UN racism envoy puts South Korea to the test

South Korea`s efforts to rid itself of a reputation for casual racial discrimination and overbearing ethnic nationalism will come under scrutiny this week from the UN`s top expert on racism.

AFP| Updated: Sep 29, 2014, 11:05 AM IST

Seoul: South Korea`s efforts to rid itself of a reputation for casual racial discrimination and overbearing ethnic nationalism will come under scrutiny this week from the UN`s top expert on racism.

Tasked with assessing racism, xenophobia and related intolerance around the world, UN Special Rapporteur Mutuma Ruteere began a week-long mission to Asia`s fourth-largest economy on Monday.

One of Asia`s most ethnically homogenous societies, South Korea has a small but rising foreign population which has not always been made to feel welcome.

Some complaints focus on examples of racial insensitivity, such as performers wearing black-face on TV, or recent advertising for a new cigarette brand "This Africa" which featured chimpanzees dressed as a news anchor and a news reporter.

"I think that type of thing is largely down to a lack of knowledge," said Kim Ji-Yoon, director of the Center for Public Opinion and Quantitative Research at the Asan Institute for Policies Studies in Seoul.

"It comes from people who don`t really recognise what racism is, or what you should or should not say. We haven`t had that education yet," Kim said.

Others voice direct experience of overt discrimination, particularly migrant workers hired as low-paid, unskilled manual labourers.

When Filipina-Korean Jasmine Lee became the first foreign-born member of parliament in 2012, her election victory triggered a vicious, racially-charged online backlash. 

As well as meeting labour officials, Ruteere has talks lined up with the foreign, defence, justice, education and maritime ministries.

"He`s interested in how Korea`s military treats multicultural conscripts, how school textbooks educate children to prevent racism, how foreign workers are being treated... and what kind of rules and laws are in place," a foreign ministry official said.

Ruteere`s report on his visit will be handed to the UN Human Rights Council in 2015.Kim Hyun-Mee, a social sciences professor at Yonsei University, argues that discrimination in South Korea is partly a side-effect of the country`s rapid economic development.

The obsession with growth, Kim told the Korean Herald in an interview, resulted in Koreans grading foreign countries according to their ranking in the global economic hierarchy.

"Collectively, they would perceive specific nations, mostly developed countries such as the US or UK, as their superiors... while perceiving economically developing countries as their inferiors with no specific grounds," she said.

Koreans` strong sense of ethnic community has its roots in a history of relative isolation and constant threat from powerful neighbours China and Japan.

But recent surveys suggest old models of national identity are in a state of flux.

Koreans travel abroad in far greater numbers than before, and the number of foreign residents in South Korea has nearly tripled from just over 500,000 in 2006 to around 1.45 million in 2013 -- a little more than 3.0 percent of the population.

That is projected to increase to 10 percent by as early as 2030.

The two main sources of immigration are migrant workers and women -- mostly from China and Southeast Asia -- who come to marry South Korean men.

The latter have forged a significant demographic change with the number of "multi-ethnic" children born to mixed marriages rising from just over 44,000 in 2007 to nearly 200,000 by 2013, according to government data.

In rural areas, where most mixed marriages take place, some projections suggest 49 percent of all children will be multi-ethnic by 2020.Kim Ji-Yoon believes this will impact long-held views of "Koreanness" which, according to regular Asan Institute surveys, are already showing a sharp generational shift.

Asked in a 2013 poll to rate preconditions for Koreanness, 55.5 percent of Koreans in their 20s said having the Korean bloodline was important, compared to 81.5 percent of respondents in their 60s or over.

This, Kim argues, reflects a gradual move from ethnic- to civic-based nationalism which rates respect for the rule of Korean law as far more important than ethnic background.

But this shift has taken place during a period when immigration and multiculturalism -- while growing -- are still at very low levels.

"At three percent of the population, the foreign community is still tiny. What will be interesting is when it becomes five percent, or 10 percent -- enough to form a political bloc or be seen by some as a `threat`," Kim said.

"And as these multi-ethnic children grow up, they will join the intense competition for top university places and white collar jobs.

"That`s when problems might start to arise. They`re not visible yet, but they`re going to come," she added.