Korea’s Multicultural Growing Pains

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Korea’s Multicultural Growing Pains

A recent incident involving Little Psy highlights South Korea’s struggles with its growing racial diversity.

With his song “Gangnam Style” performer Psy became a global phenomenon. Perhaps less known overseas, 9-year-old Hwang Min-woo, known as “Little Psy” for his role in the “Gangnam Style” music video, has also earned considerable popularity in Korea, even releasing his own music album.

However, as Hwang became recognizable in Korea, he also became a target for the same kind of malicious online comments that have plagued other celebrities. The difference in Hwang’s case is that people are attacking him for having a multiracial background. 

The Internet bullying of Hwang, who has a Korean father and a Vietnamese mother, has been so severe that his family finally decided to initiate legal action against his attackers.

As South Korea rapidly becomes more multicultural, with growing racial and cultural diversity, incidents of harassment targeting people with different backgrounds like Hwang are rising. Some observers are beginning to see it as becoming a severe social problem. 

According to the Ministry of Justice, about 932,000 foreign citizens from 184 countries were classified as long-term residents in 2012. The number rises to 1.42 million when short-term visitors are included. Those deemed long-term residents account for around 1.8 percent of South Korea’s total population of roughly 50 million. In a survey conducted by Sogang Institute of Political Studies, 82.9 percent of respondents answered that they thought Korea had become a multicultural society.

Yet the South Korean self-identity of racial homogeneity dies hard, and the concept of multiculturalism has yet to reach the stage where people can discuss how to integrate different cultural groups into a harmonious society and benefit from the diversity. According to the study conducted by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family (MOGEF), 41.3 percent of multicultural families in Korea said that they had experienced discrimination in 2012, up from 36.4 in 2009.

“Korean people usually have a negative attitude toward people with a multicultural background. As the number of immigrants from emerging countries increases, Koreans tend to think of those foreigners as poor people who came to Korea to make money.” Kim Nho-young, an official at Yangpyeong Multicultural Family Support Center told The Diplomat.

Explicit discrimination is not the only problem confronting people with a multicultural background. Other difficulties include “difficulty of communication,” “cultural differences,” and “loneliness,” according to the MOGEF study in 2012.

Among those difficulties, language is the biggest initial obstacle for newcomers when they first come to Korea.

Sun Ke Hui, a 36-year-old Chinese housewife who came to Korea in 2008 and is now fluent in Korean, recalls that when she first arrived in Korea, she had to face various difficulties due to her lack of Korean language skills. “Since I was not able to express my feelings and opinions, I was not only frustrated, but it caused a lot of misunderstanding,” she said.  

Her difficulties with the Korean language also caused issues in her relationship with her Korean husband. The couple was not able to deal with problems between them because Hui could not express herself fully in Korean.

Remembers Hui, “There were so many times when I could not understand my husband’s or my mother-in-law’s behavior. Now, I realized it was a cultural thing, and I can understand it now. I’ve arrived at this point as I studied the Korean language diligently.”

To help people like Ms. Hui achieve better Korean language skills and understanding of the Korean culture, MOGEF operates multicultural family support centers nationwide, called Multicultural Family Support Centers. The number of centers has increased from 37 in 2007 to 200 in 2012 to keep pace with the rise in the number of multiracial families.

According to Kim, the official at the Yangpyeong Multicultural Family Support Center, “Every year MOGEF creates guidelines and plans that each center should follow. Under MOGEF’s guidance, we offer various programs such as Korean language tutoring services, interpretation services, and consultations. Many people with multicultural backgrounds visit and use our center, and many people benefit from those programs.”

Korean society continues to grapple with the social issues that arise in marriages between Koreans and people from foreign countries. According to research by the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs (KIHASA), the number of multicultural families in Korea reached about 270,000 in 2009. That figure is expected to increase to about 740,000 by 2020.

South Korea has become an attractive place for many people from lesser developer countries who seek to improve their living standards. That appeal means more people hope to move to Korea by marrying a Korean. The trend has attracted brokers who arrange marriages between Koreans and foreigners. Competition among these brokers is fierce, and a growing number of scams have been reported. For instance, to attract more customers, brokers have created fake profiles of potential spouses. Many people travel to Korea for marriage without having first met their future spouses in person.

One victim of the scam is 23-year-old Atchraphan from Thailand. “I was promised to have a better life in Korea just like I watched in the Korean dramas,” she told The Diplomat. “But when I arrived in Korea, I realized that the broker had lied to me. My husband was a totally different person from what I heard or what I saw on the paper and pictures.”

The natural result of this deception is that many multiracial couples end up divorcing. According to a survey by MOGEF, 32.8 percent of multiracial couples divorce because their spouses have fled. Other reasons include personality differences (30.9 percent), economic problems (10.6 percent) and conflicts with in-laws (10.3 percent).

Even among those who stay married, many report martial problems. Some 69 percent of immigrant wives say they have experienced some form of abuse, including physical, mental or sexual, or are subject to unreasonable control over their daily lives.

To help foreign women with marital problems, MOGEF operates a 24-hour counseling hotline. The government also provides shelter and rehabilitation programs to women deemed to be in abusive marriages.

“Multiculturalism is now an inevitable phenomenon in Korea,” says Lee Ra, the head of the Association for Multicultural Women. Lee calls on Koreans to exhibit greater empathy towards multiracial people, as well as to make efforts to teach them the Korean culture and language. She adds, “It’s an international era. The idea of one nation with a single racial composition has gone. The Korean people should understand this and keep that in mind to reach social harmony.”

Tae-jun Kang is a journalism student at the University of Hong Kong.