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How ethnic nationalism undercuts multiculturalism on the Korean peninsula

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In Brief

North and South Korea are widely regarded to be ethnically homogenous societies. But with minority populations having grown 
in numbers and importance in both Koreas, demographic homogeneity has become a myth.


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Yet the importance of ethnic nationalism as an underlying identity of the two states prevents a genuine transition to a multicultural society in both cases. In both Koreas, policies that disproportionately focus on reaping benefits from minorities, and a lack of public consensus on what constitutes multiculturalism, have led to human rights violations and social conflict.

The ideal of creating a modern nation-state for the Korean people underpinned the founding of 
both North and South Korea. But the nation-building process also produced minorities. In South Korea, discrimination on the basis of regional origin increased under the authoritarian regimes led by Park Chung Hee and Chun Doo Hwan
 and continues in public discussions today. In North Korea, the social stratification (songbun) system divides the population into three major categories, and 51 subcategories, on the basis of how one’s grandparents participated in the emerging state’s anti-colonial communist revolution.

The most important minority group in South Korea today is ethnic Korean Chinese. Increasing numbers of 
ethnic Korean Chinese have migrated to South Korea under the diaspora (dongpo) policy, which loosened entry and residency regulations. Today, the ethnic Korean Chinese population in South Korea reaches 500,000 — 39 per cent of the total foreign nationality population. Despite sharing the same language and working in sectors where there is the most need, ethnic Korean Chinese continue to face prejudice and discrimination from broader South Korean society.

South Korea’s migration policy 
is designed to satisfy small- and medium-size businesses’ demand for cheap labour. This policy focus means the rights of migrant workers have not been protected effectively. Under the Employment Permit System, adopted in 2004, migrant workers continue to experience abuse and exploitation. They face restrictions when changing workplace and are prohibited from forming or joining labour unions. A 2014 Amnesty International report detailed abuses of migrant workers 
in the farm and fishery sectors and recommended that the government allow workers greater freedom to change workplace and enforce work condition standards across all sectors.

Marriage migrants also face problems. In rural areas, the majority of marriages — 236,000 in total — are between a Korean man and a foreign bride. Cultural differences in this male-dominated family setting can create major difficulties, and family discord and domestic violence are common. One counselling centre received 5000 requests for divorce counselling in 2014. In that same year, 69 per cent of immigrant wives suffered abuse. Seven of these women were murdered by their partners.

Civic, religious and feminist groups run shelters for immigrant women facing divorce proceedings, who risk having their residency revoked. There are 100 multicultural support centres nationwide that run incipient conflict resolution mechanisms and seek to represent the interests of immigrant wives. Jasmin Lee, a naturalised Filipino-Korean elected in 2012, is the first advocate for immigrant wives in the National Assembly. 
Lee faced racially-charged attacks, demonstrating a general insensitivity to multiculturalism in South Korea.

Another minority group in
 South Korea is made up of North Korean defectors, who number now only 27,500 — a miniscule number compared to other minorities. Like other minorities, these defectors face prejudice and difficulties in adjusting to their new home country. Conflicts involving North Korean defectors have been politically charged:
 either silencing their voice if it is inconvenient for the government’s unification policy or mobilising it 
to strengthen an anti-North Korean stance.

Defectors are subject to another danger: accusations that they are spies. This danger was recently highlighted in the case of Yoo Woo-sung, a defector and former employee of the mayor of Seoul’s office. Yoo was acquitted for espionage after the National Intelligence Service was found to have forged evidence.

In North Korea, Korean expatriates returning from Japan and China have a distinctive place in society. Repatriates from Japan and China offered technical expertise and skilled labour during the post-war reconstruction period. The North Korean government benefited from the currency transactions and in return permitted them a greater level of economic freedom.

But, at the same time, repatriates and their children have also faced systematic discrimination in pursuing political careers as party cadres and security officials. Since the 1990s, repatriates who have relatives outside North Korea have had a greater advantage in conducting trade and in even attempting defection.

