Korean xenophobia faces new challenges

Is South Korea becoming what it was called in the 19th century - the "Hermit Kingdom"? According to the international media, a climate of xenophobia has recently enveloped South Korean society that threatens to turn back the openness that was evident in the aftermath of the 1997 Asian financial crisis. Behind the headlines, however, significant and substantial changes are occurring that may well dispel the Hermit Kingdom label once and for all.

Chief among the headline grabbers is the Lone Star fiasco. In 2003, US-based Lone Star Funds paid US$1.2 billion for the Korea Exchange Bank. Today, Lone Star executives in the United States are facing extradition proceedings to face criminal charges in South Korea for tax evasion, and possibly fraud and foreign-exchange violations. Managing partner John Grayken called for any probe to be free from the "anti-foreign political climate" that pervades South Korea.

The Lone Star saga is just the latest in a series of attention-grabbing deals that make South Korea appear to be a less than friendly environment for foreign investors. A company invests in an enterprise after a crisis, turns an indebted and failed business into a profitable, going concern, and then is investigated and hounded as it seeks to realize its profit and exit the market.

The Newbridge Capital sale of Korea First Bank to Standard Chartered, the Carlyle Group sale of KorAm Bank to Citigroup, and now the potential sale of the Korea Exchange Bank by Lone Star all have in common the generation of substantial profit from rescuing and reviving debt-laden lenders - as well as the widespread condemnation of civil society and local media - and ultimately, investigation for tax irregularities.

But it is not just the foreign investment community that considers itself a victim of the growing climate of rejudice in South Korea. Many among the expatriate community, from accountants and bankers to teachers and military personnel, attest to a certain dislike of foreigners that is enveloping South Korean society.

American military personnel experience South Korean jibes on a daily basis. After a 2002 military accident that resulted in the deaths of two middle-school students, anti-American sentiment, aimed at the military, has been intense. At its height, daily demonstrations outside US military bases reminded those inside that South Korean xenophobia extended to those who might be called upon to risk their lives to protect the country.

Foreign language teachers also experience South Korea's brand of unfair criticism from time to time. In Gyeonggi province, the local branch of the Korean Teachers and Educational Workers Union (KTEWU) released a statement squarely blaming foreign teachers for a string of sexual-abuse cases that occurred in English-language-immersion villages. The inadequate education, the lack of morals and the irresponsibility of foreign teachers all contributed to such outcomes, claimed the KTEWU - despite the fact that the alleged sexual-abuse cases involved South Korean English-language instructors.

Mitigating circumstances

Fear of foreigners is an ingrained cultural trait. South Korea experienced decades of foreign domination and interference, suffered through a brutal Japanese occupation and still endures a more than 50-year-old Cold War struggle to claim its position as the legitimate ruler of the Korean people. Korea's struggle to maintain its independence from foreign invasion goes back centuries. With a history like Korea's, fearing foreigners seems justified.

On top of this historical justification are a people seemingly so homogenous in ethnicity, language and culture that a foreigner, even another Asian, stands out. Despite being the most connected broadband society on the globe, a veritable poster child for digital globalization, long-nosed foreigners can still generate unblinking stares from the aged and giggles from the young, just minutes away from downtown Seoul.

Of course anti-foreign prejudice is not peculiar to South Korea. The reclusive, isolated and withdrawn Democratic People's Republic of Korea can be just as prejudiced. In fact, at a May 17 meeting between senior military delegations of the two Koreas, foreigners seemed to be one subject the negotiators could converse on at an equal level.

According to the Korean-language daily Chosun Ilbo, Major-General Kim Yong-chul, leader of the North Korean delegation, and Major-General Han Min-gu of the South Korean delegation engaged in a heated dialogue discussing the pure lineage of the Korean race, after the South's representative had noted that because of depopulation of rural areas, many South Korean farmers had married women from Mongolia, Vietnam and the Philippines.

However, South Korea's demographics are changing. In fact, this change is so dynamic that the South Korea of a decade ago and the South Korea of today look like two totally different countries - and trends suggest that by 2020, South Korea will a different country again.

Already South Korean society is no longer so distinctly homogenous in ethnicity, language and culture as once thought. In fact, it is not a stretch to say that it's definitely on its way to becoming multicultural. As pointed out by General Han to his North Korean colleague, In South Korea intermarriage is changing the complexion of the country.

Ten years ago, it would have been unthinkable for a honhyeolin - a term with somewhat negative connotations, literally meaning "mixed-blood person" - to be widely accepted and feted in South Korea. But as the media spectacle covering the visit of US National Football League most valuable player Hines Ward to South Korea showed, this is no longer the case. So while advancing in some respects, prejudice is losing some of its force in other aspects of South Korean society.

In fact, demographic trends indicate that by 2020, there will be considerably more than 1.5 million mixed-race Koreans. One in three newborns will be multi-racial, and one in five people under the age of 20 will be multi-racial. For the next 15 years at least, South Korea is going to be an easy target for those wanting to highlight its xenophobia - but given its dynamic demographic nature, a multicultural Korea may not be far away.

CC Photo by Maggie Meng

"Korean xenophobia faces new challenges", Asia Times, 13 June 2006