Features | Society | East Asia

South Korea’s Racism Debate

Foreigners are often quick to claim that South Korea has a significant racism problem. But the vocal views of many English teachers overshadow a complex issue.

By Bryan Kay for

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.’

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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.”’

Dongseo University Prof. Brian Myers, whose book The Cleanest Race characterized North Korea as a state founded on racial supremacy, says the issue in the South needs to be viewed through two separate prisms: century-old nationalism and much older xenophobia.

‘Foreign traders were being restricted to certain parts of the peninsula well before the Korean people learned from the Japanese how to look at the world in racial categories,’ he says. ‘This makes it harder to figure out whether discrimination against foreigners in South Korea has more to do with xenophobia or nationalism. 

‘There still seems to be, as in Japan, a common sense of a certain racial hierarchy, with Koreans and perhaps the Japanese too at the top. But it’s a moral hierarchy without much serious conviction of intellectual, let alone physical superiority. For all the loud professions of hostility towards Japan, the Japanese are considered the least foreign of foreign races.’

That theory found what would seem to be a real world example in sentiments expressed by Kim Mun-sang of the Korea Institute of Science and Technology when discussing the need for the new robot English teachers he’s involved in developing. In an interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education in February, he was quoted as saying that prototypes would be operated remotely from the Philippines, ensuring the ‘moral problems’ with foreigners were kept at arm’s length.

Kyeyoung Park, an associate professor of cultural anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles, says Korean xenophobia has been attributed to an ideology of homogeneity. This, she argues, could lead to Korean ethnocentrism. ‘I would add that South Korean society remains Confucian-influenced, status-oriented, reflecting bias against migrant workers, with low-wage and low-status jobs,’ she says.

In another, more peculiar corner of the race issue, are ethnic Koreans born or raised overseas. Korean-Japanese soccer star Lee Chung-sung chose to relinquish his Korean citizenship in favour of Japanese after allegedly suffering what was described by South Korean newspaper Joong-ang Ilbo as a ‘racial slur’ while with the South Korea under-19 national team. 

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His case was said to highlight deep-seated discrimination against ethnic Koreans from overseas. This type of prejudice, say cultural experts, may be because those who look Korean are held to ‘higher’ standards in terms of language ability and cultural traits than non-Koreans.

But Korean-American Jung-a Kim, a Dallas native who writes for an English-language arts and culture magazine in Seoul, reckons some foreigners are still too quick to play the racism card. ‘I had to break a lot of my pride and holier-than-though attitude when I first came to Korea,’ she says. ‘I realized that this culture has been through so much, and they have been a battered child that is trying to grow up.’

Bryan Kay is a Seoul-based writer.