Policies for handling minorities 
in the two Koreas demonstrate
 an absence of a clear long-term
 vision. There is no public consensus on how, and even if, either Korea should transform from an ethnic nation to a multicultural one.
 Despite the prevalent use of the term multiculturalism in South Korea,
 there is little public discussion or shared understanding as to what it is. Incoherent policies designed to yield benefits from minority groups and assimilate them into broader society continue to produce human rights violations and social conflicts. Unless a coherent approach to multiculturalism is developed, similar outcomes may well be reproduced in a possible future reunification process.

Eun Jeong Soh is a post-doctoral fellow at The Australian National University. 

This article appeared in the most recent edition of the East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘Asia’s Minorities.

4 responses to “How ethnic nationalism undercuts multiculturalism on the Korean peninsula”

  1. If the two Korean governments are so fearfully maintaining a homogeneous group, then why did they allow all those different groups to enter into their countries through such things as marriages between Koreans and people of other lands? You think that they would have outlaw such marriages.

    You wonder how many North Korean defectors regret their decision to go to South Korea where the government acts like a police state in silencing them and restricting their opportunities to make something of themselves. The same thing for the ethnic Korean-Chinese.

  2. Eun Jeong Soh, I could not agree more.

    You have clearly and succinctly identified the ethnic Chinese, migrant E9 3D workers and F6 migrant spouse sub-categories of Republic of Korea’s society which face routine institutional and structural discrimination and disinclusion. While Saenuri’s Jasmine Lee’s successful election to the National Assembly in 2012 has helped to highlight some of the disadvantages non-ethnic Koreans living on the peninsular face, there remains a mountain of social reform to climb.

    These deep seated cultural structural hierarchies are not simply a matter of culture or rapid industrialisation, they are deeply embedded in the normative philosophical fibre of the society. Two huge impediments face Korea social reform, the first is the persistence of the 20th Century idea of 순혈주의 ‘one blood’ which blends older Manchurian creation myths with more recent Japanese colonial transference of what is essentially a European concept of ‘race’. Writing on North Korea, B.R Meyers’ book ‘The Cleanest Race’ illustrates this point perfectly. The other is of course the Korean incarnation of neo-Confucianism which for all the positive structural outcomes we see in Korean society such as reverence for education, elders, and family comes at the price of the inability of the excluded to question or change the system. This means necessarily excluding women, young people and of course, outsiders.

    Korea is a vibrant, exciting, modern industrialised democracy which brings a wealth of culture and knowledge to the OECD, G20, ASEAN+3 and is a partner among equals in a China-Korea-Japan trilateral framework for future economic and political cooperation. However for the Republic of Korea to integrate with the global economy, integrating industrial and political practices and institutions alone is insufficient. For Korea to truly take its position on the world stage it must confront the deep-seated cultural biases at the heart of its, at times reluctantly, modernising society.

    • Korea would be a more democratic society if it could overcome its cultural biases like dealing with minorities in their own societies especially since they are facing a more elderly population just like Japan, China, USA, and Europe and they are going to need more young workers to take care of them and the young Koreans are getting restless in trying to have a secure future.

  3. I enjoyed the article. However, i have to point out a few things. I would like to ask Ms. Soh to perhaps come up with some suggestions to better this current situation. It seems this article is just saying, “this and this and this…these are the problems.” Nearly anyone can point out problems(even grade school students!), but not many can come up with sound advice to better a situation. That requires a lot of thinking and research. Perhaps that should have taken up a bigger portion of this article??

    And, in defense of Korea for the positive efffort that is being made to integrate the minorities into mainstream Korean society, I would like to mention that there are numerous prime time TV programs to bring light on the plight of our immigrant(and now Korean) citizens so that the mainstream Korean society will be more willing to change their mindsets into accepting people of different cultures and race. “Love in Asia” is a good example of such a program. It highlights the difficulties immigrants face such as cultural differences and language barrier, and makes the Korean people more aware of the situation.

    There are many ngo groups as well as govt deptmts that try to help these people.

    Rather than just talk about the problem (of course a solutions starts from there, I know) Ms. Soh would have talked about what could be done to better the situation. I expect an article of such calibre next time. I am all for multiculturalism and will do anything to help these new Koreans.

    From Daejeon

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