[Musab’s VOM] South Korea a history of racism towards foreigners

Racism is the result of a complex interplay of individual attitudes, social values, and institutional practices. It may be expressed in the actions of individuals and institutions and takes a range of forms. It can directly or indirectly exclude people from accessing services or participating in employment, education, sport, and social activities and is often manifested through unconscious bias or prejudice. Historically, those who openly professed or practiced racism held that members of low-status races should be limited to low-status jobs and that members of the dominant race should have exclusive access to political power, economic resources, high-status jobs, and unrestricted civil rights.

Scholars believe Korean’s strong national identity comes from a long tradition of “thousand years of ‘pure’ ancestral bloodlines, common language, customs, and history” and was strengthened during and after the Japanese colonialism in the 20th century. The Japanese’s attempts to erase Korean language, culture and history had constructed ethnocentrism and ethno-nationalism as a method for Koreans to reclaim and maintain their sovereignty.

Since the 1997 crisis, South Korea has strived to compete on the world economic stage, and as much as the country has grown globally and opened to other countries, yet all this have not weakened their nationalistic mindset. According to recent polls by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family and the Asian Institute, nearly eighty-seven percent of South Koreans stress the importance of Korean blood lineage while thirty-two percent of Koreans consider mixed-race families as a “threat to social cohesion.” Eighty-three percent of South Koreans also believe Korean descendants living abroad still belong to the Korean ethnicity, even if they have become residents or citizens of a foreign country. Ethnic homogeneity based on blood and ancestry continues to play a key role in South Korean society.

As a result of the influx of non-Koreans into Korea, children have been born to Korean and non-Korean parents. These children are pejoratively called honhyŏl, which literally means “mixed-blood,” a term which carries a negative connotation many mothers in interracial marriages are discriminated against because of their lack of Korean language proficiency and subsequently have little support in navigating through language and cultural barriers This often causes their children to receive insufficient educational opportunities. Korean people’s obsession with the long-standing principle of pure-bloodedness as a source of national pride has caused children to face discrimination based on this backward concept of racial purity.

Only 40% of mixed-race elementary and middle school students, or students born out of international marriages are considered Koreans by their classmates. Almost 50% of students said they have difficulties maintaining relationships with students who do not share the same nationality background. The reason given by Korean students is because of their classmates’ different skin colors (24.2%), fear of being outcast by other Korean students (16.8%), and feeling of embarrassment if being friends with mixed-race children (15.5%)

As of January 2018, South Korea was still lacking an anti-discrimination law, which was recommended by the UN Human Rights Committee in 2015. The law has been reportedly stalled due to “lack of public consensus”. As a result, it is common for people to be denied service at business establishments or in taxis because of their ethnicity.

According to a survey conducted by the National Human Rights Commission of Korea among foreign residents in South Korea in 2019, 68.4% of respondents declared they had experienced racial discrimination, and many of them said they experienced it due of their Korean language skills (62.3%), because they were not Korean (59.7%), or due to their race (44.7%). Legislations to protect against discrimination has been brought up in 2007, 2010, and 2012. but the bills faced objections chiefly by conservative Protestants. Another attempt has been made in 2020 by a minor liberal Justice Party to “ban all kinds of discrimination based on gender, disability, age, language, country of origin, sexual orientation, physical condition, academic background, and any other reason.”

At present racial discrimination in Korea appears in the form of Koreans discriminating against people who are at the same time non-citizens and non-white. Even though discrimination against those populations is intertwined with discrimination based on citizenship, immigration status, and social class, it should not be overlooked that discrimination against these populations is based on a notion of inferiority to the Korean race and therefore has the characteristics of racial discrimination.

Racism toward Migrants and Refugees 

South Korea has slowly became a country for immigrants, as the number of immigrants increased from 300000 in the year 1998 to more than 2.3 million in the year 2018. But as the number increased, the questions about immigrants were raised.  Koreans have a collectivist cultural orientation, and South Korea is a homogeneous society with 97% of its population consisting of ethnic Koreans. In terms of racial discrimination, there exists positive discrimination towards people with whiter skin from European countries while those with darker skin living in Asia, Africa, and Latin America are more likely to be discriminated.

