It is increasingly difficult to characterize South Korea as a single-race nation anymore given its growing racial and cultural diversity. South Korea has about 1.58 million foreign residents as of September, and there are 49 cities in South Korea with over 10,000 foreign residents. Furthermore, many of South Korea’s farm villages are now dependent on foreign workers.
As a result, “multiculturalism” has become a buzzword in South Korea, with countless commentators urging South Koreans to embrace people with different skin colors, cultures or religions.
However, a recent study revealed that South Korean people tend to be less open to immigrants or migrant workers than other countries, underscoring that South Korea still has a long way to go before it solves its growing multicultural problem.
According to a recent survey by the Hyundai Research Institute, 44.2 percent of South Koreans do not think of immigrants or migrant workers as their neighbors. This figure was significantly higher than in many other nations. For example, only 21 percent of Germans, 10 percent of Australians and just over 3 percent of Swedes say the same thing. In addition, in the survey quoted above, 31.3 percent of South Koreans said they do not accept different religions while only 3.4 percent of people answered the same in the United States.
South Koreans’ views of immigrants were reflected in an October UN report delivered by Mutuma Ruteere, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance. He said during his visit to Seoul that South Korea’s multicultural policy is not effective enough because it is only applied to women who marry South Korean men, and it even bans marriages between migrant workers. He also pointed out that the South Korean government has not done enough research on migrant workers’ poor labor conditions.
Amnesty International also published a report last month that claimed that the South Korean government must end the exploitation and widespread use of forced migrant labor in the agricultural sector.
“The exploitation of migrant farm workers in South Korea is a stain on the country. The authorities have created a shameful system that allows trafficking for exploitation and forced labor to flourish,” said Norma Kang Muico, Asia-Pacific Migrant Rights Researcher at Amnesty International.
The report pointed out immigrant workers in South Korea often suffer intimidation, violence, squalid accommodation, excessive working hours, no weekly rest days and unpaid overtime.
In 2006, the South Korean government officially declared that it would embrace a multicultural and multiracial society. Two years later, it enacted the Multicultural Families Support Act to support immigrants and children born between Koreans and migrants. Since then, 217 Multicultural Family Support Centers have been established throughout the country, providing necessary services for multicultural families.
However, Hong Ki-won, a professor at Sookmyung Women’s University’s graduate school of industry, thinks the government’s policy is only focusing on making immigrants adjust themselves to the Korean society rather encouraging South Korea to embrace differences and coexist.
“We should carefully review the multicultural policy stressing how it is important for immigrants to adopt themselves to the Korean society,” Hong said in her latest column. “That kind of approach might degrade a harmony among members of society with different background and lifestyle,” she added.