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Korea’s Multiculturalism Goes Under the Microscope


Nov. 16, 2011

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Mired in social conflict that has reached boiling point, European governments who have accommodated large influxes of immigrants are now declaring multiculturalism a failure. The immigrant riots in France in 2005 led to extreme mistrust of the Muslim community and the July terrorist attacks in Norway by an anti-immigration extremist show that multicultural conflict is a pathological problem that is not only a social but also a personal issue.

The protracted economic turmoil brought on by the global financial crisis has fueled the ill feelings. Immigrants are being branded “job stealing outsiders” and accused of causing the fiscal crises in debt-strapped Europe because of the welfare costs they incur. In response, governments around the world have tightened acceptance of new arrivals and some are even offering to pay immigrants to return to their homeland.

On the other hand, Korea’s multicultural conflict stems from ideology and appears to be germinating under the surface. Currently there are about 1.3 million foreigners in Korea, or about 2.6% of the total population. That is far less than in some European countries, where the immigrants account for up to 20% of the population.

While the relatively small population of foreigners in Korea has not reached a combustible level, it has reached a point of igniting an ideological discussion below the surface. The issue lies not in the size of the immigrant population but Korea’s accession as a racially homogenous nation both historically and culturally.

Racially homogenous nationalism is a sentiment that has dominated Korean society. Korea’s sense of community based on blood ties is strong and in times of political or economic crises, it has been used to mobilize and unify the nation. It is fair to say Korea’s achievements are built atop this sentiment. In particular, the painful experience of colonization during the first half of the 20th century has resulted in many Korean people feeling that serving the nation is the greatest general good.

Paradoxically, the national assertion of “a one-race, one-blood nation” never had validity in the first place, according to some cultural anthropologists. After visiting Korea in the 19th century, French archeologist Emile Bourdaret claimed that Korean people’s appearance had a multi-racial characteristic. Dr. Ph. Phillip Franz von Seibold from the Netherlands who came to Korea before Bourdaret found that Korean people had a mixture of Mongolian and Caucasus features. And English painter Arnold Henry Savage Landor said that Koreans were a mixture of all races residing in Asia.

Nevertheless, the dominance of racially homogenous nationalism has not wavered. This is because to Koreans, the concept of a one-race nation is not a category that is validated in biological or cultural anthropological terms. Rather, it involves a sense of kinship that has sublimated into a form of group dependency.

The sense of community spirit among Koreans, based on blood and school ties, and regionalism is beneficial when it comes to unity and solidarity. However, when it comes to welcoming new values and cultures, it can cause an excessive amount of apprehension. This is visible in Korea’s ranking in terms of cultural openness, which was ranked among the lowest in the annual World Competitiveness Yearbook published by IMD, Switzerland’s leading business school.

The current discussion about the foreign community in Korea is largely about how they fit into Korean society. A case in point is mandatory military service. Earlier this year, the law stating that those of mixed race are exempt from military service was abolished. The change is regarded as a symbol for the new challenges that Korea faces. The nation’s law on military service had treated people of mixed race as second-class nationals and thus exempted them from mandatory service in the military or reserves. Currently, there are approximately 55,000 sons from multicultural families, according to the Ministry of Public Administration and Security, and 3,400 of them are aged between 16~18 years old and obligated to undergo a physical examination by next year.

There are mixed views about the change in the military service law. There are those who believe that children from multicultural families must fulfill their obligations as Korean nationals and establish a sense of identity and belonging in terms of both country and society. On the other hand, there are also those who emphasize the sanctity of Korea’s military service. They claim that induction of multicultural sons into the military will only increase confusion and instability, damaging Korea’s long-cherished identity as a racially homogenous nation.

Conflicts within a society or between its people may seem to be the price we have to pay for having an open society. However, compared to the heated conflict seen in Europe, Korea will face more of a cold war. The ideological stakes in being a multicultural nation runs much deeper in Korea and resolving areas of friction will be more costly in financial, social and cultural terms. What we have to keep our eyes on is whether Korea’s multicultural conflict, which is still in its infant stages, will follow in the footsteps of Europe’s bad example or turn out to be mere growing pains on the road to becoming a larger open society.

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