NYT on South Korea dealing with racism: Prosecutors spring into action. Contrast.


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Hi Blog. Well, look at this. First South Korea does away with its hojeok family registry system in 2007 (the similar koseki system, still extant in Japan, causes a lot of difficulties for NJ). This after it passes a law in 2005 with provisions against some forms of racial discrimination, such as against Koreans with mixed parentage.   Now, according to the NYT below, they’re charging people in court with racism and drafting laws against it, even protecting at least one person with no blood connection to Korea. Dunno how thoroughly this is being enforced, but given the cultural similarities (and attitudes towards outsiders), it SK can do it, I daresay it’s not impossible for Japan.  The discriminatory conditions described below sound eerily similar at times.  Read on. Arudou Debito in Sapporo

New York Times, November 2, 2009
South Koreans Struggle With Race

By CHOE SANG-HUN, courtesy lots and lots of people

SEOUL — On the evening of July 10, Bonogit Hussain, a 29-year-old Indian man, and Hahn Ji-seon, a female Korean friend, were riding a bus near Seoul when a man in the back began hurling racial and sexist slurs at them.

The situation would be a familiar one to many Korean women who have dated or even — as in Ms. Hahn’s case — simply traveled in the company of a foreign man.

What was different this time, however, was that, once it was reported in the South Korean media, prosecutors sprang into action, charging the man they have identified only as a 31-year-old Mr. Park with contempt, the first time such charges had been applied to an alleged racist offense. Spurred by the case, which is pending in court, rival political parties in Parliament have begun drafting legislation that for the first time would provide a detailed definition of discrimination by race and ethnicity and impose criminal penalties.

For Mr. Hussain, subtle discrimination has been part of daily life for the two and half years he has lived here as a student and then research professor at Sungkonghoe University in Seoul. He says that, even in crowded subways, people tend not sit next to him. In June, he said, he fell asleep on a bus and when it reached the terminal, the driver woke him up by poking him in the thigh with his foot, an extremely offensive gesture in South Korea.

“Things got worse for me this time, because I was with a Korean woman,” Mr. Hussain said in an interview. “Whenever I’ve walked with Ms. Hahn or other Korean women, most of the time I felt hostilities, especially from middle-aged men.”

South Korea, a country where until recently people were taught to take pride in their nation’s “ethnic homogeneity” and where the words “skin color” and “peach” are synonymous, is struggling to embrace a new reality. In just the past seven years, the number of foreign residents has doubled, to 1.2 million, even as the country’s population of 48.7 million is expected to drop sharply in coming decades because of its low birth rate.

Many of the foreigners come here to toil at sea or on farms or in factories, providing cheap labor in jobs shunned by South Koreans. Southeast Asian women marry rural farmers who cannot find South Korean brides. People from English-speaking countries find jobs teaching English in a society obsessed with learning the language from native speakers.

For most South Koreans, globalization has largely meant increasing exports or going abroad to study. But now that it is also bringing an influx of foreigners into a society where 42 percent of respondents in a 2008 survey said they had never once spoken with a foreigner, South Koreans are learning to adjust — often uncomfortably.

In a report issued Oct. 21, Amnesty International criticized discrimination in South Korea against migrant workers, who mostly are from poor Asian countries, citing sexual abuse, racial slurs, inadequate safety training and the mandatory disclosure of H.I.V. status, a requirement not imposed on South Koreans in the same jobs. Citing local news media and rights advocates, it said that following last year’s financial downturn, “incidents of xenophobia are on the rise.”

Ms. Hahn said, “Even a friend of mine confided to me that when he sees a Korean woman walking with a foreign man, he feels as if his own mother betrayed him.”

In South Korea, a country repeatedly invaded and subjugated by its bigger neighbors, people’s racial outlooks have been colored by “pure-blood” nationalism as well as traditional patriarchal mores, said Seol Dong-hoon, a sociologist at Chonbuk National University.

Centuries ago, when Korean women who had been taken to China as war prizes and forced into sexual slavery managed to return home, their communities ostracized them as tainted. In the last century, Korean “comfort women,” who worked as sex slaves for the Japanese Imperial Army, faced a similar stigma. Later, women who sold sex to American G.I.’s in the years following the 1950-53 Korean War were despised even more. Their children were shunned as “twigi,” a term once reserved for animal hybrids, said Bae Gee-cheol, 53, whose mother was expelled from her family after she gave birth to him following her rape by an American soldier.

Even today, the North Korean authorities often force abortion on women who return home pregnant after going to China to find food, according to defectors and human rights groups.

“When I travel with my husband, we avoid buses and subways,” said Jung Hye-sil, 42, who married a Pakistani man in 1994. “They glance at me as if I have done something incredible. There is a tendency here to control women and who they can date or marry, in the name of the nation.”

For many Koreans, the first encounter with non-Asians came during the Korean War, when American troops fought on the South Korean side. That experience has complicated South Koreans’ racial perceptions, Mr. Seol said. Today, the mix of envy and loathing of the West, especially of white Americans, is apparent in daily life.

The government and media obsess over each new report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, to see how the country ranks against other developed economies. A hugely popular television program is “Chit Chat of Beautiful Ladies” — a show where young, attractive, mostly Caucasian women who are fluent in Korean discuss South Korea. Yet, when South Koreans refer to Americans in private conversations, they nearly always attach the same suffix as when they talk about the Japanese and Chinese, their historical masters: “nom,” which means “bastards.” Tammy Chu, 34, a Korean-born film director who was adopted by Americans and grew up in New York State, said she had been “scolded and yelled at” in Seoul subways for speaking in English and thus “not being Korean enough.” Then, she said, her applications for a job as an English teacher were rejected on the grounds that she was “not white enough.”

Ms. Hahn said that after the incident in the bus last July, her family was “turned upside down.” Her father and other relatives grilled her as to whether she was dating Mr. Hussain. But when a cousin recently married a German, “all my relatives envied her, as if her marriage was a boon to our family,” she said.

The Foreign Ministry supports an anti-discrimination law, said Kim Se-won, a ministry official. In 2007, the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination recommended that South Korea adopt such a law, deploring the widespread use of terms like “pure blood” and “mixed blood.” It urged public education to overcome the notion that South Korea was “ethnically homogenous,” which, it said, “no longer corresponds to the actual situation.”

But a recent forum to discuss proposed legislation against racial discrimination turned into a shouting match when several critics who had networked through the Internet showed up. They charged that such a law would only encourage even more migrant workers to come to South Korea, pushing native workers out of jobs and creating crime-infested slums. They also said it was too difficult to define what was racially or culturally offensive.

“Our ethnic homogeneity is a blessing,” said one of the critics, Lee Sung-bok, a bricklayer who said his job was threatened by migrant workers. “If they keep flooding in, who can guarantee our country won’t be torn apart by ethnic war as in Sri Lanka?”


16 comments on “NYT on South Korea dealing with racism: Prosecutors spring into action. Contrast.

  • “If they keep flooding in, who can guarantee our country won’t be torn apart by ethnic war as in Sri Lanka?”

    Gimme an f’ing break, huh? Seems like South Koreans should be worrying more about war with their own kin up north than about some hypothetical “ethnic war” with migrant workers from Pakistan or Thailand.

  • I certainly applaud the efforts by the government to discourage racism and sexism in South Korea. However, I was troubled by the fact that merely uttering racial slurs in public was a matter for the police to deal with. Unless such words were accompanied by threats of violence or incitement to others to commit violent acts, IMHO they should not be criminal.

    Perhaps a charge of disturbing the peace would be more appropriate, or the bus driver could have had the offender removed from the bus. Focus on the behavior, not the content.

    It reminds me of the great efforts being made in my home country (Canada) to legislate against ‘hate’. A task which is both impossible and wrong.

  • japan and south korea sound very similar, the main difference is that south korea is acting and passing new laws to help NK (non-korean citizens) japan hasnt even touched these issues because its a taboo over here. the same goes for immigration reforms over here like debito pointed out in his recent japan times article this past week. I say we need to keep up the pressure on the GOJ, so they can start to feel the heat, or only our children will suffer in the end if the status quo continues.

  • “charging the man they have identified only as a 31-year-old Mr. Park with contempt”

    I would like to know more about this crime of contempt in S. Korea. I’ve never heard of contempt law being applied in this kind of context. Where I come from contempt is a crime with the elements being basically failing to respect an order of the court. It’s a jailable offense.

    I wonder what the elements of the crime are in S.Korea?

  • “However, I was troubled by the fact that merely uttering racial slurs in public was a matter for the police to deal with. Unless such words were accompanied by threats of violence or incitement to others to commit violent acts, IMHO they should not be criminal.”

