Many foreigners are victims of racial discrimination in South Korea. According to a 2015 survey by the Seoul Institute of 2,500 foreign nationals, 94.5% had experienced discrimination in Seoul─62.2% of them due to nationality and 28.8% of them due to appearance. Racism can happen anywhere in our society in different forms, either through words or through physical violence. In South Korea, racism mostly targets people from Southeast Asia and Africa. In 2009, the Korean Education Broadcasting System (EBS) conducted an experiment on how South Korean citizens react to foreigners asking for help. In the middle of a street in *Gangnam*, two men─one from Canada and the other from Indonesia─asked random people for directions to a huge mall in the city. When the Caucasian man asked for help, most people were kind enough to help out. However, many people tried to avert the man from Indonesia, even before he approached them. Only about 20% of the people helped him in the end.
South Korea has long been characterized by ethnic homogeneity, especially after its independence from Japanese colonialism, South Koreans are much more exposed to Western food, clothes, and films. They even idealize the Western physical appearance.
Such difference in treatment becomes more palpable in the labelling of interracial marriages. When a person from a Western country is married to a Korean, the family is considered to be “global.” However, when a person from a Southeast Asian country gets married to a Korean, that family is labeled “multicultural,” which is a term that is relatively discriminatory amongst South Koreans.
The problem is that in South Korea, there is no anti-discrimination law. This is a huge contrast to many other countries that have specific legislation against racism. The Racial Discrimination Act of 1975 in Australia, for instance, prohibits discrimination on the basis of color or ethnic origin, and imposes monetary penalties against whoever violates the act, depending on context. The European Union (EU) also has several acts regarding anti-discrimination, such as the Race Equality Directive 2000, which implements the principle of equal treatment regardless of ethnicity and race in the member countries. Meanwhile, there is no such prohibitive law in South Korea. In 2015, The United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on racism, Mutuma Ruteere, requested the South Korean government to enact an anti-discrimination law in order to counter racial discrimination, after his visit to the country. Still, there seems to be no initiatives taken by the government to address racism in South Korea.
Despite the increasing number of reports on racial discrimination, it is still not regarded as a serious offense in the country. Sometimes, making racist remarks is not considered discriminatory at all. For example, the word *heukhyung*, a familiar slang for “black bro” in Korean, is often used for fun to refer to people with dark skin. Sam Okyere, a famous Korean entertainer from Ghana, once mentioned in a television show that he did not like being called *heukhyung*, as it is a racist term. In order to root out racism in the country, more cultural awareness is needed, and citizens must be more conscious about racism. Proper education on the values of multiculturalism must take place in the long term. People need to be educated on the true worth of mutual respect between different ethnicities. Also, an anti-discrimination act is needed, making the act of racial discrimination in any form illegal. With the number of foreign residents now exceeding 2 million in the country, it is time to open our minds and treat them more fairly.
Interviews with Foreigners
Q: Tell us your experience as a foreigner living in South Korea. When have you experienced racism?
“As a Chinese student, I have experienced a lot of racism here. I once filmed a video about false prejudices that Koreans have about Chinese people, and we received many mean comments on YouTube. The video was about asking Chinese people if they are really “loud, rude, and dirty” – as many Koreans tend to believe. One of the comments said, “This is not prejudice; it is the reality. Most of the Chinese are like that. I have lived in China for four years. At first I did not have any prejudice towards them, but after I lived there, I see them as beasts.” The comment received many likes. Another comment said, “I don’t like Chinese people not only because they are dirty and mean, but also because they are so sinocentric.” After I saw the comments, I was really insulted and hurt.
Also, I was once watching the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) soccer match between Shanghai and Seoul with my friends, and the people sitting next to us were insulting Chinese players, calling them *janggae** several times. They said that Chinese people were loud and that our players were really bad at soccer. They knew that we were Chinese, and I think that they said that on purpose. We were insulted, and we moved our seats.”
“I am teaching English at a public elementary school right now, and I can only speak from the perspective of a (privileged?) white American. At my elementary school, I’ve had very pleasant interactions with my co-teachers and have not felt discrimination because of being a white American. There was, however, one instance that I remember feeling a little discriminated against.
In Jeongseon, I was at my favorite coffee shop with two other friends (also English teachers), and we were working on our laptops, taking up the largest (six-seater) table in the coffee shop. The store is pretty small, and can accommodate only up to five or six groups of people. A man walks in with two other friends, and at that time there were no empty seats. He proceeds to ask the owner if he can make the foreigners leave so he and his friends can sit there. This conversation was in Korean, and I understood what was being said (I studied Korean for two years at university, and have been self-studying for the past year). The owner was conflicted for a moment but fortunately, another group was getting up to leave at the same time, so the crisis was averted.
I would say that generally, Koreans are more open-minded towards white foreigners, whereas dark-skinned foreigners, and especially Southeast Asians, are more susceptible to racial discrimination.”
“I am from Singapore, currently working in South Korea. One time, I was sitting in the subway and chatting with some of my friends in English. An old man who was passing by stopped, literally stared at us, and then said that we are to speak in Korean since we are in Korea right now.
It was not a surprise to face racism in South Korea. Though it is becoming more and more multicultural these days, I still believe that ethnic homogeneity and nationalism are strongly rooted in the culture.”
Box 1: Anonymous reports via Facebook
“As a black American, one of the most common discrimination I experience is when I apply for jobs and the recruiters tell me, “Sorry but we only want white teachers”.”
“What pisses me off is that racism is ingrained in very young kids here. I was once doing a unit to third graders on “What does she/he look like?” and one of my slides had a beautiful young African woman. When I asked what she looked like, three students simultaneously shouted, “She is ugly!” It’s not their fault that they think that, and that’s part of what angers me the most.”
“As an African woman, I can’t count the number of times I was refused a job simply because I am not white. Offices here want the image of looking “global” and “global” here means *Caucasians only*.”
**janggae*: a derogatory term used by Koreans to describe Chinese people