Korea Greets New Era of Multiculturalism
Rise in number of mixed marriages and children changes nation’s demographics
The Korea Herald, 3 August 2006
Chae Jung-min, 31, regards herself as an open-minded person. After spending four years in the United States as an elementary school student, she quickly learned that the world was comprised of various races, nationalities and cultures.
Nevertheless, Chae has an uneasy feeling about the rising number of foreigners and mixed marriages in Korea, which is making the nation increasingly multiracial and multicultural.
"I don`t know, I have always believed that Korea is a single-race country. And I`m proud of that. Somehow, Korea becoming a multiracial society doesn`t sound right," she said.
Like Chae, many Koreans acknowledge that Korea is a homogenous nation. They often learn that from elementary school textbooks.
In its 5,000-year history, Korea was repeatedly invaded by neighboring countries, including Japan and China. Thus, placing emphasis on "pure Korean bloodlines" was crucial for the survival of Koreans.
But Korea`s long history is now turning into a burden, as national pride in being a single-race state is driving discrimination and prejudice against those who are not "pure Korean."
About 800,000 foreigners make up Korea`s population of 48 million. The number of foreigners is expected to reach 1.5 million in the next five years, according to government data.
Moreover, there are rising numbers of mixed marriages in Korea. The number is increasing due to rural women moving into cities, leaving young farmers and fishermen to find brides from other Asian nations, particularly in Southeast Asia.
International marriages now make up 13 percent of all marriages in Korea. More than 30 percent of international marriages are unions between rural men and foreign brides.
According to Pearl S. Buck International, there are about 35,000 mixed-race children in Korea. About 15 percent of all newborns in Korea are from mixed marriages. That figure will likely double by 2020, the foundation said.
Despite such reports, Korea is still largely a homogenous country, with 99 percent being full-blooded Koreans. Many Koreans, though, exhibit prejudice against foreigners and mixed-race Koreans, especially those with a darker complexion.
The government has been slow to catch up with the changes, which resulted in the passing of discriminative and unfair measures against those who don`t have "pure Korean blood."
Current law states that a foreign woman cannot bring her family to Korea unless her Korean husband approves.
Due to illegal organizations working as matchmakers for international marriages, many women become victims of marital violence or fake marriages. In the case of divorce or death of the husband, the women`s children cannot become Korean citizens or receive welfare benefits.
Also, current law forbids foreign workers from switching jobs without employer agreement. Thus, many foreign workers have to remain at their current jobs despite low pay and difficult working conditions. They also can`t accompany their families during work travels to Korea.
When American football star Hines Ward, who is half-Korean, visited Korea in April following his Super Bowl success, Korea was given an opportunity to reexamine its policies against mixed-race Koreans.
The national hero`s visit galvanized the reformation of several major measures that gave more rights to mixed-race Koreans.
The government decided to grant legal status to those who have mixed-race backgrounds and their families. It also aimed to eradicate prejudice and discrimination.
The term "mixed-blood people" was changed to "people of international marriages" in future government documents.
Furthermore, the government is reviewing plans to give citizenship or residency status to those who marry Koreans and to their children. And school textbooks that describe Korea as a "nation unified by one bloodline" will be changed to one that has a "multiethnic and multicultural society."
Such changes have prompted North Korea`s Rodong Shinmun (the Workers Party`s paper) to fiercely criticize the South Korean government.
It said, "South Korea is denying its national race and its 5,000-year history by professing to be a multiracial nation. Such moves will Americanize Korea, ruin its past history and weaken the power to combat dominative U.S. forces."
Some local experts also oppose the measures.
Hanyang University professor Shin Yong-ha is against making excessive changes in textbooks, warning that it is dangerous to deny Korea`s singular race, which has been a source of pride for centuries.
"Korea stands for a cultural community that shares the same language, history and lifestyle. That is different from an ethnic race. Thus, although textbooks should teach students to embrace other races, describing Korea as being a single-race nation should not be taken out," he said.
Only until recently, the government had never passed proper measures that aimed to improve the lives of foreigners and mixed-race Koreans. With much of the work handled by several ministries, such proposed measures were confusing and inefficient.
It may take Korea a long time to truly open up to other races and cultures. Thus, experts point out that the continual reformation of current measures is more important than establishing new laws.
"Hines Ward provided a valuable opportunity for Korea to break away from its traditional sentiments," said Hanyang University professor Im Ji-hyun.
"But what`s more important is to keep the current thinking alive even after Ward`s story is forgotten. We should keep in mind that opening up to other races, in the truest sense, is to embrace and accept all races."
The Korea Herald
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