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South Korea: Challenges of Multiculturalism

In a traditionally homogeneous society like Korea, assimilating to the community and culture was never an issue. People grew up in ways culturally and customarily consistent with everyone around them. As a Korean history textbook describes, they were all “Han Minjok,” i.e. one nation.

Translated as an “ethnic-nation,” minjok defined and summed the Korean identity, often acting as a source for national unity and pride. Under one minjok, Koreans share a connection with the nation’s five thousand years of history. The people lament Korea’s hardship during the Japanese colonial period; they celebrate the unprecedented economic transformation (“miracle of the Han”) and the vibrant democracy that has developed over the past three decades; from the scientific writing script (the hangul) that led to a high literacy rate (97.6%) to an advanced culture (hallyu) that swept across the globe with Gangnam Style as its trademark, Koreans have shared a national identity.

By looking at this nationalism from another angle, however, we see that the Korean identity is somewhat limited. Outsiders with no ancestral claim to the minjok were strictly excluded from Korean culture and unity. By distinguishing the people who claim natural right to the Korean peninsula, “pure” Koreans often separate those with a common historical and racial background from those without. These purists even look down upon Korean Americans and prevent them from fully taking part in “their” community.

With an increasing influx of foreigners to Korea in recent decades, however, “impure” Koreans are quickly becoming a larger part of both the nation’s population and culture. Seeking the “Korean Dream,” a total of 1,813,037 foreign-born people reside in Korea (as of March 2015), many of them spouses to Korean nationals. This number is 3.4% of the Korean population and illustrates how Korea is no longer as racially homogenous as it used to be.

In an attempt to retain the minjok, the purists often cast a suspicious eye on foreigners and multiculturalism. For instance, due to increasing threats posed by the Islamic State (IS) and other violent Islamic extremists, many oppose Muslim influx beyond the nation’s borders by signing petitions that deny the construction of mosques, namely in Iksan, North Jeolla Province. Moreover, although Korea has experienced a steady increase in the number of refugees it accepts, the nation still has a poor commitment to refugee protection compared to other OECD nations. In fact, by 2014 a mere 5% of the 9,539 refugee applicants have obtained approved refugee status.

In daily life, some citizens tend to subtly discriminate against people with darker skin, often disregarding immigrants or visitors from South and Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. In addition, marriages between Southeast Asian women and Korean men (typically old bachelors residing in rural areas or disabled men) are looked down upon by the local community due to language and cultural barriers. More poignantly, Koreans popularly affiliate Josunjok, or Korean-Chinese immigrants, with crime and theft, arguing that many Josunjoks “steal” jobs from local citizens and create an environment of robbery and murder. Despite their similar ethnicity, purists are reluctant to seek unity with the “Chinese”.

My experience with other cultures since I have moved to America, however, has been completely different. Studying at a diverse and liberal institution such as Andover for three years, I have grown accustomed to living and working with people whose race, ethnicity, and religion are different from my own. More importantly, I have learned to appreciate the value of diversity in a community and to avoid harmful social stereotypes that promote exclusion.

Indeed, Korea and the United States have unique historical and demographic backgrounds that have shaped and continue to mold their present value system. While Korea has preserved a racially homogenous population over five thousand years, the United States is a land of immigrants, consisted of various ethnicities and races that have found their way into the country for many different reasons and in many different ways. Thus, I do not intend to evaluate whether one principle or trait is better than the other.

Of course, long-held tradition should be respected, preserved, and most importantly acknowledged for its lasting legacy and meaning. However, nations must equally recognize respect for diversity as an indispensible basis of stability, peace, and justice, and accordingly facilitate the social integration of foreign groups. Especially in an increasingly globalized society where immigrants and refugees are becoming a considerable factor, a society should adjust its value system when it grows incompatible in enabling enhanced inter-racial and ethnic relations. Most importantly, through proper and constructive education, both the young and old generation should learn to reduce xenophobia, or racial intolerance in any form, recognizing difference not as a barrier, but as a proud asset.

Written by Jong-Beom “JB” Lim ’18

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