    The problem is that such words are designed, by their very nature, to invoke fear in the people they are directed at – and often are preludes to violence.

    If the use of such words are not challenged strongly by law then the sentiment behind them can grow and then racism and the violence associated with it can get very out of hand.

  • Well can you tell us how much of that is experienced in a place like Sapporo ? i am planing a visit Sapporo incidentally I have friends there as well would something like that happened to me as well you think ?

    — I strongly doubt anything like this will happen to you when you visit Sapporo, or just about anyplace else in Japan, for that matter. Come visit.

  • ‘The problem is that such words are designed, by their very nature, to invoke fear in the people they are directed at – and often are preludes to violence.’

    Exactly that. the police are not telling you what to think, they are merely informing you that certain types of behaviour(s)are not acceptable in the public forum.

    Personally something ‘light’ along the lines of the UK Public Order laws (1936) – that you in a public place did use threatening and abusive language/behaviour, whereby a breach of the peace was likely to occur- would suffice. Not only for such cases as the Korean incident mentioned, but the day to day anti-social behaviour of certain elements of society who believe that living in cities has offered them an anonymity for the consequences of their acts, which didn’t/doesn’t exist in a less crowded rural environment.

    It’s not reintroducing the Tokko, it’s merely supplanting a now redundant social control based on community, with a societal control based on law.
    All societies that have made the jump from pre-industrial to industrial have had to do it.

  • ‘The problem is that such words are designed, by their very nature, to invoke fear in the people they are directed at – and often are preludes to violence.’

    Really? So, by criminalizing the words, do you think that the accompaning violence will be prevented? If I can’t say rude words about someone, that will lead me to not be violent against them…. sorry, I don’t see the connection.

    I dont see why this kind of language should be separated from others and treated differently. Loud and obnoxious behavior should be controlled, but based on the noise not the content of the speech.

    You can hear rude and racist words 24 hours a day, just get out some modern rap CDs.

    — In many societies, incitement to violence is not protected under free speech.

    If you want to discuss why Korea can do this but not Japan, fine. But if you’re going to argue that no society anywhere should be allowed to do what Korea’s doing, then you’re at variance with various international treaties dealing with hate speech, moreover expanding this discussion beyond the boundaries of this blog post. Bring it back.

  • DS- I believe the issue is with the personal attack given in a public place, not the specific words.
    You brought up a great comparison that I think actually detracts from your argument: this incident vs. a rap CD.
    The rap CD is not screaming and calling you racist terms and berating you in a public place, verbally attacking you.

    Otherwise, you have some pretty awesome CDs on hand.

    Back to the issue at hand- having traveled to Korea with my Japanese fiancee, I can very much see the need for this legislature. My fiance fell asleep on the subway resting her head on my shoulder, prompting a very uncomfortable amount of hateful staring, the likes of which I have never experienced in my life. Afterwards a man screamed at her in Korean as he was exiting the train.
    The thing that was infuriating (besides the racism) is she isn’t even Korean! Bloody idiots.

  • ‘In many societies, incitement to violence is not protected under free speech’.

    I’d go further and say that Japanese society is unusual among so called ‘developed’ societies in that incitement to violence is very much protected.
    Whether it be the occasional fist fights late at night between drunken salarymen, where the police are only interested in who threw the first punch and who came of the worst, not what was the reason for the first punch being thrown.
    Or it be some of the comments blared out from the black vans of the uyoku.

  • Inciting violence should be a crime, and is. However, there is no evidence that this occurred. Saying “Hey, let’s kill the (insert racial slur) who is defiling one of our women!” should be a crime.

    Merely calling someone rude names or using foul language? No way. Causing a disturbance is causing a disturbance, no matter what the words used. Standing on the corner and shouting “I love koalas” should be treated the same way as shouting “I hate (whoever)”.

    I visited Korea with my wife and had the same problem. Dirty looks, comments that I assume were directed at us. It wasn’t comfortable and convinced us to never return to such a country.

    The point is that this kind of thing can’t be solved by making rudeness a matter for the police to deal with. Education is the only answer.

  • ‘Merely calling someone rude names or using foul language? No way. Causing a disturbance is causing a disturbance, no matter what the words used. Standing on the corner and shouting “I love koalas” should be treated the same way as shouting “I hate (whoever)”.

    Ever heard of the ‘reasonable person’ stadard in law?

