South Korea’s Racism Debate
Image Credit: Philippe Teuwen

South Korea’s Racism Debate


It has become almost something of a battle cry among the country’s burgeoning legions of native English-teaching foreigners: South Korea has a virulent racism problem.

An estimated 25,000 university graduates from the Anglosphere – the United States, Canada, the UK, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand and Ireland – currently call the country home. And they are also frequently among the most vocal critics of the racial discrimination that they say permeates South Korean society.

From angry public xenophobic outbursts and taxi drivers they say overlook them in favour of picking up Koreans, to unfriendly locals shifting uneasily away from them on public transportation, their list of complaints runs the gamut of perceived racial prejudice. Their own critics, though, argue that a significant proportion of these young critics arrive in the country armed with little Korean language or cultural skills, meaning it’s all less a racial discrimination issue than a communication breakdown.

One expert, though, believes that this Anglo-centric viewpoint – native English teachers make up a fraction of the 1.2 million-plus foreign population – anyway overlooks a crucial factor in the reality of South Korea’s troubles with anti-foreigner sentiment: It’s immigrants from South and Southeast Asia working in jobs rated as difficult, dirty and dangerous who bear the brunt of abuse in this rapidly developing country.

‘Prior to the 1990s the resident foreign population was negligible,’ says Samuel Collins, a cultural anthropologist at Towson University, Maryland, and a former lecturer at South Korea’s Dongseo University. ‘But as that population has ticked upwards to 2 percent, so have opportunities for people to define themselves vis-à-vis racial others and guest labourers who, whatever the complaints of expat teachers, really bear the brunt of racism in Korea. People from South Asia or Southeast Asia bear the double racial burden as being defined both as non-Korean and dark-skinned.’

Although discrimination is often dismissed by some as a side-effect of South Korea’s growing pains after a history of invasion, reclusiveness and poverty, there are a growing number of voices within the country calling for a tougher stance against racism and a proper legal framework to fight it. And with the National Human Rights Commission adding its voice to the debate recently in the wake of what was said to be a flood of ‘abusive’ and ‘discriminatory’ online postings against foreign immigrants as well as recent anti-multiculturalism rallies in Seoul, the problem has once again been brought back into focus.

The last time the issue was prominent in the national psyche, Indian Bonojit Hussain had successfully lodged a complaint of racial discrimination after being subjected to a xenophobic slur while travelling on a bus in Bucheon, west of Seoul. That was the summer of 2009. The perpetrator was eventually convicted of criminal insult in a landmark trial. However, the case highlighted the lack of a specific laws covering racial discrimination, a situation that persists today.

Regardless, Hussain admitted in an interview with the Korea Herald last year that migrant workers from regions similar to his home suffer even worse. ‘I interact(ed) with many migrant factory workers and after my incident they said: “This is nothing. The media are taking it up because you are a research professor. We face much more serious situations.”’

March 24, 2014 at 01:09

Korea is indeed beautiful in many ways and I acknowledge many attributes of Korean people that make them wonderful. I have been successful in making friends and developing good relationships with colleagues despite my own anglo-saxon based roots. I am a near fluent speaker of Korean and work for a large Korean company here in Korea.

Despite all aforementioned, racism is very present in Korea and I have been the victim of it. Korean men have harassed my girlfriend while we were out eating and I have heard nasty remarks that are intended to belittle me. In my closest friendship circles, people have become familiar with me and have come to respect me for my ability to speak korean and connect with the culture here.

Koreans are predisposed to thinking that foreigner’s are in Korea to take something from them. Southeast Asian women are known for marrying Korean farmers or being involved in the sex industry. White foreigners are seen as English teachers, and if men–they are thought to make one night stands with korean women. Japanese, despite the fragility of the relationship with Koreans seem to be viewed as the most pure and the closest in ethnicity to native koreans. This actually has both historic and cultural roots going back thousands of years (I also speak Japanese nearly fluently).

