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.’Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
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.
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.