  • Wow, so I’m not the only one to have experienced the wierdness in Korea. My Chinese husband and I were constantly getting dirty looks when we walked around hand-in-hand, and it wasn’t until later, when discussing with a long term Korea resident that I understood why. He was assumed to be Korean, and by consorting with me was polluting the pure Korean blood. I have experienced curiosity in Japan (where people assume he is Japanese) and comments like “oohh, international marriage! Urayamashii ne!” but never outright hostility like that.

  • ‘Wow, so I’m not the only one to have experienced the wierdness in Korea’

    Nope. Probably apart from Debito, who seems to look at Korea wearing rose tainted glasses, most posters would agree that the explicit racism one encounters on the street in Korea is much worse than Japan.
    However the difference is the responsibility and actions of the elites in both Japan and Korea.
    Many years ago Jean Lehman wrote an inciteful article on the development of multi-racial societies in Europe and compared it with the possibility of such developments happening in Japan.
    He opined that multi-racial societies developed in Western Europe with the course of time and inter-marriage, but also, very importantly, because the European political elites enacted legislation that stopped people airing a lot of their their prejudices in the public arena
    He used the example of his studies in Oxford in the early 1970’s. Then, when looking for accommodation, he noticed that a lot of boarding houses had signs in their front windows advertising accommodation with the condition that ‘No pets, no blacks, No Irish.’
    With the enactment of the race relations act in 1976, all those notices disappeared and while the attitudes behind them still prevailed, it was a step in the right direction.
    With the passing of time, the attitudes behind such signs have largely likewise disappeared and although the UK is far from a multi-racial heaven, he noted that there had been remarkable progress along those lines since the bad days of the 60’s and 70’s.
    I am sure if Lehman were to comment on the differences between Korea and Japan concerning their approaches to their own societies fitting into a future global world, he would note that the Korean political elites, with such legislation that inspired this thread, are taking their responsibilities a lot more seriously than the Japanese political elites, who seem happy burying their heads in the proverbial sands of Japanese cultural uniqueness and differences.

    — Thanks for the points, which you could have made without the swipe at the beginning.

    In fact, I thought we’d get some people thinking by now that I see Korea through a more positive lens. Hardly. Which is why I wrote this yesterday at

    Quoting myself:

    NB: Before anyone begins to suspect that I think everything in Korea is gravy compared to Japan, let me say this: of course not. I just think that given the very strong cultural similarities between Korea and Japan, what may be possible as an alternative in Korea might be some bellwether for what’s possible here too. Is all. If Japan really wants its Yokoso Japan! to work better, it could do worse than consider promoting more open-minded hotels for international clientele. Instead of promoting exclusionary ones (like the Fukushima Prefectural Tourist Information Association did a couple years back), for example.

    Capiche, paisan?

  • Debito isn’t apologising for Korea – the fact is, the Korean legal system has done something that should be applauded as a very positive step. Of course this originated because the Indian Professor victim was insistent and I believe wrote to the United Nations and had the media publicise his case.

    In Korea I have never been turned away from a hotel. In shops/small stores people of all ages including old people with zero English are happy to accept me as a customer.

    Contrast that with Japan where I was turned away from 3 hotels in the ken in which I lived because apprarently I didn’t speak Japanese.

    All the while explaining to the staff that yes I speak Japanese and spoke Japanes to them. Contrast that with encounters with old people in their stores in Japan where I had a number of batsu signs and head shaking because I was not Japanese.

    The fact is: what will change Korea is the fact that Korea does care about its international image. Japan has an attitude of superiority behind the more civil public face and the better manners of its citizens.

    Korea does have xenophobes and racists in offical positions but at the same time the government has an awareness that Korea needs to become more internationalised.

    Studying English is a good move for the Koreans. While it is about business ultimately it does help for Korean kids and others to be exposed to foreigners such as English teachers.

    Korea’s history especially in the 20th century is completely different from that of Japan. Korea was colonised by Japan, the war zone for the Cold War and interference from world powers, and was a very poor country until the 80s.

    Japan has had far more western capital poured in, apart from firembombings and the atomic bombs in the 2nd World War it got off very lightly for its shameful alliance with the Nazis and extreme cruelty to countries in Asia, was given American technology free or at low prices to develop companies such as Toshiba and Panasonic, and had more of a history of western contact.

    I’d say that Korea is actually progressing more in matters of internationalisation than Japan is.


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