People should be aware that immigration is not easy and has many effects on the immigrants. Immigration is a stressful life event where immigrants have to adapt to a new environment. Immigrants face tremendous difficulties such as language barriers, loss of important social ties, acculturative stressors, and racial discrimination during the migration process. They perceive racial discrimination due to their experiences of unfair and ostracizing treatment of their own ethnic groups in a host country.

Foreigners of Korean descent are allowed to enter the country without employment contract for the purpose of job-seeking and to stay up to four years and ten months according to ‘special cases for employment of foreign workers’ (Article 12 of Act on the Employment, etc. of Foreign Workers). They are allowed to change their jobs without restriction and also to accompany their family. If they meet a certain condition such as ‘long-term continuous service’, they may be entitled to ‘permanent residence’ (F-5) status. In sum, the labor migration policy of the Republic of Korea distinguishes nationals and foreigners and restricts the labor rights of foreign migrant workers. It imposes more restrictive conditions of sojourn on the migrant workers who are considered to be ‘non-professional’, and even more restrictions in the choice of jobs on the migrant workers who are considered to be both ‘nonprofessional’ and ‘of non-Korean descent’. If a foreigner is considered to have less professional ‘workforce’ and different blood-tie, he or she is excluded from entire protection of basic rights.

Most social benefit schemes in South Korea are restricted to Korean nationals and non-citizens are only included if specially provided for. As a result, non-citizens are largely excluded from basic social benefits including basic livelihood benefits for the indigent, medical aid, benefits for the disabled, and child welfare services. The same applies to marriage migrants and other long-term residents and permanent residents. Therefore only by acquiring Korean citizenship can migrants become fully eligible for social benefits. According to the Supreme Court, even if a candidate fulfills all legal requirements, whether to allow naturalization or not, lies within the discretion of the Minister of Justice. Therefore, a significant number of non-citizens settled in Korea have not been able to naturalize, and due to the jus sanguine principle of Korea’s nationality laws, such lack of citizenship is passed onto the next generation.

Recently, rhetoric by news media and politicians citing low productiveness and national wealth being lost by earnings remitted abroad, and arguing for differentiation of migrant workers’ minimum wages is reaching an alarming level. Even some sectors of the government and the parliament have responded favorable to such incitement. In July 2018 the ‘Korean Federation of Small and Medium Businesses’ proposed a scheme whereby ‘foreign workers’ would be paid 80% of the minimum wage the first year in Korea, and 90% the second year, and the Minister of SMEs and Startups stated that the proposal would be reviewed proactively. Furthermore, MPs tabled two bills proposing to apply a differentiated minimum wage to ‘foreign workers’.

The Korean government has been reluctant to make the right to social security accessible to all migrants. The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination recommended the Korean government to ensure that migrant workers, refugees, asylum seekers, and their families, in particular children, enjoy the rights to adequate livelihood, housing, healthcare, and education in 2012.

However, the Korean Constitution still confines the rights listed above only to its nationals. Although some of the laws regarding social security contain exceptional clauses that provide an entitlement to public support for non-national migrants, there are clear limitations in that the eligibility criteria are based on the visa status or length of stay of migrants and the scope of assistance is restricted compared to nationals

In 2007, Amnesty International condemned Korea’s treatment toward foreign laborers in a report entitled ‘migrant workers are also human beings. It criticized the lack of legal protection as well as laws that prevent migrants from forming labor unions.

Lee Suk jun is with the National Human Rights Commission, an independent, but government-funded bureau. He says migrant worker abuse is a real problem and Seoul is starting to take it more seriously. “I think the main problem is caused by the lack of awareness of human rights. The ministry of justice is focusing on legislation complying with international standards. This trend is much more changing the government policy than ever before.”

