South Korea’s Multicultural Project


Asia is changing. I wrote previously that Japan’s ethnic sociology is shifting. However, Japan isn’t the only country in Asia coping with evolving demographics. According to a recent article from The Diplomat, South Korea is finally acknowledging the permanent settlement of foreigners, international marriages, and their children.

This is just one of the many sociological issues that South Korea shares with its continental cousin. The other is the ethno-nationalism that persists in both countries. This blood-based nationalism has, as the article suggests, restricted South Korea from sublimating its definition for what it means to be Korean in the 21st century. What the article overlooks is that this race-based brand of politics is directly related to one of its historical enemy.

Scholars and commentators like B.R. Myers have argued that the myth of Korean exceptionalism traces back to Japan’s annexation of Korea. According to Myers, the concept of tanil minjok (단일 민족)
didn’t appear until the Japanese brought it to Korea. The Japanese implemented a European inspired brand of race theory to co-opt a developing nationality ensuing in reaction to the Japanese occupation. Except in this instance, the Japanese occupation taught Koreans that they were both of the same “Yamato race.” The only difference, in the eyes of the occupation, is that the Japanese saw most ‘Koreans’ as subordinate due to distinctions of class according to Sociologist John Lie’s book, Multiethnic Japan. What came about is the ethno-nationalism that people see today.

The reason why I bring up the shared historical ideologies of Korea and Japan is because, as I stated earlier, both countries are facing shifting demographics. The days in which someone who is born in Japan is always of “100%” Japanese are long gone. The myth of homogeneity in Japan and its discriminatory practices against foreigners is the recurrent narrative in The Land of the Rising Sun. A similar type of story is surfacing where non-Koreans and their biracial inhabitants face identical prejudices.

Furthermore, Japan’s reluctance to tackle these issues could offer a framework for what South Korea should avoid. So far, I’m under the opinion that the Japanese government has done little to ameliorate the problems their immigrants face. In certain instances, some of the comments from their various Prime Ministers and politicians have done more exacerbate sentiments against its multi-ethnic residents. (See Taro Aso and Ishihara Shintaro).

Similarities aside, the stark difference between the two nations is that South Korea seems to be taking the issue seriously. The only education based multicultural program in Japan that I can recollect at the top of my head is the JET Program and that’s proving to be a bungling failure in its own respect. It’s not just this, but Japanese politicians have been more than stubborn to the U.N.’s calls for legislative reforms on the matter. The creation of a multicultural program catered directly towards its inhabitants is unprecedented in its economic big brothers like China and Japan. Like Japan, China is defensive of its domestic practices.

I spoke to Michelle Gamboa, an Assistant English Teacher in Daejong, on the matter. She claims that one of her schools is implementing the program and it’s a test for the overhaul in the curriculum. “They started it last year,” she said. “But expanded it as [an after] school-wide thing this year.” She described how the program focused on teaching the students about the Korea but paid heed to other cultures as well. In her classroom, they show speech clips from President Obama and Martin Luther King Jr. to demonstrate proper forms of dictum. ” I think it was a good move because of what they represent. and I think it helps dispel some of the kids’ stereotypes against Black people. before, the children would laugh if i used any pictures including people of a different race or ethnicity,” she said.  “I think the aim is to educate students about other cultures and help them understand that Korea isn’t really a one-race society anymore.”

To add to that, South Korea no longer bars soldiers of mixed descent from the military.

The point being, the fact that South Korea is implementing such changes is an astounding feat in itself. It’ll be an even greater achievement if it’s effective. As historical victims of China, Japan, and (to a much lesser extent) The United States, the country has laid claim to the moral high ground. Its patriots have competitively declared themselves the better man. Now is their chance to prove it.