Koreans can be close-minded to issues of race and culture, but they know it and they want to learn, says the head of a foundation that helps multiethnic children here.
Yang Chan-wook, chairman of the Movement for the Advancement of the Cultural Diversity of Koreans (MACK) — told The Korea Times that Korea is not a racist or prejudiced country, but a country going through change.
"Racism is usually based on hate — Korea is nothing like that," he said.
"It is like Koreans have been ingrained in this way of thinking of ‘one blood, one people.' But there is enlightenment. Koreans know they have been ingrained in this way and they are now saying "let me learn."
"If you have that attitude to change and be aware, you can't be a racist person."
Yang and his foundation aim to get Korean society to embrace its own diversity.
"We focus on the diversity of Koreans — anyone with a mixed heritage. And we help Koreans accept them," he said.
Like many MACK members, Yang is mixed-race — part Korean from his mother and part African-American from his father. He prefers to go by his Korean name rather than his Western name, Gregory Diggs.
The 38-year-old took over the foundation in 2010 and is a member of a five-strong team of volunteers. Their work includes conducting mentoring programs and fundraisers for multicultural schools.
Korea is becoming an increasingly multiracial nation.
According to the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, 168,583 multiracial children live here as of 2012. And the Ministry of Security and Public Administration said Korea has 220,687 marriage immigrants as of last year.
Yang suggested Koreans need a change of attitude and identity rethink, and for there to be inclusion for people who want to be Korean.
"There needs to be an attitude change in Korean society," he said. "There needs to be a rethink of what it means to be Korean. And I think this will eliminate a lot of problems — it will create a society that accepts this change in identity.
"There needs to be inclusion for those who want to be Korean and who identify with Korea more than their home culture."
Despite his work with multicultural schools such as the Amerasian Christian Academy in Dongducheon, Gyeonggi Province, Yang believes segregated education is not a long-term solution.
"We support them, but we don't want that in the long run," he said. "Separate but equal does not work, America has proved that. Separate but unequal is what it is."
The segregation of school children in Korea is what first led the recently appointed MACK president Frank Brannen to work with multiethnic Koreans.
"I thought all multicultural children attended Korean schools, but then I learnt that wasn't the case, so that is when I got involved," said the 32-year-old, adding, "In some aspects for student's futures, I don't think going to multicultural schools is the way forward."
Many Korean school children have never encountered "multicultural" children, explained Barren, adding that MACK had done surveys of Korean students and found they had no knowledge of multiculturalism because they had no students from multiracial families in their classes.
"I went to one class and asked the students how many of you have multiethnic friends, and they said ‘we've never seen one before,'" he recalled.
But Brannen, who like Yang has an American father and a Korean mother, acknowledged some students prefer multicultural schools to regular Korean schools.
"Lots of students have said if they went to a Korean school, they would get profiled by the school, harassed, and the school wouldn't know how to handle them," he said. "Multicultural schools accept everyone, which is definitely a positive."
Cindy Lou Howe, a Korean-American who recently directed a documentary on the experience of multiethnic children in the Korean school system, agreed segregated schools are not the way forward. (She is a former vice-president of MACK)
"While it's important to create safe places for multiethnic students, superficial half-measures or creating a systemof segregated schools are not the answer," she said.
However, Yang — who is leaving Korea to study for his Ph.D. in the U.S. — also applauded the Korean government.
"I've been back in Korea for the last 10 years and I've seen incredible changes. Whether some people will argue they are doing it for show or for serious reasons, there is at least something being done," he said.
"I want to give Korea a lot of credit for what they have already done. But there is always more that can be done."