Korea caught between pursuing diversity and preserving old monoculture
Students from multicultural families line up with their Korean counterparts waiting to receive a meal during lunch hour at Wonil Elementary School in Ansan, Gyeonggi Province, Oct. 24. / Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul
By Kim Tong-hyung, Kim Rahn and Kim Jae-won
How to create a 21st century multiethnic, multicultural society is the challenge facing Korea today.
The country had looked fairly homogenous for the most part of the modern era, but an increasing influx of immigrants over the past two decades, driven by temporary workers and marriage migrants, has the government showing more urgency in planning for a new age of diversity.
While it’s encouraging to see a stronger commitment by policymakers to guide the process forward, there seems to be reasons to worry that they’ll end up derailing it instead.
According to figures from the Ministry of Justice, the number of foreign residents in Korea was 1.26 million last year, representing 8 percent annual growth. About 558,000 of them entered the country on work visas, while around 168,500 were illegal immigrants.
It has become conventional over the years to describe citizenries of diverse ethnic and racial origins as either a “melting pot” society, where newcomers are encouraged to assimilate into the existing culture, or a “salad bowl” society, where immigrants get to retain much of their national characteristics.
However, neither imagery seem a good fit with Korea, which appears to be in pursuit of a conflicting set of goals in promoting diversity and reinforcing its deep-rooted monoculture.
Integrating its immigrant population and achieving multicultural cohesion is clearly an uphill task for Korea, a nation that has long touted its ethnic homogeneity as a measure of greatness.
As much as they speechify about multiculturalism, the fear is evident among policymakers about the country losing confidence of what it stood for. The thousands of Internet users subscribed to “anti-multiculturalism” communities on websites like Naver (www.naver.com) and Daum (www.daum.net) show that there is a not-so-small number of people taking the marked rise in immigration as a threat to national identity.
“Although the country has introduced a slew of new laws and policies on multiculturalism in the past few years, the plans reflect a very restrictive idea about what a multicultural society should be,” said So Ran-hui, a lawyer from Gonggam, an activist group of legal experts.
“Korea’s legal system, even after the recent changes, makes it clear that only foreigners who have attained Korean nationality through marriage or other processes will have their basic rights fully protected. So it’s hard to say that the country has made meaningful progress from the principles written in the Constitution, which mentions only ‘citizens’ as owners of basic rights.”
Korea clearly remains a tough country for immigrants to live in and an even harder place to begin or extend a family.
The Immigration Law continues to grant Korean nationality only to children with at least one Korean parent, regardless of whether they were born in the country or not. This is clearly a serious problem for many immigrant families, who see their children excluded from the country’s public education and healthcare systems.
Another glaring flaw in the current makeup of multicultural Korea is the lack of a law against racial discrimination.
The calls for anti-racism measures grew louder after an ethnic Uzbekistan woman of Korean nationality filed a petition with the National Human Rights Commission after she was denied entrance to a sauna in Busan. It was just the latest of some 290 complaints filed to the commission in the past decade from foreigners over discrimination.
Korea is a party to the international Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD). In August 2007, CERD urged Seoul to bring its laws in line with the convention by including a definition of racial discrimination and adopt measures including legislation to prohibit and eliminate all forms of discrimination against foreigners.
“There could be a lot of theories on what’s holding back the country’s progress toward a multicultural society. But an attempt at a simple explanation will have to start with the uncomfortable fact that foreigners here continue to be treated differently by their skin color,” said Park Geun-ho, an official from the Migrant Community Service Center in the Gyeonggi Province city of Ansan, the Korean municipality that has clearly been most progressive about integrating its foreign residents.
It could be said that the Korean transition toward a multicultural society will have to start with the classroom, where teachers for decades have been preaching ad nauseam that the country’s national strength lies in its ethnic homogeneity.
The changes will obviously be equally difficult and controversial. For example, it had been easy to preach to students why the two Koreas must eventually be reunified despite all the North Korean shenanigans, as the myth about all Koreans descending from a single bloodline was supposed to trump respect for geographical boundaries drawn in the 20th century.
