South Korea’s Evolving Immigration Policy and National Identity Reflection

By | April 15, 2015 | No Comments

The face of the Korean nation is changing, as are attitudes, both good and bad, towards Korea's newcomers. | Image: Ekke/Flickr, Creative Commons 2.0

The face of the Korean nation is changing, as are attitudes (both good and bad) towards newcomers. | Image: Ekke/Flickr, Creative Commons 2.0

Reaction to the influx of foreigners and growing multi-ethnic population within South Korea has led to a racialized hierarchy based on nationality and ethnicity, writes Sino-NK’s Managing Editor Steven Denney. This hierarchy can manifest itself in different ways—from fear to economic and social discrimination, and on as far as racism. Public opinion data demonstrates that while long-term trends show greater tolerance of “multicultural families” and foreign-born residents, the past few years have shown small upticks in the number of Koreans—particularly young ones in their 20s and 30s, as well as women—who see the multi-ethnic threads slowly weaving into Korean society as disruptive to the social fabric of the nation.

As I discuss in a post for the Council on Foreign Relations’ Asia Unbound blog, the current turn in attitudes toward foreigners is closely tied to the country’s evolving immigration policy and multicultural programming, combined with uncertainties about economic competitiveness at the individual level. While the government may face a strategic choice in crafting policy, the Korean public is facing an existential one, fraught with emotional reflections on Korean uniqueness that shoot to the core of national identity. As countries around the world are re-evaluating their own immigration policies in the face of economic hardship and emerging nationalistic tendencies, South Korea’s choices as to how to cope with and adjust to a changing ethnic composition will certainly reflect greatly on its place in global society as a whole.

The following translation, an article from the Weekly Kyunghyang (published by the Kyunghyang Sinmun), highlights one (rather negative) side of the social scale, indicating that South Korean policymakers and society more generally have many hurdles to clear. The article reports the latest public opinion data from the World Values Survey and the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, in addition to gathering insights from experts closely following social trends.

“Cover Story: The Retrogression of Discrimination Against Foreigners in Multicultural Society” [[표지이야기]다문화 사회 역행하는 외국인 차별], Weekly Kyunghyang, January 13, 2015.

– “Foreigners Do Not Live Without Experience of Prejudice… Negative Opinions [Toward Foreigners] Grow Among Koreans in their 20s and 30s”
– “I’m so scared that I can’t live.” “We have to stop them living here.”

Look at comments sections concerning the “Park Chun-bong incident” and you can readily find hate-filled words about Chinese-Koreans [조선족]. The stronger the hatred, the more popular the opinion. Interspersed with these comments of hatred toward foreigners are the counter-arguments: that there is far less discrimination against foreigners than in the West, where hate crimes are on the rise, or that it’s not a case of discrimination against all foreigners, only against foreign-born criminals.

However, Koreans’ discrimination against foreigners is very high even by global standards.

According to the World Values Survey, South Koreans’ racial discrimination is as high as in Southeast Asia, India, and the countries of the Middle East.

The World Values Survey is conducted every five years, asking the same questions to citizens of more than 100 countries in order to compare their values. Here in January 2015 the 7th wave of research is being prepared. In South Korea it is led by Ewha Women’s University Professor Emeritus Auh Soo-young (76) and conducted by the Sociology Database Center.

Among the many investigation items, two make it possible to get a glimpse of domestic attitudes towards foreigners. These are: “Is it okay if your neighbors are people of a different ethnicity?” and “Is it okay if your neighbors are migrant workers?” [‘다른 인종과 이웃이 되어도 괜찮겠느냐’, ‘이주노동자와 이웃이 되어도 괜찮겠느냐’는 질문이다.]

The 6th wave of research (2010), which surveyed 1,200 Koreans, revealed that 34 percent of respondents felt negatively about their neighbors being of different ethnicity, and 44 percent felt negatively about migrant workers. These results are, at least, an improvement on those of the second survey (in 1990), where the negative responses were more than 50 percent.

Looking at the most recent 5th and 6th wave studies, Korean values are similar to those in Asia as a whole, or rank with Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, and India where racial discrimination is more serious. These countries share the pain of either a long colonial experience or foreign invasion. In addition, countries that have experienced prolonged conflict such as Iraq, Egypt, and Libya also have high incidences of negative attitudes toward foreigners. Countries with higher educational and economic standards, those of Northern Europe, Western Europe, and North America, are relatively more tolerant of multi-ethnicity and foreigners.