I foresee ethnic problems with Koreans slowly deteriorating as Korea is forced to open further to the world and as they make progress tackling their own other societal issues. Competition is fierce in Korea and any foreigner who is successful within this climate will be subject to jealousy and other deeply repressed feelings of inferiority. This also happens in other countries, but Korea is unique given its relative position of economic success.

I truly hope Korean people are more accepting in the near future. It will only lead to further success in the world, will help the world understand the beauty of korea, and will allow korea to be more proud of its traditions and culture.

February 8, 2014 at 20:24

I have been to Korea twice, and even had a korean girlfriend for 7 years. She abruptly ended the relationship by ignoring my messages or phone calls (we were living apart). She told while dating that her Mum would prefer a Korean, if not a white person, and if not a Japanese. I would even be considered (I am South Asian). Koreans in general are extremely xenophobic. They tend to stick together and hardly attempt to befriend none Koreans. Even if they have attended an international school. What is laughable is that sometimes one encounters a Korean who finished high school in Korea and went overseas to for University because they wanted to live abroad. In the end, they end up hanging out within their own communities. What a waste of their parents money….

September 12, 2013 at 01:37

Wow. I almost find this laughable. Since when is staring racist? Rude, yes, racist? Pobably buncha thin skinned white boys wanting to play victim.

I will admit, most koreans are rude, xenophobic, and are age biased.

Also, to arrest people for racial slurs, protesting, and internet trolling!??! Lol
I dont agree wih any of it, but as long as they arent physically harming anyone they should have the right to protest and free speech. Nanny state thought police makes me nautious.

I know its korea, not america, but i believe in the constitution.

One more thing, does anyone sense the irony? I dont know about southeast asians, but many americans dislike catering to immigrants unwilling to adjust. Now the shoe is on the other foot so to speak, and the whiners want to be catered to despite their (self imposed) lack of adjustment. Again, LULZ

August 10, 2013 at 10:50

Whenever something unpleasant happens ethnocentric westerners are so quick to judge and cry "Racist!", when so often a simple, alternate explanation is available — such as simple fear of, or reluctance on the part of a shy Korean native to approach a weird-looking stranger who cannot communicate in Korean and is obviously ignorant of correct etiquette.  They completely ignore the fact that Koreans are not used to different races and ethnicities, unlike themselves who come from polyglot, multiethnic societies.  This inability — or refusal — to consider reasonable non-racist reasons for anything is the worse offense, especially coming from people who supposedly pride themselves on being cosmopolitan and tolerant of other races and cultures.  In fact, it smacks of RACISM.

June 17, 2013 at 10:41

I doubt you’re even Korean but if you are, I feel sorry for you. Millions of Koreams exist happily in Korea, they just do. Many immigrate because of the stressful and competitive nature of the country but it’s not because the society is so abhorrent and the living conditions are so abdominable. Please. Educated, intelligent young woman here. Know many intelligent, healthy foreigners who adore living here. Spent most of my life in the States, currently residing Korea. I wear a different smokey eye than the girls here, I dress differently(American metal head?), have visible tatts amd piercings, and “foreign” facial features but I exist here just fine. I’m not the archetypal Korean woman by any means and I also feel my share of judgment but I’m not a sorry loser like you who’s so caught up in her “right” Western ways that she can’t even see the underlying beauty of this culture, this country. Get over yourself and stop with this ethnocentricism. You are THE “white savior” except you’re not white which makes all this that much more pitiful. YOU weren’t happy in Korea. Plenty aren’t for different reasons. However I and many like myself LOVE this land for all it’s flaws and deal with it. We don’t unfairly criticize Korea with a barrage of ethnocentric Western standards and realize Korea is progressing just fine. You want to know a secret as to why Koreans still struggle with foreigners? SURPRISE, THEY’VE ONLY HAD CONTACT WITH MOST FOREIGNERS FOR THE PAST FEW DECADES. The core of Korean society isnt more rotten than any other nation. Won’t speak for Canada but the United States has been dealing with racial relations since day 1. So stop needlessly attacking Korea. It’s doing the best it can with the resources it has. Self haters are the most pitiful, always.

