Friday, November 30, 2012

NYT on 'multiculturalism' in Korea, and CERD update

There's an article in the New York Times today by Choe Sang-hun titled "Demographic Shifts Redefine What It Means to Be Korean," which is based around the story of Jasmine Lee and looks at 'multiculturalism' in Korea.
“It’s time to redefine a Korean,” said Kim Yi-seon, chief researcher on multiculturalism at the government-financed Korean Women’s Development Institute. “Traditionally, a Korean meant someone born to Korean parents in Korea, who speaks Korean and has Korean looks and nationality. People don’t think someone is a Korean just because he has a Korean citizenship.”
That reminds me of headline which described a '한국국적 외국인,' or 'foreigner with Korean citizenship.' As a Canadian, that's about as baffling as opening windows in the winter.

The article provides a number of statistics:
The number of marriage migrants grew to 211,000 last year from 127,000 in 2007, most of them women from Vietnam and other poorer Asian countries drawn to a better life in South Korea. [...] The number of such workers almost doubled to 553,000 last year from 260,000 in 2007 — not counting those who overstay their visas and work illegally. [...] Although overall numbers of schoolchildren in South Korea have been declining — to 6.7 million this year from 7.7 million in 2007 — as a result of one of the world’s lowest birth rates, the number of multiethnic students has been climbing by 6,000 a year in the same period.
That last figure - a drop by one million of students in the last 5 years - is quite shocking. It also hadn't dawned on me just how much the foreign worker population had grown during that time. As for the marriage migrant figure, however, I should probably refer to Daisy Y. Kim's lecture for the RASKB titled "Categorizing Migrants: the Making of Multicultural Society in South Korea." This fascinating lecture looked at government policies regarding 'multicultural' families and argued that 'multicultural' is actually a very narrow term. It refers only to families made up of a Korean male, a foreign female spouse, and any offspring they might have. The term '다문화' has changed over time regarding who it is applied to. In the 1990s it referred to North Korean refugees; later it referred to migrant workers; now it refers to the description above. 'Damunhwa' policy is not aimed at North Korean refugees, migrant workers, female Korean-foreign male couples or non-Korean foreign couples or families, though its programs may end up aiding them in some way (global festivals, global centers, multi-language pamphlets and service and whatnot). To be sure, the government doesn't make it easy for those not fitting into its 'damunhwa' policy to become long term residents.

However, there are a few things that she pointed out that need to be considered. While the Korean government might drone on about a future multicultural society, the fact is that the number of 'multicultural' (mixed race) children born of these unions is actually quite small (I forget the figure offhand, but certainly less than 100,000). Another point: The number of international marriages (especially to women from Vietnam or Philippines, say) has dropped off, and some of the 'bride sending countries' have tried to prevent such marriages after hearing several horror stories coming out of Korea (like this one), so if that trend continues we won't be seeing the large increase in the number of 'multicultural families' that one would imagine from all of the discussion of the issue.

She also summed up which group of foreigners was considered multicultural: "Foreign women who give birth to Koreans."

One of the pro-multicultural family advertisements shown at the lecture can be seen here. It translates as follows:

His mother is from Vietnam, but just like you the child is Korean.
He can't eat rice without kimchi.
He admires King Sejong.
He thinks Dokdo is our land.
When he sees soccer he shouts ‘Daehan Minguk!’
After age 20 he will go to the army.
He will pay taxes and vote.
He is like you.
Helping multicultural families makes for a happy tomorrow.

I found it fascinating because it's incredible how being 'Korean' is whittled down to such a narrow, facile little checklist.

Not everyone is happy with these multicultural policies, however. Most people who criticize them see it as unfair that families with a foreign (female) spouse get 'special treatment' and subsidies. Of course, as the NYT article points out, there are others who oppose multiculturalism:
After Ms. Lee’s election, anti-immigration activists warned that “poisonous weeds” from abroad were “corrupting the Korean bloodline” and “exterminating the Korean nation” and urged political parties to “purify” themselves by expelling Ms. Lee from the National Assembly.[...]

“They bring religious and ethnic strife to our country, where we had none before,” said Kim Ky-baek, publisher of the nationalist Web site Minjokcorea and a critic of the government’s policy of admitting and providing social benefits to foreign-born brides and migrant workers. “They create an obstacle to national unification. North Korea adheres to pure-blood nationalism, while the South is turning into a hodgepodge of mixed blood.”
Hopefully he can find a Hitler Bar somewhere to drown his sorrows in. “They bring religious and ethnic strife to our country, where we had none before.” Somehow I doubt it could be worse than the strife among Koreans during the last century of colonialism, war and dictatorship. Mind you, there has been ethnic strife here before, but for some reason Korean myth makers (who take up the 'we are the champions of being victimized' line) don't like to bring up the anti-Chinese riots which occurred in Korea in 1931 in the aftermath of the Wanpaoshan incident, which left over 100 dead and hundreds injured, and led to the exodus of several thousand Chinese migrants.

Unsurprisingly, I found this paragraph to be of interest:
The government itself stands accused of fostering xenophobia by requiring foreigners who come to South Korea to teach English to undergo H.I.V. tests while not requiring the same of South Koreans in the same jobs. Last year, an Uzbek-born Korean made news when she was denied entry to a public bath whose proprietor cited fear of H.I.V. among foreigners.
That's clearly a reference to the CERD case, and it's nice to see it linked to nationalism and discrimination in this article. It leaves something out however.

When I first reported that the case of a foreign public school English teacher accusing the Republic of Korea with racial discrimination due to its HIV testing policy had been accepted by the Committee for the Eradication of Racial Discrimination, I mistakenly wrote that the ROK had four months to respond. It was actually only three months. Over seven weeks have passed since that deadline (October 10), but the ROK still has not responded. This is apparently the first time a country brought before the CERD has failed to give a response. Which should, perhaps, illustrate the limits of Korea's 'multicultural policy.'

[The NYT article states that South Koreans "considered it a national shame that a Korean-American student, Seung-Hui Cho, killed 32 in a shooting spree at Virginia Tech in 2007, even though the killer was not a South Korean citizen." According to Wikipedia, he was still an ROK citizen - I don't remember it ever being reported that he was an American citizen.]

No comments: