Korea: race, racism, and the ‘other’

Interesting take and important reminder of the historical and political background that underlies approaches to identity and civic integration. Readers more familiar with Korea may wish to comment:

Korea’s approach to multiculturalism is a paradox. The same multicultural policies and programs that have been enacted and encouraged by various administrations over the years have simultaneously reinforced racial and ethnic views vis-à-vis nationality and citizenship.

Multiculturalism often appears more akin to cultural assimilation. It means foreigners learning to eat kimchi, speaking Korean, wearing a hanbok, and going on television programs and acting surprised at things. Or, if you are like the vast majority of foreign nationals trying to acclimatize, it means learning how to be a good Korean wife and all the underlying Confucian conditions and requisites that come with it.

Despite what any government programs or officials might say, this not a melting pot – it’s a mold. If you fit, you can succeed…to a certain extent.

Here, Korean culture, race, ethnicity, citizenship, and nationality are virtually inseparable.

For example, it’s possible to be a white girl with blue eyes, have a Korean passport, live your life here and speak the language impeccably but never be thought of as “Korean”. Conversely, someone could be born and raised in the States, never visit the peninsula, not speak the language, but still be seen as “Korean”.

To understand how this works, you probably need to understand the concept of “minjok”.

“Min” represents people and “jok” represents family. Despite both these Chinese characters being in recorded use in the classical age, the term “minjok” was a modern construction in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, adopted by thinkers such as Shin Chae-ho in the country’s fight against imperialism.

Western (and later Japanese) imperial powers had begun planting their flags in Asia, seeking trade ports, military posts, and favorable conditions for further expansion, and thus a great competition arose for the most desirable locations. The Korean Peninsula found itself trapped in this game centered on the nation-state despite its pleas for isolation and the continuation of its own autonomous way of life.

For the creation of the nation-state as a political entity in Northeast Asia, as well as the generation of a national consciousness, 19th century political Korean activists sought to foster internal homogeneity and external autonomy. The concept of “minjok” provided such social cohesion: a category inclusive of every Korean without regard to age, gender, or status distinctions.

It was constructed by a collection of public intellectuals such as Shin Chaeho, Ahn Changho, and Park Eunsik. They were associated with the New People’s Association (shin-min-hoe) established in 1906 and focused on the independent strengthening of national power and promoting a more unified nationalist consciousness which did not just focus on a monarch or ruling elite class, such as the yangban.

Historical subjectivity was required. The story of the country could and should no longer be told by simply saying, “This king lived. Then he died. Then this king came along. Then he was murdered. Then there was the next king.”

A country’s history is more than the life, times, inbreeding, and corruption of a series of monarchs. It contains an entire population. Millions of lives, dreams, hopes, fears, stories, tales, music, arts, and more.

The minjok helped provide subjectivity to the people – it took the tale of Korea away from the kings and gave it to the people. A similar thing would happen here in the 1970s with the “minjung” movment.

Thus, the Korean people (all 76-odd million of them) see themselves as a family: Joined together not by law but rather by blood. This idiosyncratic ethno-nationalism means that, for some, the two Koreas can never be truly separated by politics or geography

It’s what still unites the North and South Koreans. Particularly in their disliking of the Japanese. “Minjok” was said to be one of the most frequently used words by President Moon in his meetings with Chairman Kim Jong-un.

Why is this important? Because it seems that it was attitudes of minjok that drove the new visa regulations brought in by the Ministry of Justice. Any non-Korean now has to get a permit to “leave” the country and then also receive a health-check abroad before returning. Failing to do either means you’re not allowed back in the country.

However, if you have a certain visa, which shows your mixed Korean heritage, you are exempt from these. Diplomats and other special cases are also able to avoid the bureaucratic procedures.

It’s interesting because there have long been different classifications of foreigners here. The E-2 native speaking English teachers are very much the minority in terms of numbers but often the loudest and most visible in media. There are other communities who have far more often faced the rough end of the stick in terms of laws and regulations, often silently or without their voice not heard as loudly.

Now, at least, there has been some element of egalitarianism in the treatment of foreigners. The new visa regulations say there are Koreans and there are non-Koreans. There are no distinctions made between those from a “western” country or those from elsewhere in the world.

And it’s worth remembering that the laws have been enacted to help control the spread of Covid-19. Like any bureaucratic government policy, whether they succeed or not is a matter of much debate.

However, many of the Koreans that I have spoken to (from the conservatives to the woke), support these new rules. Unflinchingly. Of course, this virus does not only affect certain races – we’ve seen Coupang incidents, churches, nightclubs, trips to Jeju and more – but the country will do its best to protect the people that live and work here.

For the most part, it’s doing a very good job.

Having been here for 15 years, I remember when we used to have to get re-entry visas before leaving. It’s not a new thing but a return of a previous policy. I’ve also done innumerable health checks, drug checks, AIDS tests, criminal checks, and everything else over the years. I’m far from a saint but I followed the law each time because I was happy living and working in Korea.

After all, if we are going to respect other cultures, a diversity of beliefs and ideologies, and tolerate things beyond our own personal value system, we have to allow sovereign countries to make their own decisions as best they see fit.

Korea has its own ontological and epistemological journey. Its laws and culture have been created according to specific spatial and temporal circumstances.

Yes, there is an element of “minjok” here and that might not sound appropriate to those from different parts of the world. But it’s worth remembering why the concept of minjok arose. As well as understanding why you or I also hold certain values. We are historical and sociological subjects – often speaking and reciting the concepts and words of the societies in which we grew up. The words of our dead ancestors.

This ain’t Rome, perhaps evidenced by the fact that modern South Korea sometimes feels like it actually was built in a day and that the pizza often has corn on, but one is nevertheless expected to do as they do here.

And while America is in flames and British elites seemingly flaunt government rules, I’ll continue to do my best to try and understand and accept the Korean journey – even if it means I don’t always approve of it.

Source: Korea: race, racism, and the ‘other’

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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