The Economics of Identity Change in South Korea

By | June 19, 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, and so are attitudes, good and bad, towards Korea’s newcomers. | Image: Ekke/Flickr, Creative Commons 2.0

South Korea’s postindustrial transition has wrought all sorts of changes–some more transformative than others. The country continues to be shaped by incomplete democratic consolidation, rapidly changing social valueslingering racial discrimination, and an influx of immigrants and non-ethnic Koreans. But among the biggest changes fueled by South Korea’s “rise” is the demographic shift that began towards the end of the century and continues in the present day.

Its origins are fairly straightforward. Rising wages and general upward mobility for much of the South Korean population have brought labor shortages and a growing demand for migrant labor. Since receiving official recognition in 1991, the number of migrant laborers in South Korea has increased from just over 30,000 to more than 1.5 million today. Combined with a low fertility rate among native-born Koreans, the resulting demographic trend looms as a real challenge for anxious small and medium-sized (SME) exporters. While South Korea hasn’t exactly thrown open its borders to every able-bodied man and woman with a strong work ethic, it has been far more open than neighboring Japan, and migration is shaping the country’s demographics.

One of the most interesting (unintended) consequences of this is its effect on what people think about South Korea as a nation; that is, as a national community. Some have argued that the demographic shift has precipitated a social transformation; specifically, changing demographics have brought a decline in ethnic nationalism. For the entirety of its relatively short “modern” history, the Korean nation (in both north and south) has been understood as defined by ethnicity, or “blood.” If one was part of the minjok (민족), a word that describes both “nation” and “ethnicity,” one was part of the Korean nation.

In his 2006 book, Ethnic Nationalism in Korea: Genealogy, Politics, and Legacy, Shin Gi-wook argues that that the uncertainty and precarity caused by globalization has created conditions under which this particular kind of nationalism can be constantly reproduced. But other scholars, like Jin-kyung Lee, disagree. In her book  Service Economies: Militarism, Sex, and Migrant Labor in South Korea, Lee argues that the globalization-led economic transformation is diluting the ethnic component of contemporary South Korean nationalism; in other words, nation and ethnicity (re: minjok) are in the process of decoupling. The social dislocations caused by global capitalism have created a new space through which the nation can be imagined.

Interestingly, Lee argues that those who once promoted ethnicity as the unalterable sine qua non of Korean national identity—social activists of the “386 Generation”—are now the same people who are pushing the boundaries of national identity.

To get a better understanding of what Lee is talking about, I interviewed some of the social activists she refers to in her book. Below is a truncated transcript from one of the interviewees, Lee Gi-young. Lee is a pastor with the Zion Methodist Church (a Filipino migrant church) and a PR team leader at the War and Human Rights Museum. A longer article on this issue was published at The Diplomat. (Read the original Korean for the text below.)

Steven Denney [SD]: How often to you come in contact with non-ethnic Koreans?

Lee Gi-young [LGY]: At least once a week…

SD: What do you think about the idea of non-ethnic Koreans living permanently in South Korea?

LGY: Most of the foreigners I meet at the church are migrant workers. One way or another, what they want is to stay in Korea long-term and to work. Even if it they have to have “undocumented” status, they want to stay long-term.

Of the foreigners I meet at the Museum who live in Korea, there are two groups: most of them like Korea and came here in the hope of finding work and living here permanently. And then there are those who want to return to their country after an appropriate period of time.

SD: How familiar are you with the work and living conditions of migrant workers in South Korea? What do you think about these conditions?

LGY: I know their conditions very well indeed. In my view their lives are lower class; however, there is no big problem because by their own standards they live quite well. However, I sometimes see my friends [migrant workers] suffering because they meet a bad landlord, and then I feel that we need to change the exclusivity of Korean society and people’s racial discrimination.

SD: Do you think that non-ethnic Koreans can become a part of the Korean national community? Why or why not?

LGY: In my own personal opinion they are already a part of the Korean national community. However, the civic consciousness of this society is so low that there is still this tendency to draw a firm line distinguishing migrant workers from the rest of society. Given South Korea’s isolated geographical setting, South Koreans have many difficulties accepting foreigners as an integral part of society (the seclusionist policy of the Daewongun in the Chosun Dynasty period might still be affecting people)… Personally speaking foreigners are already a part of this society, especially migrant workers – in particular, migrant laborers are a labor force that we cannot do without. They are a part of South Korean society right now.

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