Multiracial families and military service
Both Bae Ki-cheol, 57, and Lee Anis, 20, are biracial Korean men. This year, Lee is doing something Bae could not do 37 years ago even though he had ardently wanted to: serving in the South Korean military.
The difference marks a major victory for biracial Koreans in their decades-long struggle to be more fully embraced in society, where until recently, the so-called “pure-blood nationalism” was so pervasive that school textbooks taught children to be proud of their “homogenous” nation.
With their country technically in a state of war with North Korea, fulfilling mandatory 20-month military service has long been a rite of passage for young South Korean male adults. A failure to complete what many people still call "the sacred duty for national defense" has become a serious handicap in job interviews. People quip at a man deemed irresponsible or not manly enough: “Have you done your military service?”
“We had assumed that Lee would not be fluent in Korean because he did not look Korean,” an army officer told the media about the military’s initial concerns about how well Lee would adjust to his new life there. “But he speaks Korean like a native and is very active and sociable.”
However, the Army has not always been so welcoming.
“They did not give me any chance,” Bae told Roh Tae-gyeong, a “citizen journalist” who writes a blog.
Bae was one of thousands of children born between American soldiers and South Korean women, usually poor girls who worked in bars and restaurants around U.S. military bases. Society treated them like an embarrassing and painful by-product of the U.S. military presence, which the country has relied upon to guard against North Korea ever since the 1950-53 Korean War. Many of them were sent abroad for adoption. Those who stayed behind like Bae were ostracized and taunted by other children as “twigi,” an insulting moniker meaning “mixed” or “hybrid.”
Although the constitution designates military duty as one of the basic duties of all male citizens without disabilities, men of mixed race were not allowed to serve in the military. For Bae, who is now president of the Korea Alliance of International Families, that exclusion was symbolic of South Koreans’ discrimination against biracial citizens. He said he could never get a full-time job, not only because of his looks but also because of his lack of military experience, and that he has rarely been financially stable as a result.
But in the 37 years since Bae volunteered to serve in the military and was rejected because of his skin color, things have changed. Once an agrarian society so isolated from the rest of the world it was dubbed the “hermit kingdom,” South Korea has transformed into a major global economy exporting cars and smartphones around the world. With the number of interracial marriages rising sharply, how to embrace “multicultural families” has become a major concern for government policymakers.
Nowadays, it's often South Korean men who look for foreign women. As young South Korean women increasingly migrated to cities for education and jobs, single men left in rural areas look to countries in Southeast Asia, such as Vietnam and the Philippines, to find spouses. With the country's birthrate one of the lowest in the world, these women bring a welcome sound: the crying of newborn babies that old folk in the rural villages had long forgotten. The growing influx of alien workers from Southeast Asian countries has also influenced South Koreans to become more familiar with “different looks.”
With the change in attitude, the government changed laws to ensure that effective this year, all males of Korean nationality are required to serve in the military, regardless of their ethnicity.
Reactions have varied. Some people worry that biracial soldiers will be subjected to bullying. But Lee has so far proven that such worries were unnecessary. He told the media about how very glad he was to serve in the military.
There is so much more to do to make this country a better place to live in ― for all Koreans regardless of their skin color. The decision to let young Koreans like Lee serve in the military is an important step toward building a new South Korea where people like Bae and Lee are treated as what they are: Koreans.
The writer is a senior at St. Ignatius College Prep in Chicago, the U.S.