“The longer a country has had to harmonize diverse ethnicities, the more time there has been for understanding of other peoples to accumulate. Yes South Koreans have suffered many invasions by outside forces, but we are relatively exclusionary because we have lived for a long time as a homogenous people (단일민족),” explained Professor Auh.

Likewise, Asia Immigration Cultural Solidarity Representative Lee Wan (42) connects negative attitudes toward foreigners with the experience of being a homogenous nation for a long time. “In the case of South Korea, having so little experience living with peoples of other ethnicities is problematic. Without that experience it’s rather easy for prejudices to take hold, for instance the idea that the rate of criminality among foreigners is much higher,” he said.

However, “The longer-term trend shows that South Koreans are gradually becoming more understanding of multiculturalism,” Auh added.

South Korea is gradually becoming a multicultural society. Since 2006 the number of immigrants coming to South Korea has risen by 9.7 percent per year. Already, in November 2014, the number of immigrants remaining in Korea for longer than 90 days topped 1,360,000. Research shows that by approximately 2030, immigrants will make up 10 percent of the total population of South Korea. Economic groups and business-related think tanks insist that we must actively encourage immigration in order to address the problems of a low birth rate and slow economic growth.

However, the move toward a multicultural society over the last few years has encountered pushback. According to a February 2014 publication by the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, though positive attitudes toward multicultural families remain high at 67.5 percent, that number has declined 7 percent in the past two years. In particular, the research institute asserts that the rate of negative attitudes toward foreigners is higher among women and those in their 20s and 30s. This is not unrelated to problems of unemployment for young adults and women.

“If you look at the skinheads and neo-Nazis who are inciting race hatred in Europe, in many instances young people are playing the leading role. If a society cannot resolve the frustrations and anger of its young people, then that is sometimes turned on foreigners,” Lee explained.

Lee is critical of the perspective of economic groups that say Korea must take in many more immigrants to overcome its low birth rate. “If the number of immigrants increases, obviously there will be positive effects but at the same time unanticipated adverse effects will also emerge. In the event that our society is not institutionally and psychologically prepared for them this will achieve nothing more than the functional goals, solving the low birth rate or expanding the workforce, that economic groups are calling for” he said.

Such “unanticipated adverse effects” may include racist hate crimes. And Auh points out that if a hate crime against foreigners were to occur in Korea, the impact could be much more severe than in the case of Norway.

“When white supremacists committed a terrorist act in Norway, most Norwegians called it ‘the actions of an extremist minority’ and spoke out against racial discrimination. However, until such time as opposition to racial discrimination becomes a shared value in Korea, it is doubtful whether Koreans will be able to respond to it as maturely as they did in Norway,” Auh said.

The Asan Institute for Policy Studies says that in order to reduce discrimination against foreigners, the government’s multicultural policy must change. The institute has criticized the existing multicultural policy, calling it a “multicultural policy that relies on assimilation without social integration.” [“사회통합 없이 동화에 편중된 다문화 정책”] According to the institute’s analysis, 54.4 percent of multicultural programs nationwide call for immigrants to assimilate as “Koreans,” while fewer than twenty percent promote better understanding of immigrants among mainstream Koreans, or teach Koreans about immigrant cultures.

“The Korean government’s multiculturalism policy places too much emphasis on assimilating foreigners, immigrants, and their families into Korean society while neglecting our people’s reception of multiculturalism,” the research institute said, going on to encourage the development of programs that stress changing Koreans’ attitudes.

Representative Lee said that the government and media must first treat immigrants as “human beings.” “Until now, Korean society has only paid attention to the functions of immigrants. They’ve taken in labor through the Employee Permit System and attracted marriage migrants to resolve the birth rate problem. But when a single person leaves his or her home country and moves abroad, that person’s whole life goes with them. When the government and media do not look at immigrants as real people, is discrimination against foreigners going to go away?”

Source: “Cover Story: The Retrogression of Discrimination Against Foreigners in Multicultural Society” [[표지이야기]다문화 사회 역행하는 외국인 차별], Weekly Kyunghyang, January 13, 2015. Translation by Darcie Draudt.

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