South Korea Redefines Multiculturalism

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South Korea Redefines Multiculturalism

The country is making a serious effort to adjust to its rising population of foreign residents.

South Korea Redefines Multiculturalism
Credit: REUTERS/Jo Yong-Hak

Few countries take multiculturalism as seriously as Korea does. While most countries have vague and ambiguous multicultural policies consisting of either forcing immigrants to assimilate to the local culture or allowing immigrants to integrate while keeping their traditions, Korea has come up with a new concept: tamunhwa.

Tamunhwa means multiculturalism in Korean, and the basic idea is for Koreans to learn as much as they can about immigrants’ original culture while setting up as many cultural immersion programs as possible for immigrants. With foreign residents now accounting for nearly 3 percent of the population of a country that long defined itself as homogenous, Koreans are taking multiculturalism seriously.

Immigration policies in Korea are strict. Migrant workers can only renew their visa for three years before they are forced to leave the country. They cannot bring their family members with them to Korea. Those with investor visas need to invest large sums (approximately 100,000 dollars) to stay in Korea, barring immigrants from investing in small shops, grocery stores, or small restaurants as is the case in many other countries. People who marry Koreans now have to demonstrate proficiency in one of the languages the spouse speak. Foreign workers have their visas tied to their employer and do not own the visa, placing restrictions on job hopping.

But there are rewards for those who assimilate. Korea has recently put in place a points system that can lead to permanent residency. To be eligible, one should have worked at least one year in Korea, and factors such as income, education, age, and Korean proficiency are taken into account. If you are educated and can obtain a high score in the Test of Proficiency in Korean (TOPIK) your chances of achieving permanent residency after working for one year are good.

The Korean authorities have also put in place some useful facilities. “Global centers” have been built around the country, catering to the needs of foreign spouses, foreign investors, migrant workers, and tourists. Information desks have been set up for foreigners who may need information, especially in spots highly frequented by migrants. Foreigners are also increasingly visible in the media, participating in entertainment shows or in the news. Cultural events have been initiated to promote Korean culture to foreigners and foreign culture to Koreans.

Korea faces a dual demographic problem: 97 percent Koreans in any given age group graduate from high school, and 82 percent go on to attend university. This leads to a severe shortage of unskilled workers. Migrant workers have stepped in to fill the gap. The education focus also leads to a shortage of brides for farmers, as women often move to cities to attend university, leading to brides being imported from abroad for rural marriages. The other demographic problem is that the birth rate has plummeted to 1.2 children per woman, and the local Korean workforce is shrinking.

The foreign bride issue is a serious one in Korea. Almost 40 percent marriages between a foreigner and a Korean end in divorce. The average life of an international marriage before divorce is just 4.9 years, compared to 14 years among Korean couples who end up divorcing. While many brides are ethnically Korean but with Chinese passports, a large number are from Vietnam, China, or the Philippines. These women are approached by marriage brokers who promise them the same luxurious life and romantic husbands in Korea as those seen in Korean soap operas, only to find themselves in the countryside with no structures for learning the Korean language or Korean customs such a cooking. Facing communication difficulties with their husbands and an inability to provide the meals or customs a Korean wife would provide, there have been cases of domestic violence and abuse, runaway brides, and even murder. The government has cracked down on such marriages, with a new law requiring the foreign spouse to be fluent in at least one of the languages the Korean spouse speaks.

Migrant workers face their own difficulties in Korea. They cannot renew their visas for more than three years, and for many permanent residency is a distant dream as they often lack the literacy needed to pass the TOPIK, a requirement for permanent residency. They are not allowed to bring their families with them, leading many to live in isolation. Working conditions are often tough, with shifts as long as 16 hours, six days a week. Pay is sometimes withheld and Korean bosses often lack cultural understanding. For example, in many Southeast Asian countries, people laugh out of embarrassment when being scolded. This cultural misunderstanding has sometimes led to violence.

Most foreign businessmen of course enjoy a much more comfortable life than foreign brides or migrant workers, yet they still face their own set of difficulties. Korean lawmakers are notorious for passing laws with little consultation and implementing them on very short notice, leading to losses or businesses closing down because they were unprepared for the new laws. Korean President Park Geun-hye recently pledged to ensure that laws are passed and implemented in a way that gives sufficient notice to prevent losses.

One tiny but very vocal minority in Korea is that of foreign teachers. In a bid to respond to globalization, Korea decided to increase its emphasis on English in curriculums, importing 30,000 teachers in the process. Such teachers often teach less than 30 hours a week and have free weekends, are often young and single, meaning they have a lot of time to spend on the internet. They were the first to draw attention to the issue of multiculturalism and to urge Korea to do something to promote a multicultural society, and they were not always polite about it. Still, they can claim credit to be the first to bring the multiculturalism debate to Korea.

Foreign students form another element of Korea’s multicultural policy that warrants attention. With the decline in the fertility rate, Korean universities have been stepping up efforts to attract foreign students to help maintain numbers in the face of a declining domestic population. These students are often tempted to remain in Korea after graduation. While large companies have set up special programs to hire foreign graduates, overseas students face the same difficulties as their Korean counterparts do, as there is a severe shortage of jobs for university graduates in Korea.

While the government has been introducing programs to educate foreigners about Korea, one major issue remains: Koreans are not very good at explaining their own culture. While Korean-language programs use efficient methods and have proven to be effective for those who can afford them and who have the time, cultural immersion programs often focus on traditional Korean culture rather than on the needs foreigners have in Korea. One area where Korean educators lack expertise is in the local legal system, which can be tricky for the unprepared foreigner to navigate. This can lead to unexpected outcomes, for instance in altercations between foreigner and Korean. Important differences in the legal system have caused considerable confusion for foreign residents.

Korea’s lack of understanding of foreign cultures is also being addressed. Universities have been hiring increasing numbers of foreign professors to teach a range of subjects, including those related to culture. Many schools invite foreign guests from overseas and ask them to introduce their culture. Foreign embassies have been flooded with requests from Korean student associations asking to visit and learn about the country’s culture. World Friends Korea, the Korean equivalent of the Peace Corps, is the second largest international volunteer organization in the world after the Peace Corps.

Koreans are also opening their ears to foreigners. Meetings are held at global centers where foreigners are asked their opinions on what should change in Korea. Korean language and culture classes are offered free of charge. Many Koreans are volunteering to teach Korean or to help migrants. Speech contests are organized where foreigners are encouraged to voice their concerns about Korea. In a first, a Philippine-born Korean was elected to parliament. Korea is trying hard to avoid the kind of controversy on multiculturalism that is shaking Europe and North America. When high-profile crimes involving foreigners are in the news, Koreans can become very emotional, but overall the debate has been very rational. The country’s growing foreign community will be hoping it stays that way.