South Korea as (Sub)Empire: Workers, Immigration, and Racialized Hierarchy

By | April 01, 2015 | No Comments

Screenshot from JTBC report of those who South Koreans view negatively, broken down by country of origin | Image: JTBC

Screenshot from JTBC report on which nationalities South Koreans most often view negatively. | Image: JTBC

President Park Geun-hye may think that South Korea’s educated youth should head for the Middle East to find gainful employment, but the structural truth of South Korea’s position in the global political economy is rather different. Workers, women, and students are all moving to the southern half of the peninsula in rising numbers.

According to Lee Jin-kyung of UC San Diego, changing labor flows and immigration patterns are indicative of the rise of South Korea as a “surrogate (sub)empire.” A provocative claim, Lee’s understanding of South Korea’s new role, articulated forcibly in Service Economies: Militarism, Sex Work, and Migrant Labor in South Korea, is worth quoting:

Global labor migration and immigration from periphery to core nations, both of which have accelerated in the past three decades or so, have been understood as phenomena that trace their roots to the history of colonialism, as a postcolonial return of the ex-colonized “back” to the metropole. South Korea represents an interesting variation as a postcolonial location that has moved, only very recently, from a neo-colony whose own migrants’ and emigrants’ “return” was destined for the United States, to a sub-empire to which other ex-colonized peoples of Asia migrate, short of reaching metropoles….

As South Korea absorbs more migrant workers, “mail-order brides,” and other immigrants, the fabric of Korean society inevitably changes, and with it identities and attitudes. The influx of people of non-Korean lineage appears to have contributed to an interesting shift in national identity, but it has also created new social hierarchies.

Lee continues:

[T]he recent influx of Vietnamese workers and “immigrant brides” into South Korea is a latter day manifestations of the earlier historical triangulation among Vietnam, South Korea, and the United States. Occupying the position of sub-empire entails performing a series of surrogate labors for the empire. South Korea “develops” peripheral nations, including North Korea, by “technology transfer,” by disciplining the labor force in the offshore locations as subcontracting firms for the United States and other core economies, and by creating a consumer population with “made in Korea” products. In its role as surrogate (sub)empire, South Korea also absorbs part of the formerly colonized populations who would have traveled further to the metropole.

A phenomenon described by Seol Dong-hoon and John Skrentny as “hierarchical nationhood,” South Koreans have long distinguished between different kinds of ethnic-Korean immigrants (Korean-Chinese, Korean-American, etc.). Only recently, however, have non-Korean migrants and immigrants constituted a significant slice of the population. This change has precipitated new a discourse on Korean society and, it appears, a new kind of social hierarchy.

A recent JTBC “Exploration Plus” (탐사플러스) segment reported numbers from a new public opinion survey on what people think about foreigners and multiculturalism. While the title of the segment (and framing of the findings) suggests otherwise, the survey actually shows that most South Koreans are quite comfortable with foreigners (despite a slight “increase” in feelings of unease about “multicultural families”). Young people (those in their 20s and 30s) are slightly less comfortable. Perhaps because they are, as noted, competing with some of the foreigners for jobs and university degrees.

More complicated is the breakdown, by country of origin, of the respondents who hold negative views towards foreigners. The survey itself does not tell us why, but there is strong reason to suspect that the “surrogate sub-empire,” much like the “core empire,” has generated a racialized hierarchy based on nationality. This, too, should come as no surprise. Racism is as much, if not more, a problem in South Korea as it is in the United States.

[Exploration Plus] Foreigners disrupt South Korean society? Young people are more negative towards foreigners” [[탐사플러스] 외국인, 한국 사회 어지럽힌다?…젊은층이 부정적], JTBC, March 31, 2013.

What do our citizens think of foreigners and multicultural families? This is the result of a recent investigation targeting 1,500 adult men and women respondents.

Three out of ten people believe that multicultural families impede social integration [사회통합을 저해한다]. This number has risen markedly compared to results in 2011 and 2012.

One out of five people think foreigners destabilize South Korean society. [우리 국민 다섯명 중 한 명은 외국인이 한국 사회를 어지럽히고 있다고 생각하는 것으로 나타났습니다.]

Interestingly, younger people say they are more negative towards foreigners.

For people in their 20s and 30s, the need to compete with foreigners in universities and workplaces explains this phenomenon.

Likewise, more than 20% of the respondents answered “Yes” to the question: Are foreigners’ efforts to adapt to Korean society insufficient?

A relatively large proportion of these were in their 20s and 30s.

However, citizens do not hold negative views towards all foreigners. Perceptions depend on a foreigner’s country of origin.

As you can see, while 30% of respondents have a negative image of foreigners from America, a country categorized as developed [선진국으로 분류되는], around half have a negative view of foreigners from third world countries such as the Philippines and Nigeria, and those from China.

Source:[Exploration Plus] Foreigner disrupt South Korean society? Young people are more negative towards foreigners” [[탐사플러스] 외국인, 한국 사회 어지럽힌다?…젊은층이 더 부정적], JTBC, March 31, 2013. Translation by Steven Denney.

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