Korea’s Multicultural Growing Pains
Image Credit: KOREA-BRIDES REUTERS/Jo Yong-Hak

Korea’s Multicultural Growing Pains


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.

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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.”

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