However, the explanation becomes a lot more complicated when students begin to come from a diverse range of cultures and ethnicities.
“Schools have been teaching Korean history in the context of ‘minjoksa’ (history of a nation). There needs to be a paradigm shift as the country continues to take inevitable steps toward a multicultural society,” said Kim Ki-bong, a Kyonggi University historian.
“We need to rewrite textbooks with the purpose of reconstructing the country’s ‘cultural memory,’ describing how the long history of cultural exchanges and influences shaped what we believe today as ‘Koreanness.’ This would give readers a clearer idea of Korea’s place and future in the global environment.”
Streets provide glimpse of future
Government officials will continue to ponder how they should approach the country’s increasing diversity, whether their focus should shift to embracing the differences of culture or remain at reinforcing a homogenous community. But it seems that the people in multicultural cities like Ansan are already moving on.
Any debate about how a person becomes a Korean and what it is to be Korean is lost quickly in the myriad of interactions at Ansan’s bustling Street Without Borders, where the air is full of the smell of exotic fruits, Vietnamese noodles and deep-fried Chinese donuts.
The only people interested in the nationalities of the children at the city’s Wonil Elementary School seem to be the journalist and photographer dispatched on an assignment from Seoul. Municipal authorities provide a variety of services for its foreign residents, including language education, business consulting and medical checkups, regardless of whether their status is legal, illegal or somewhere in between.
Ansan, as well as other industrial cities like Bucheon and Suwon, which continue to depend heavily on migrant labor, appears to be accommodating diversity in its workplaces, schools and hospitals. Provincial communities, which have been seeing an increasing influx of marriage migrants since the early-1990s, provide their own demonstration of multiculturalism as well.
“Hey, don’t underestimate me because I am an old guy from a small village,” laughed a 60-something village foreman from an agricultural community in Cheonan, South Chungcheong Province.
“I can read announcements in four languages — Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese and Filipino. Can you?”
단문화 사회와 다문화 사회 사이에 끼어버린 한국
21세기 다인종, 다문화사회를 건설하는 것은 오늘날 대한민국에게 던져진 중요한 과제다.
한국은 근-현대의 대부분 동안 단일인종 사회의 모습을 유지했다. 그러나 지난 20년간 비정규직 노동자, 결혼이민자 등을 중심으로 한 이주민인구의 급격한 증가를 경험하면서 다문화사회로의 변화를 고민하게 되었다.
정부는 분명 다문화사회를 준비함에 있어 예전보다 진지하다. 그러나 정부가 내세우고 있는 정책들이 다문화사회로의 변화를 촉진하고 있는 것인지 차단하고 있는 것인지에 대한 논쟁은 유효한 듯하다.
법무부 자료에 따르면 작년 한해 한국의 거주외국인은 2009년보다 8%가량 늘은 126만명으로 집계되었으며 이중 취업자격으로 입국한 사람들은 558,000명, 불법체류자는 168,000명 가량으로 파악되었다.
어떤 특정 다인종, 다문화 사회를 설명함에 있어 흔히 “용광로와 샐러드 그릇” 비유가 사용되곤 한다. 즉 이주민들이 기존 사회의 문화와 생활방식에 녹아 드느냐 아니면 원래의 문화적 특성을 유지하게 되느냐가 관심의 초점이 되는 것이다.
그런데 한국은 용광로도 샐러드 그릇도 아닌듯하다. 정부는 문화적인 다원성을 추구한다면서도 한국 사회 기존의 단문화를 유지, 강화 한다는 모순된 목표를 지향하고 있는데 그 결과가 궁금하다.
다문화 사회로의 전환에 있어서 가장 큰 걸림돌은 바로 지난 세기 동안 한국인들의 인식과 정서에 깊이 뿌리내려왔던 혈통주의와 민족주의다. 모든 한국인들은 한 핏줄에서 나왔으며 이러한 인종적 단일성이 민족적 위대함의 근원이라는 신화를 극복하지 못하면 진정한 다문화 사회로의 전환은 요원할 수 밖에 없다.