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South Korea's population becoming more diverse, but tolerance lagging

By Elizabeth Shim
South Korea's population becoming more diverse, but tolerance lagging
Hundreds of migrant workers, some working without visas, gathered in central Seoul on March 20-21 to protest poor treatment and lack of compensation for work-related injuries. March 21 is the U.N.-designated International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. Photo by Yonhap

SEOUL, April 8 (UPI) -- As South Korea's population becomes more multicultural with a steady influx of foreigners seeking jobs, South Korean society is facing the prospects of becoming more ethnically diverse.

But with more racially mixed marriages and the election of the nation's first foreign-born member of parliament, the changing demographics give rise to questions of discrimination and workers' rights.

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"There's negative perception regarding multiculturalism," said Jasmine Lee, 37, a Filipino who became the first foreign-born member of South Korea's National Assembly in 2012. "Even in Europe, [Koreans say] multiculturalism has failed, so why would a small country like South Korea succeed?"

Many natives have opinions of migrants that range from negative to indifferent. Lee's election brought out the negative in force, especially online. Tweets derided her foreign origins, and many jeered the financial perks of a high-level job going to a non-Korean.

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Even now, three years later, it's still tough.

"The biggest challenge I face is letting people see that I belong where I am right now," Lee said in a recent interview with UPI.

Migration to South Korea is a relatively recent phenomenon, but it is now a regular occurrence thanks to the rise of South Korea's industry, long credited for the nation's climb out of poverty and transformation into an economic powerhouse. Workers were initially brought in from China and Southeast Asia to perform labor shunned by more educated South Koreans, and their numbers have continued to grow.

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Under various visa schemes, 491,000 workers from the Philippines, Vietnam, China and South Asia were contractually employed in 2013, according to South Korean immigration statistics. Migration by marriage has also increased exponentially, from 125,087 marriage visas issued in 2009 to 150,865 in 2013. In the six years from 2006 to 2012, roughly 238,000 international marriages were registered, and a total of 1.6 million foreigners reside in South Korea. That's a small percentage of the total population, in a country with 50 million people, yet big enough for most South Koreans to sit up and take notice.

Lee represents them all in South Korean parliament, undertaking the task in a country unfamiliar with multicultural pluralism. Despite South Korea's lack of experience in managing immigration, it is also taking steps to address the welfare of a marginalized population.

But it's not always an easy task, Lee told UPI, when racial minorities in South Korea are rarely made visible in mainstream society.

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"The only time you see foreigners on television is during the Lunar New Year, or the holidays. They're wearing hanbok, traditional Korean clothing. And most of the time it's for fun," Lee said.

The fun can mask the real problems migrants face, such as discrimination.

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On March 20 and again on March 21, the U.N.-designated International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, hundreds of migrant workers, some working without visas, gathered in central Seoul to protest poor treatment and lack of compensation for work-related injuries, South Korean news agency Yonhap reported. They said they are accused of stealing jobs, when they say that in fact they are contributing to the enrichment of Korea with their diversity.

In October, U.N. Special Rapporteur Mutuma Ruteere said there are "serious problems" in South Korea that range from discriminatory exploitation and maltreatment to racist, verbal abuse.

Lee told UPI that South Korean perceptions of new immigrants have been at the focal point of her work at the National Assembly. The first of her bills to pass introduced multicultural education into public school curricula. Training teachers on tolerance was a core component, she said.

Such initiatives are unprecedented in a country where multiculturalism was not even a topic of discussion until recently.

Timothy Lim, a professor of political science at California State University in Los Angeles, said there was little discussion of multiculturalism prior to 2003.

"If there was any discussion of multiculturalism in Korea, it was about other places, and not Korea," Lim said.

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But Lim said the rise of a foreign-born population is a long-term trend in South Korea where, like other countries that undergo rapid industrialization, an eventual demand for workers in "3D" or "dirty, dangerous or demeaning" jobs has created a need for an immigrant workforce.

While it's too early to tell whether discussions revolving around multiculturalism have had a positive impact, Lim said improvements to work visas for migrant workers now provide a clear legal entry for a large number of foreign workers who want to work in Korea. The visas for "non-professional employment" have been extended to four years and 10 months. But the extension is designed to prevent a full five-year stay – the length of time required for permanent residency.

Meanwhile, migration to South Korea has become more permanent for another growing population: marriage migrants, or spouses of South Koreans, and their children – who are often of mixed heritage.

Cindy Lou Howe, an American filmmaker of African-American and Korean heritage, spent several years in South Korea as an educator, and later produced a film addressing issues that affect the growing population of multicultural children.

Her documentary, Even The Rivers, looks at how South Korea is educating children of different backgrounds. Howe told UPI that public schools are disenfranchising a group of kids "just based on the fact that they're not 'pure' Korean."

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"Unlike a pure-blooded Korean child, the opportunity to go to a public school and not to be teased, bullied and being basically forced into a position where they would want you to drop out, are few," she said.

In the film, Howe visits a special school that provides a safe space for multicultural Korean children, where they tell her in interviews why they like the school. The feeling of acceptance that comes with attending the school, and going to classes where the teachers show they care, they told Howe, contrast with South Korean public schools where even a fluency in Korean is not enough for them to win acceptance from their peers.

The Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs said the number of multicultural families in Korea is expected to rise to 740,000 by 2020, and their needs will need to be met.

"Korea has always been resilient, and very open to changes considering what they have gone through since the Korean War, then building themselves back up," Howe said.

"And multiculturalism is going to be one of those things. Whether or not Koreans are ready, it's going to happen."

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