea still does exist.

I am an American who married a Korean girl and have lived in South Korea for three years. I plan on living here for a few more years because we’re opening a small business together.

While I agree that the average Korean can be unbelievably cold and unwelcoming, it would be wrong to group them all together; just as it’s wrong to think they all have 100 percent Korean blood.

My wife and her immediate and extended family have been as welcoming and loving to me as anyone in my whole life. I’m as close to them as I am to my own family. I also have a large group of Korean friends that welcomed me immediately without flinching.

Here’s the issue. We, as foreigners, look at Korea and think that they owe us the same politeness we give people back home. That’s not how the world works. Of course the government sets up a language test before you can get permanent status.

Why should a whole country that speaks Korean be so catering to people who speak English? I understand that English is the current international business language, but there are millions of Koreans who only need it to understand some K-pop songs, commercials and nothing else.

You know what will help you become a part of Korean society? Learn the language. From the day I got here, I studied Korean. And there is nothing about that effort that has been wasted.

Complain all you want, but if you are married to a Korean, have lived here for two years or more and still can’t speak Korean, then you’re a waste of a human being.

My wife spoke zero English when we met, and only knows some now because I help her study. But our language of communication is — and probably always will be — Korean.

While there is institutionalized racism at companies, anyone who is truly skilled is a prized asset. If we have kids, they could run this country in the future. They’ll be as fluent as a native speaker in English and Korean. If you look at a lot of schools and companies, the amount of “teachers” or “English speakers” who speak both languages fluently is surprisingly minimal.

I’m not telling you to throw away your own culture. I hold true to a lot of things I learned back home. Though I attribute that less to being an American and more to having good parents and a supportive family.

Hold onto your culture, but you have to make a concerted effort to learn about Korea. That includes language and culture. Even the weird stuff like fan death is something you’d better know about, even if you laugh about it openly.

Want to be accepted? Set yourself up to be in that position. Only after that can you truly know if Koreans can handle a multicultural society. They totally accept anyone who puts in effort at being a contributing part of their country and society.

So give that a shot first, and see how the reaction to you being a foreigner changes from disdain to thanks and awe.

itissaid
August 5, 2011 at 15:55

I think 1.5 years is really not enough time to FULLY integrate oneself into Korean society no matter how well you speak Korean. I mean, don’t you think it’s weird to expect Korean to accept you as a fellow Korean after such a short period of time? You say that you speak Korean well or at least tried your best in 1.5 years, but how well did you try to adapt to Korea? How well did you follow the customs? Because it’s one thing to learn Korean. It’s another to actually act as Koreans do. I can understand wanting to be accepted as a human being and not being othered. But how can you possibly expect Koreans to accept you as a Korean when you are not? I don’t understand why that is desirable or necessary when you are not a Korean citizen nor a long-term resident. You were something else before coming to Korea. Why not be proud of that? Watching Korean dramas or speaking Korean does not make one Korean more than watching a Hollywood film and speaking English would make someone American.

FromAbroad
August 3, 2011 at 21:55

I think it’s a good article, and the subject is definitely worth mentioning.
It’s not about foreigners being 1.5% of the population or the foreign wives not speaking Korean. Of course they are all individually very important, but the fact is the Korean society will never accept them as ‘their own’ or ‘우리’. I lived in Korea for 1.5years and made every effort to learn and speak to Korean, had Korean friends, watched and listened to Korean music and shows, but no matter how friendly they were they would always treat me like a ‘foreigner’. Even if I married a Korean and learned perfect Korean, they would only see me as a ‘foreigner’ (a term I absolutely abhor and always discourage my non-Korean friends from using).
When I was teaching in an elementary school, my kids mentioned about this boy who was ‘mixed’ and they used some derogatory term (I forget which one). They later explained that he’s not ‘one of us’, basically shunning him out because he was not ‘pure’. This ethnic ‘purity’ and ‘superiority’ got to me, so I left.
Btw, I am also ethnically 100% pure, but you don’t see me going around and ignoring people just BECAUSE they are not of my ethnicity.
Btw, some of my friends still in Korea also attend Yonsei! =)

ProudKorean
July 28, 2011 at 10:47

Dear John Lim,

Are you Korean? If you are, are you worried about the mixed marriages between foreign women and Korean farmers? Don’t you think the Korean government can handle this situation better?

In 10 years time there will be no Koreans left in South Korea. South Korea will become 100% mixed race because the Korean government is so careless with it’s immigration policies. It is a very dangerous social pattern that has been continuing for the last five years.

The foreigners have more children, are poorer and steal more money from taxes than the Koreans. It is basically destroying the Korean economy because all this tax money is being spent on the welfare of these foreigners.

And guess what? Donga ilbo reported today that 0.2% of the immigrant population in Korea are skilled. That means 99.8% of immigrants in South Korea aren’t productive at all, they are just staying at home and stealing money from the welfare system.

It is a huge problem in South Korea and I can’t believe the Korean government is ignoring the Korean people. Mail-order brides are the key cause of this problem. They are trafficked into South Korea by sex traffickers and are abused, impregnated then murdered by Korean men. The mail-order bride agencies are essentially the enemy of South Korea. They are the ones promoting the genocide of the Korean people. I hope you can forward this message to the Korean government or related civic groups. I’m sure millions of Koreans feel the same way but are afraid to express their opinions. It’s time for change and ban mail-order bride agencies (sex traffickers).

jstele
July 27, 2011 at 19:30

To someone like you who is so willfully ignorant of Korean history, no explanation is worth it.

ProudKorean
July 27, 2011 at 14:56

The Korean government is setting an example of a marriage-based multicultural policy. That is the main problem of their policy. It can’t be compared to Germany’s multicultural policy, which is not marriage-based.

Most immigrants to South Korea come here to marry. This causes a mixed-race society. Mixed-race societies cause socio-economic problems and will be chaotic for South Korea.

What is more frightening is that it causes social division within Korean society. There will be more protests and riots by non-Koreans demanding more welfare payments and support. Guess where this money comes from? Yes, Korean people’s tax money. Instead of tax money being spent on boosting the Korean birthrate, it is being spent on welfare payments for multicultural families. Does the Korean government even care about the native Korean people?

The South Korean government should ban mail-order bride agencies. Instead, spouses should independently seek spouses, native or foreign. Mail-order bride agencies are essentially human sex-traffickers. Their primary aim is to make money, not to promote the best matchmaking service. These agencies are a threat to Korean social security and I really hope the Korean government does something about this.

The Korean government is being fooled into thinking a multicultural society is equal to a developed society. It even takes the core essence of multiculturalism in the wrong way. Instead of openly promoting other cultures, its multicultural policy is geared towards promoting mixed-marriages between Korean farmers and Asian mail-order brides mainly from China and Southeast Asia. This clearly needs to change.

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