Anti-immigration activists attend a protest in the South Korean capital of Seoul on June 30, 2018. They were protesting against a group of hundreds of Yemeni asylum-seekers who arrived on the South Korean tourist resort of Jeju Island in recent months. The refugees fled war and a humanitarian crisis back home.

They say this is a conflict [in Yemen and the Middle East] that is taking place very far from here [in South Korea] and that it is really the responsibility of the countries that are near Yemen to try and address the refugee situation. They also say that Europe — and Europe is a word that comes up a lot here — has been responsible for colonizing other countries and also being directly responsible for conflicts in different parts of the world. They say it’s natural for Europe to try and accommodate refugees. Another thing that comes up very often here is the possibility of cultural conflict, and in addition, there seems to be a significant amount of Islam phobia here. People say Islam is a religion that is simply not compatible with Korean society. They also say Muslims could come and potentially endanger the safety of the South Korean public. 

Covid-19 Pandemic and Racism toward Foreign Workers

During the COVID-19 crisis, 1.4 million foreigners living in South Korea are excluded from the government’s subsidy plan, which includes relief funds of up to 1 million won to Korean households. Although all people are susceptible to the virus, only foreigners who are married to Korean citizens are eligible for the money because of their “strong ties to the country”.

The COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 has made schools in South Korea go fully online but the immigrant and refugee children have not received proper education opportunities due to the lack of appropriate online curriculum for them.

And to make things worse, South Korea’s most populous province has ordered all of its foreign workers to be tested for COVID-19 by March 22, sparking complaints of long lines and logistical problems as well as of implicit xenophobia in government messaging,

From Wednesday, Seoul city will issue a 15-day administrative order for testing on employers of at least one foreign worker, as well as the foreign workers, said Ms. Park Yoo-mi, a city quarantine officer.

South Korea said infections among foreign workers presented a high-risk situation, but it has not provided detailed numbers National health official Yoon Tae-ho told a briefing that mass testing at nearly 1,646 workplaces in the greater Seoul area and the province of Chung Chong that employ foreign workers had found no confirmed cases.

Seoul had 242,623 registered foreign workers by December 2020, the Justice Ministry says. But city officials estimate there may be as many as 390,000 if undocumented workers are included.

Foreign communities and human rights groups have accused health authorities of stigmatizing foreigners as potential infection sources.

Violators of the administrative order can be punished with a fine of 2 million won (US$1,770) to 3 million won. In addition, violators responsible for coronavirus transmissions can be ordered to reimburse the government the money for relevant testing, investigations and treatments.

It seems that they consider the foreign workers as a source of the virus or a means to spread the virus, what would Koreans feel if the government obliged them to take the corona test in the same way. They treat foreigners as if they are the problem and this is extremely racist. There is no reason behind this obligatory testing, it is just mere racism and it even makes the problem worse. Some centers can only hold up to 100 people but due to the recent order, these centers will be overcrowded which increase the threat of getting infected. Social media lit up with complaints from foreign residents: poor communication by the government, hours-long waits at testing centers where it was difficult to maintain social distancing.

Korean civil society has constantly demanded for the enactment of a comprehensive anti-discrimination law during the last decade. The United Nations Treaty Bodies and Human Rights Councils uniformly requested for the legislation since 2009. In fact, the opposition movements of the conservative Christian groups and individuals, which caused the 10 years of delay, more than clearly show that the legislation of a comprehensive anti-discrimination law is crucial and urgent. The government attempts to avoid its duties to promote equality and non-discrimination by requiring “social consensus” as a precondition for the legislation. Meanwhile, the voice of inciting discrimination and the resulting divisions and conflicts are getting worse.

Today’s Korea shows that even if a society becomes diverse, it does not necessarily means that it became tolerant to diversity. There is a need to tame the racist modes that the society feels proud of in order to ensure that every migrant, refugee, or asylum seeker be treated as a human being and not be filtered according to his race, nationality, skin color, or religion.


 | Darwish Musab/무열 기자 (이주민방송MWTV)

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