By Kang Shin-who
Koreans have been taught since elementary school that they are ``ethnically homogeneous.'' Most take it for granted.
However, with a growing number of immigrants coming to South Korea, the country is rapidly transforming into a multicultural society. This slow but gradual transition toward multiculturalism is raising the question whether Korea is really as homogeneous as taught.
These days most Koreans agree that Korea should live in harmony with immigrants. And some critics say that it is time that the country discards the perception of homogeneity.
Children are still taught at school that all Koreans are of the same ancestry. The Ministry of Education, Science and Technology has no immediate plans to completely erase the term ``homogeneous Korean people,'' thought it has toned down the parts emphasizing it.
``It's still a bit too early to remove the term homogenous people,'' said Min Byung-kwan, the ministry director in charge of textbooks.
The ministry says it is inevitable to maintain the term to explain the reasons why the two Koreas should be reunified. ``We will correct expressions against immigrants in textbooks, but when it comes to reunification, we need to emphasize that Korean people share the same blood,'' said Kim Yoon-ki, the ministry researcher.
Lee O-young, honorary chair professor of Ewha Academy for Advanced Studies and former culture minister, says Koreans have been a mixed people from the beginning and ethnocentrism could be dangerous to today's multicultural society.
``We were originally a mix of marine people and equestrians because Korea is a peninsula. They coexisted and this is the power of Korea,'' Lee told The Korea Times in an interview. ``The perception of `ethnic' actually didn't exist for 19 centuries. However, under Japanese rule, we needed a strong national identity and started to stress that we are homogenous people. The division of the two Koreas has also driven us to emphasize we are analogous people.''
He continued, ``We can say we are a homogenous country. However, the ``mixing of different people'' is the world trend as you learn from the first-ever black U.S. president, President-elect Barack Obama.''
UNESCO has warned Korea against overstressing homogeneity. Lee said Korea should refrain from using the term ``the homogenous people under same ancestry'' in official situations. ``We need to value our own culture and maintain our national identity, though,'' he added.
Some anthropology professors say the saying ``pure Korean blood'' doesn't make sense at all. ``It is crazy to say Koreans are homogeneous people. You are mixed, so am I, all Koreans are mixed,'' said Chun Kyung-soo, professor of Seoul National University. `` The term `homogenous people' should disappear. It is a superficial term.''
Han Kook-yeom, chairwoman of the Korean immigrant women center, also echoed professor Chun's views. ``Originally, we were not homogeneous people. The myth of the foundation of Korea also shows that we are a mix of different people,'' she said.
Commenting on the argument that the concept of homogenous people as one of grounds for reunification, she said ``North Koreans hate the trend of blood mixing of South Koreans with other people. They believe it undermines their identity. The term of racially homogeneity is new and ideological. We had been attacked by other people about 1,000 times and it was impossible to maintain a single blood line.''
Today, Korea has various races and people from 126 countries. However, some professors in oriental studies say the term ``homogeneous Korean people'' or ``Han'' race is far from racist.
``We are the Han race and Han means sky, sky embraces everything, so the term `Han race' is inclusive,'' Lee Ki-dong, a professor at the school of Confucian & Oriental Studies at Sungkyunkwan University, said.
Some professors say Korea needs open-nationalism that embraces other people.
``Korea is not the only country using the term `homogeneous people'. The term `homogeneous Korean' is appropriate for reunification and not based on mythology. It's true that the term will have side effects in an interracial society. Hence, `open-nationalism' has appeared,'' said Han Sang-jin, professor of Seoul National University.