Last updated on November 29, 2021
The recent National Assembly election produced an unexpected result: a national discussion on multiculturalism.
Jasmine Lee, a Filipina immigrant, became the first foreign born Korean to join the National Assembly. Her election through proportional representation drew a number of anti-immigrant comments and criticism of the ruling Saenuri Party on the Internet. Surprised by the negative comments, the media paid close attention to the issue, renewing the interest in multiculturalism in Korea.
The overwhelming reaction in the media was centered on condemning the attacks on Ms. Lee and exploring the difficulties that non-ethnic Koreans face in daily life in Korea.
Multiculturalism in Korea is problematic for a number of reasons. First, and perhaps most important, Koreans view their nation through the lens of nationalism. The schools and public discourse at all levels reinforce the idea of “minjok,” (the Korean people).
The Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, for example, uses the word “minjok” in the names for several departments related to Korean culture. When combined with the word “uri” (our), the resulting term “uri minjok” (our Korean people) reflects a strong sense of nationalistic feeling that can be intimidating at times.
Foreigners, particularly those from multicultural countries, are often quick to condemn Korean nationalism without an adequate understanding of the 20th century. The Japanese won late 19th-century battles for hegemony in Korea, and turned Korea into a colony in 1910.
As colonial rulers, their goal was to integrate Korea into the expanding Japanese empire by “Japanizing” Koreans as much as possible. The weight of colonial rule naturally heightened nationalistic feelings, which feed various resistance movements. Liberation on August 15, 1945 brought great hope, but such hope was dashed as Cold War competition between the United States and the Soviet Union led to the division of Korea.
Since the division in 1948, the two Korean states have gone their separate ways, the south becoming a wealthy democracy and the north a Stalinist reclusive state. Yet the division, which dashed the hopes of liberation, has remained as a reminder of 20th-century Korean weakness in the face of powerful outside forces.
Both Koreas have actively used nationalism to encourage loyalty to the state. The division, then, has helped 20th-century nationalism survive in Korea even as it has faded in other advanced democracies.
Another and closely related problem with multiculturalism in Korea is its short history. Integrating newcomers into a society is not easy anywhere, but it is more difficult without experience. Throughout the difficult 20th century, foreigners came to Korea for their own purposes, and not to become members of Korean society. Japanese colonialists came to rule and exploit and Western missionaries came to teach and proselytize.
Among foreigners who came to Korea in the 20th century, the Chinese were unique because they set down deeper roots than other groups. As part of his nationalistic push in the 1960s, Park Chung-hee placed restrictions on the Chinese community, mainly by banning foreigners from owning real estate in Korea and limiting the size of foreign owned businesses.
Over time, the Chinese community shrank as people returned to Taiwan (nearly all Chinese in Korea had Republic of China citizenship) or moved to third countries. The ban on owning real estate lasted until 1998 when Korea was desperate for foreign investment at the height of the 1997 Asian economic crisis.
Since the 1990s, the number of foreign workers, mostly factory workers, in Korea has increased steadily, except for a brief, but sharp downturn at the end of the decade. Foreign workers are viewed as economic necessities and expected to stay for a limited time. In recent years, local governments and private organizations have set up facilities for foreign workers, but with the “for-foreigners” subtext of transience.
The surge in international marriages in the 2000s brought multiculturalism to the fore because the foreigners came to Korea to build a life and raise a family here. Amid a backdrop of nationalism and transience, Korean society suddenly had to deal with a different group of foreigners, or, more appropriately, immigrants.
By the late 2000s, policy makers began to focus on the impending aging of the population that will have a profound effect on the economy. Always good students, they are keenly aware of the impact of aging and population decline on the Japanese economy and the benefits of immigration to other advanced nations. In policy circles, newcomers are now viewed as valuable human resources that can best contribute to Korea, not as guests, but as permanent members of society.
The problem for policy makers, many of whom no doubt welcomed Ms. Lee’s election, is how to encourage a public discourse that embraces multiculturalism amid the historical coherence of nationalism.