By Lee Tae-hoon
One of the most frequently mentioned slogans of the Lee Myung-bak administration has been a “fair society.”
However, his pledge to turn Korea into a country that guarantees equal opportunities without exception falls short of making a difference for the lives of some 110,000 naturalized Koreans and 1.3 million foreign residents living here.
Jasmine Lee, a 35-year-old lawmaker-elect born in the Philippines, has been suffering from racial attacks from xenophobic Netizens, many of whom do not hesitate to label her as a mail-order bride taking advantage of Korea’s “sympathy for foreigners.”
Iresha Dilani, a naturalized Korean from Pakistan and the head of a migrant women’s volunteer group, is still reluctant to go to a public sauna because she is aware that the owners of saunas often do not welcome customers with dark skin.
“First of all, there is no law here that holds someone responsible for discriminating against me simply because of my skin color,” she said. “I’m also a Korean citizen, but helpless to defend myself against racial discrimination, ranging from a ban on entry to a public bathroom to lower wages.”
The National Human Rights Commission recently recommended the provincial government of Changwon City take necessary measures to stop owners of saunas from denying foreigners’ entry to their establishments.
The measure was taken after Ku Su-jin, an Uzbek native naturalized in Korea, filed a petition with the rights commission in October last year after being denied entrance to a sauna in Changwon.
However, experts point out that foreign residents will continue to face harsh treatment because there is no law that prohibits discrimination by race.
In September 2009, Rep. Jun Byung-hun of the then main opposition Democratic Party(DP) attempted to submit an anti-discrimination bill, one of the first legal attempts in Korea to define racism and set punishments for racist acts, but it was to no avail.
Close associates to the two-term lawmaker say that he has yet to submit it to the National Assembly as he was afraid that it would put an end to his political career.
When he hinted of the possible proposal of the legislation, it triggered an avalanche of criticism.
His office was paralyzed after he posted the draft of the racial discrimination bill on his website in September 2010 to gather public opinion. According to an analysis of comments posted on the website in March last year with regard to his original proposal, it showed that 94 percent of the online commentators were adamantly against it.
Due to such a strong backlash, Rep. Jun revised his bill and removed a clause on wage discrimination based on race and sought party leaders’ help to back the bill officially. The DP, however, declined to do so.
There has been a strong resistance to the anti-racism movement in Korea by a group of activists who organize negative campaigns against politicians sympathetic to foreigners, especially in cyberspace.
A survey of The Korea Times showed that 65 percent of the respondents said they agreed with the principle of equal pay for migrant workers. The average wage of migrant workers still remains around $1,000.