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New perspective needed
“Korea has to recognize the multi-ethnic character of contemporary Korean society and overcome the image of Korea as an ethnically homogeneous country, which no longer corresponds to the actual situation existing in Korea.” That was the recommendation of the United Nations Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, made in the concluding remarks of the Aug. 17, 2007 period report on Korea.
In July of 2007, the Ministry of Justice announced that there were over 1 million foreigners in Korea, making up over 2 percent of the total population. Of that number, 720,000 were reported to be long-term residents. As the population census begins to reflect the diversity in Korean society, many groups in the public and civil sector are starting to address issues of ethnicity and tolerance.
However, discrimination against foreigners has not diminished, despite these efforts.
In the National Human Rights Commission of Korea, the number of complaints of discrimination against foreigners has been on a steady incline: before 2004, there were less than 10 complaints alleging discrimination against foreigners, while the number rose to 37 in 2005, 46 in 2006, and 59 in the first half of 2007.
One particular complaint involved a restaurant in Seoul that refused to serve customers from a specific country. The Commission concluded that the refusal of service based on national origin or race was discriminatory, and that the restaurant should take measures to prevent the recurrence of such discrimination.
Though the Commission`s efforts are all but part of a much larger whole, why do we not see a reduction in discrimination against foreigners in Korea?
When American football player Hines Ward was named the MVP of the 2006 Super Bowl, many Korean nationals emphasized the need for improved treatment towards “mixed-bloods.” I received a call from a woman, whose brother had married with a person from another country, expressing her frustration with the media`s focus on the “pitiful, mixed-blood” children. She explained that her nephew was maliciously harassed in school the day after the 9 p.m. evening news ran a special on “kosians.” One person`s gold is another person`s garbage: society`s newfound concern seemed to have caused another form of pain.
One of the most problematic issues is the lack of sensitivity in mainstream society, particularly when discussing racial issues. Those who are not sensitive may use terms like “mixed-blood” or “kosian” to classify other people by race or descent, although efforts from organizations such as the National Human Rights Commission of Korea have pointed out the discriminatory nature of the term “mixed-blood,” which is used in the February 2007 Official Opinion on the Bill for Support to Mixed-Blood Families.
Another problematic issue is the actual process of creating race-based classifications, as it brings humiliation to those within the group, and may lead those not inside the group to vilify the insiders as people seeking endless attention, pity or support. While it is notable that there are concerted efforts to assist socially vulnerable groups, there is a fine line between assistance and seemingly unjustifiable subsidy.
Sound support for any minority group can only be built on the principle of equality between the majority and the minority in concern. Children of international marriages need to be treated as equals, not given sympathy for their “situation.” Building this foundation firmly will yield benefits for the lives of generations to come.
The National Human Rights Commission of Korea attempts to respond to complaints with action that imbibe, society with the idea that “foreigners” and “Koreans” are equals.
In one case, the complainant stated that he was unjustly rejected for vocational-rehabilitation training only because of his foreigner status. Like many other complaints, the rejection of the training seemed justifiable to the respondent, as foreigners are seen as “strangers” and not members of society. This mindset extended to the idea that “foreigners are not entitled to receive social services” in this particular case.
Though the complainant could have received the rehabilitation training, it is only one drop in the bucket. Similar complaints are still received at the Commission on a regular basis.
Immigrants are, and have been, sound members of our community. Korea must acknowledge foreigners and all minorities, including racial and ethnic minorities, as full members of society, and recognize all groups for their contributions to this and future generations of Korea.
It is recognition long overdue.
By Susan Kim
Susan Kim works with the National Human Rights Commission of Korea as an investigator on the Migration and Human Rights Team. – Ed.
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