Multiculturalism in Korea

Samuel Gerald Collins's picture

A journalist contacted me about race and racism in South Korea, and I summarized some of my thinking (and prognostications) for him. You may not believe it, but I think some of the most interesting (and potentially positive) things are happening right now with attempts to address race and multiculturalism in South Korea.

Is there racism in South Korea? Absolutely, although the real question here is: what is the context for Korean racism? And how is it different than other countries? “Minjok" is a neologism borrowed from the Japanese that refers to a national ethnos. It’s not the same as US operationalizations of race—nor would it be accurate to simply gloss it as “Japanese”. Instead, it needs to be contextualized in the colonialist past—that is, while Korean minjok makes some of the same historical claims as Japanese minzoku (ancient, homogenous lineage, glorious destiny), Korean nationalist/ ethnic discourse develops first in the crucible of resistance to Japanese imperial ambitions, and then again in the wake of US occupation, partitioning (bundan) and the Korean War. This is why you might find heavily nationalist rhetoric on both the Left and the Right—there are both conservative and progressive messages there.

But there’s another kind of “race” as well—this one very much the result of occupation by US forces during the USAMGIK period. This “race” is, perhaps, more familiar to Westerners: the hierarchy of perceived phenotypical differences institutionalized in government, citizenship, employment, media representation, etc. Koreans adopted this system as well.

But prior to the 1990’s, most people outside of Korea had little opportunity to experience either system—the resident foreign population was negligible. But as that population has ticked upwards to 2%, so have opportunities for people to define themselves vis-à-vis racial others, and, in particular, guest laborers (who, whatever the complaints of expat American and Canadian English teachers, really bear the brunt of racism in Korea). People from South Asia or Southeast Asia bear the double, racial burden as being defined both as non-Korean and dark-skinned.

As far as addressing these issues, there are all kinds of things going on right now in Korea, from lots of Korean academics studying multiculturalism, to lots of governmental and non-governmental organizations working to mediate discrimination and prejudice. So I absolutely see things changing in South Korea. But some of the more deep-seated (and hence more serious) problems are probably the same factors that contribute to deep racial inequalities in the US: not the incidence of hate speech itself (which, of course, still proliferates here), but in the access to networks of contacts that, in Korea, are invaluable for anything from education and employment to housing and marriage.

This sounds insurmountable—and it is certainly is challenging to progressive elements in South Korean society. But it’s also exciting, because it means that whatever “multiculturalism” emerges in South Korea will be uniquely Korean—not, in other words, a recapitulation of the sometimes shockingly hollow US-style multiculturalism. That is, it will address not only racial discrimination and differential citizenship, but also the post-colonial relations that reproduce these powerful inequalities.

So, I continue to follow this issue, not just because of my Korean research, but to get some ideas for building a more inclusive society in the US.