Darcie Draudt is a research associate for Korea Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
On September 29, the United Nations special rapporteur on racism, Mutuma Ruteere, began the first-ever official UN Human Rights Council mission to South Korea. Ruteere is scheduled to present his preliminary findings at a press conference on October 6, at the end of his visit. South Korea has increasingly aroused scrutiny for its myopic depiction of foreigners in media and treatment of foreigners in workplaces and public spaces. But the situation is more complicated than meets the eye, and the special rapporteur is likely to find a nation confronted with new, unfamiliar choices in defining itself as it continues to deepen and broaden exchange on the global stage.
South Korea, a country that is virtually homogenous ethnically, faces a demographic challenge: how to incorporate the 1.57 million foreign-born residents (approximately 3.1 percent of the total population) into its social, economic, and political landscape. The number of foreign-born residents in 2013 amounted to 1.76 million, a 8.4 percent increase from the year prior, after adding undocumented foreigners.
There is growing awareness in South Korea that this group comprises a diverse group of immigrants. Children from so-called “multicultural families” (that is, families in which one parent’s birth nationality is not South Korean) increased 18 percent year on end from 2012 to 2013 (accounting for 0.9 percent of all schoolchildren)—and according to a recent government survey, 75 percent of these youth identify as “Korean.” For its part, the South Korean government recognizes that foreigners are seeping into the familial, social, educational, and economic fabric of South Korea, and this phenomenon necessitates careful consideration of the political and national identity challenges.
For the past fifteen odd years, the government has stepped up its initiatives to aid these families, particularly via its damunhwa (“multiculturalism”) initiative. The Korean Immigration Service, housed under the Ministry of Justice, has set out successive five-year immigration policy plans to better face changing needs and realities. The first, which ran from 2008 through 2012, aimed to “enhance national competitiveness and social integration, and to establish systemic immigration administration and human rights advocacy for foreigners.” The second five-year plan (2012 through 2017) has made significant progress in developing a clearer path from temporary stay to permanent residence status, with a special focus on attracting global talent and on supporting multicultural families.
Accompanying immigrant inclusion initiatives in the policy realm, the public has been debating what it means to be Korean. With the April 2012 election to the National Assembly of Jasmine Lee, the first non-Korean-born representative, the debate seems to be taking on a new tenor, one in which the country recognizes that foreign-born residents and their children may have an interest in not only working with Koreans as outside influences, investors, spouses, or laborers, but as individuals who integrate into South Korean society.
Despite some movement toward a more “Korean-style multiculturalism,” Korea’s traditional notion of citizenship, as has been argued elsewhere, is based on ethnocultural homogeneity and descent which may be at odds with democratic inclusion. However, the government as well as increasing organization within the migrant community (such as the Migrants’ Trade Union, formed in 2005) continue to push the legal limits of inclusion, and the increasing and more diverse visibility of non-ethnic Koreans speaking Korean in popular media will continue to evolve the discourse of multiculturalism and inclusion.
As Kim Jiyoon points out, Korea faces a strategic decision between maintaining policies that promote ethnic nationalism in order to facilitate eventual unification of the peninsula and “cultivating civic nationalism in preparation for a multiethnic Korea.” The import of this decision is amplified by recent polling that suggests the Korean public decreasingly sees North Koreans as “one of us.” As South Korea faces a multifaceted demographic crisis, a more vibrant and pluralistic civic nationalism in discourse and policy may be needed sooner than the one currently accepted by the ethnic Korean population. Despite difficulties, as a globalizing democracy South Korean leaders and public intellectuals may need to employ a stronger hand in redefining the South Korean state as inclusive more than just the Korean nation (minjok).
Through its past experiences with democratization and economic development South Korea has become a society that is concerned with the welfare of its citizens. As the South Korea seeks to make greater impact internationally and share what it means to be Korean abroad, it must also continue to evolve its understanding of what it means to be a Korean at home; indeed, Korea sees itself at once rooted in history and increasingly a modern mover in the international sphere. These changes bring Korea into a wider international discussion about governing a polyethnic populace.
While understanding the demography of South Korea differs greatly from that of other states, multiculturalism in South Korea can no doubt benefit from collaboration with partners like the United States to develop institutions and themes to better shape a more accepting form of what it means to be Korean, however complicated that may be. To such an end, the Korean educational curriculum may need to help foster understanding and respect of different ethnicities and cultures within Korean borders. Also, the UN special rapporteur’s findings, which will be presented in 2015, will provide areas that the UN and other international organizations can use to contribute productive programming to combat racism and promote multicultural equality and acceptance in South Korea that is consistent with international norms while mindful of South Korea’s unique position.
Increasing numbers of foreign nationals as long-term or permanent residents may provide a new test for Korean democracy, in which non-ethnic Koreans will ask for a clearer and more welcoming path to citizenship. Such a development might be the tipping point that could push South Korea from defining itself by its ethnic nationalism to one united with a civic nationalism. But this development can only occur if broadly imagined definition of what it means to be “Korean” also undergoes a revolutionary change.