South Koreans Struggle With Race

by CHOE Sang-Hun, 05/11/2009


South Korea, a country where until recently people were taught to take pride in their nation’s “ethnic homogeneity” and where the words “skin color” and “peach” are synonymous, is struggling to embrace a new reality. In just the past seven years, the number of foreign residents has doubled, to 1.2 million, even as the country’s population of 48.7 million is expected to drop sharply in coming decades because of its low birth rate.

Many of the foreigners come here to panerai replica watches toil at sea or on farms or in factories, providing cheap labor in jobs shunned by South Koreans. Southeast Asian women marry rural farmers who cannot find South Korean brides. People from English-speaking countries find jobs teaching English in a society obsessed with learning the language from native speakers.

For most South Koreans, globalization has largely meant increasing exports or going abroad to study. But now that it is also bringing an influx of foreigners into a society where 42 percent of respondents in a 2008 survey said they had never once spoken with a foreigner, South Koreans are learning to adjust — often uncomfortably.

In a report issued Oct. 21, Amnesty International criticized discrimination in South Korea against migrant workers, who mostly are from poor Asian countries, citing sexual abuse, racial slurs, inadequate safety training and the mandatory disclosure of H.I.V. status, a requirement not imposed on South Koreans in the same jobs. Citing local news media and rights advocates, it said that following last year’s financial downturn, “incidents of xenophobia are on the rise.”

In South Korea, a country repeatedly invaded and subjugated by its bigger neighbors, people’s racial outlooks have been colored by “pure-blood” nationalism as well as traditional patriarchal mores, said Seol Dong-hoon, a sociologist at Chonbuk National University.

Centuries ago, when Korean women who had been taken to China as war prizes and forced into sexual slavery managed to return home, their communities ostracized them as tainted. In the last century, Korean “comfort women,” who worked as sex slaves for the Japanese Imperial Army, faced a similar stigma. Later, women who sold sex to American G.I.’s in the years following the 1950-53 Korean War were despised even more. Their children were shunned as “twigi,” a term once reserved for animal hybrids.

“When I travel with my husband, we avoid buses and subways,” https://www.pamreplica.co said Jung Hye-sil, 42, who married a Pakistani man in 1994. “They glance at me as if I have done something incredible. There is a tendency here to control women and who they can date or marry, in the name of the nation.”
For many Koreans, the first encounter with non-Asians came during the Korean War, when American troops fought on the South Korean side. That experience has complicated South Koreans’ racial perceptions, Mr. Seol said. Today, the mix of envy and loathing of the West, especially of white Americans, is apparent in daily life.

When South Koreans refer to Americans in private conversations, they nearly always attach the same suffix as when they talk about the Japanese and Chinese, their historical masters: “nom,” which means “bastards.”

The Foreign Ministry supports an anti-discrimination law, said Kim Se-won, a ministry official. In 2007, the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination recommended that South Korea adopt such a law, deploring the widespread use of terms like “pure blood” and “mixed blood.” It urged public education to overcome the notion that South Korea was “ethnically homogenous,” which, it said, “no longer corresponds to the actual situation.”

But a recent forum to discuss proposed legislation against racial discrimination turned into a shouting match when several critics who had networked through the Internet showed up. They charged that such a law would only encourage even more migrant workers to come to South Korea, pushing native workers out of jobs and creating crime-infested slums. They also said it was too difficult to define what was racially or culturally offensive.

The above is a modified version of the original article published in the New York Times on November 1, 2009. For the full text, click here.

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