Discontinued ColumnsMinority Report
Who Am I? Chinese or Korean?Difficulties for Chinese-Koreans in Korea
Kim Jin Assisstant Reporter  |  holyjjin@yonsei.ac.kr
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승인 2006.05.01  00:00:00
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IN THE Little China of Incheon, fantastic gates and examples of Chinese classical architecture stand here and there. Original Ja Jang-myun(noodles with stir-fried bean paste) is the culinary pride of the local Chinese. The first Chinese immigrants came to Korea in 1882, under the reign of Gojong, the last king of the Joseon Dynasty. They were merchants who followed the Chinese army. Since 1882, thousands of Chinese have established themselves in Incheon, Seoul, and Busan to engage in commerce. Twenty thousand Chinese are currently residing in Korea, but the alluring scent of Jasmine in Chinatown masks serious problems

  Social Status - Chinese or Korean?

  "We are not tourists, exchange students or illegal residents, but there are so many unfair obstacles we face. We have lived here for most of our lives and some of us were born in Korea." Written on the Chinese residents' human right Internet cafe site (http://cafe.naver.com/koreanchinese), this passage gives a glimpse of the many inconveniences in their lives. The common anxiety is their social status. Despite the long history they have in Korea, they are neither Korean nor Chinese. They eagerly want to be Korean but the price of naturalization is too high. Chinese who want to naturalize must posses over ₩500 thousand and have a steady job. In addition, they have to gain Korean sponsorship. Chinese-Koreans cannot have any confidence because of the long history of exclusion and discrimination that they have faced in Korea.

  Continuous oppression

  Chinese-Korean residents have always been oppressed by the Korean Government. Ex-President Park Jeong-hee enacted the Land Restriction Law for most foreigners. Foreigners had to be granted permission from the Korean Government to posses their own land, but it was impossible for most Chinese residents. Although the Land Restriction Law was revised in 1970, the restrictions for Chinese still remain. A Chinese family can only possess one store, and their acreage of land is limited. The only way they can gain land access is by borrowing a friend's identity. But Chinese have suffered from their friends' betrayals. Many Chinese residents have lost their land this way.

  Life's inconveniences

  Day-to-day problems also follow Chinese residents. Ma Sang-yeon (71, Resident of Chinatown) says, "It's too difficult to apply for cell-phones or credit-cards. We cannot use all internet services because foreigners' identification numbers are not recognized." Chinese residents are classified as foreigners who reside in Korea. For that reason, a foreigners' certificate of registration is offered to them instead of Korean identification cards. Even though problems such as use of cell-phones may not seem major, it implies that Chinese residents cannot be guaranteed the protections of regular citizens. Identification is a necessity for modern life.

▲ A gloomy town is hidden behind the fantastic Chinatown gate.
  Way of life

  Most Chinese-Koreans run Chinese restaurants because many jobs are closed to them. Though running a restaurant is a good job, there are still many problems. According to a survey by the National Human Rights Commission of Korea, 77% of 700 Chinese answered they felt discrimination in employment, and 79% felt discrimination in job promotion. Many Chinese-Korean job applicants are rejected on the basis of written exams and interviews. This is caused by social prejudice against Chinese-Koreans. This distinction is like Japanese discrimination against Korean-Japanese. Chinese residents have to pay taxes like Koreans, but protection for them is too low. Duties and rights are extremely different.

  Imperfect Chinatown

  Because of the difficulties, many Chinese residents in Chinatown have to give up their restaurants and lives in Korea and immigrate to the USA and Japan where they have to start life over again. Though the present appearance of Chinatown is improved, legal and institutional problems such as denizenship, social status, and education still remain. Futhermore, Chinese residents want Korean Chinatowns to hold more prestige. Chinatowns in Japan, Singapore, and the USA are the pride of the Chinese and the core of sightseeing business. Compared with those towns, Korea's Chinatowns are imperfect.

  How to participate in society

  Choo Bon-kyung (56, President of Seoul Korean Chinese Union) says, "It is inconvenient not to have any suffrage. There are a lot of problems to solve, but there is no way to participate in fixing them." Even though laws giving suffrage to foreigners have passed, they are too restrictive. Many Chinese-Koreans do not have a franchise yet. "I want to help my people. For example, Korean Chinese handicapped people cannot get any protection from government," Choo points out. Suffrage is the right to live fairly in Korea. To solve problems such as Chinese handicapped people and lack of educational funds, Chinese-Koreans must be granted justice.

  The need for open nationalism

  Korea is a nation of unique nationalism. Through it, we have achieved great progress, but the present virtue we need is tolerance. In France, minorities protested greatly because of racial discrimination. Korea is not an exception to that problem. Korean society already has many minorities such as Chinese, Korean-Asians, and Muslims. Unless Korea broadens its definition of nationalism, a more terrible strife may occur. Chinese-Koreans have lived in Korea for three generations. They have learned the Korean language and life style. They want to receive rightful recognition. The time for a national policy of tolerance and openness is now.

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Ma Sang-yeon('71, Resident of Chinatown) explains the difficulties of being Chinese-Korean.
(Photographed by Bang Hyung-duk)