Julian Joseph
January 29, 2014 at 19:28

Just wondering what comment this is in reply to… for some reason I can’t see the thread… thanks!

June 17, 2013 at 10:21

Noo, had they made friends, they would have companions. And have you noted how many Koreans are also ALONE?!

June 17, 2013 at 08:44

You seemingly have a poor understanding of the Korean War and it’s causations. Another gentleman already corrected you about your preposterous “Set fire to a mans house and demand respect” mentality so I won’t touch on that. HOWEVER, you act like there were two countries who decided to go to war (North and South Korea) and the U.S and all the good strong foreigners came to the aid of poor Korea who couldn’t make it on their own. That is wrong. Korea was divided into two by America for their own interests. And if you want Korea to respect the Phillippines for their minute and barely visible role in the Koream war, well, good luck with that.

June 17, 2013 at 07:50

“Koreans just haven’t left the mindset that we are all people behind and choose to focus on the differences.”

Wow, replace Koreans with Americans and you get the gist of how life here is for “minorities” ,especially Asians. While I admire your spirit, it kind of gives off wafts of that “white savior complex”. The inferior Eastern nation needs your Western teachings to. E more enlightened. You act like everywhere elsewhere is some utopia of tolerance and equality but hon, it just is not. What you receive in Korea is a small dose of life for millions of Asians and Asian-Americans in the U.S. Just keep that in mind for balance.

June 17, 2013 at 07:08

In all honesty, I’ve encountered plenty of black folks who say they got along just fine in Korea and didn’t encounter any noticeable racism in Korea. That is an honest to God truth. One guy even mentioned that he’s never felt more at home in Another country and that the white guys don’t know what they’re talking about in regards to racism in Korea. Black people are predisposed to being minorities in their own countries so it’s not all that shocking for them to be minorities in Korea. White people on the other hand, are used to racial transparancy for the most part so it’s a shocking experience for them to be the minority.

June 17, 2013 at 07:01

You sound slightly delusional. I honestly wonder if what you experienced was real racism or them just not liking YOU. With an attitude like yours, that would not be surprising.

June 12, 2013 at 17:01

I agree there is racism in Korea. But do you think the Racism in Korea is that serious? Which country has no racism? I would like to move there. 

June 2, 2013 at 21:51

There is racism in Korea, but that doesn't mean that other countries are free of it. I believe it is simply a difference in culture. Yes, it is true that some Koreans have problems, but generalizing them into one category is even being more racist. Although there are some Koreans who ward off from foreigners, there are also Koreans who respect and adore them. There are many cases where Koreans try to avoid from foreigners because they are inconfindent with their use of English. 

December 4, 2013 at 06:24

“There are many cases where Koreans try to avoid from foreigners because they are inconfindent with their use of English.” In this quotation is a common racially discriminatory presupposition in SK: this is speaking as a white person who only speaks Korean in public. By far, the dominant language here is Korean. But so many times every day in public native Korean speakers assume (though most of them have never interacted with non-native Korean speakers; often racially non-East Asians, that the appropriate language to speak to non-East Asians in is English. Most people don’t realize this, but it is manifestly racist to refer to one race in one language, and another in another language. It doesn’t matter that almost no non-native Korean speakers learn Korean. Native Korean speakers should still start from the national standard of Korean when referring to a stranger, regardless or race. And yet, they often even answer my Korean with English! At every institutional level in the society is this discriminatory practice taught and reinforced- in politics, schools, the media, and in the home, “You must learn English to speak with foreigners.” Even though my nationality is South Korean, my white face signifies foreignness to most members of society in South Korea. Also, in order to teach English as a native English speaker in SK, it is not a stated policy, but one must not only speak English in class, but outside of class to all members of an establishment, as well. This is true of elementary, middle, high schools, and universities, as well as private institutions of all sorts. How is this racist? You have limited linguistically realized power if you’re always dependent on translations in public. Good luck finding a job if you’re an English teacher planning to exercise your right to speak Korean in South Korea!

Share your thoughts

Your Name
Your Email
required, but not published
Your Comment

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief