South Korea has serious problem with racism, U.N. envoy says


The U.N.’s top expert on racism outlined Monday “serious problems” faced by migrant workers and foreign marriage partners in South Korea, ranging from discriminatory exploitation and maltreatment to racist verbal abuse.

Following a weeklong mission to Asia’s fourth-largest economy, during which requested meetings with ministers failed to materialize, U.N. Special Rapporteur Mutuma Ruteere said it was clear South Korea faced challenges related to its growing foreign community.

He called for better education, improved legislation — particularly on employment — and steps to ensure the media avoided “racist and xenophobic stereotypes.”

One of Asia’s most ethnically homogeneous societies, South Korea has a small but rising foreign population that 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,” that featured chimpanzees dressed as a news anchor and a news reporter.

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

Ruteere highlighted the plight of migrant workers in the agriculture and fishing sectors, who suffer tough working and living conditions, and generally work longer hours for less pay than their Korean counterparts.

As well as being denied their entitled share of the catch, non-Korean fishermen are “often subjected to racist and xenophobic verbal and physical abuse by ship owners and captains,” he told a press briefing at the end of his visit.

He also noted that current regulations make it difficult for workers to change employment and many are forced to leave the country in order to be paid their severance settlement when their contract expire.

Together with migrant workers, the other main source of immigration is women — mostly from China and Southeast Asia — who come to marry South Korean men.

Ruteere said the marriage migrants often lack adequate protection in the event of separation or divorce, especially when no children are involved.

They are “in a particularly vulnerable situation, as many are afraid to report domestic violence for fear of losing their residence permit,” he said.

“You can see there are serious problems. They are problems that need attention by the authorities,” he said.

Marriage migrants 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.

While Ruteere said he was informed of racist practices at the institutional level, he noted the existence of “xenophobic groups” who argue that policies supporting multicultural families discriminate against Koreans.

“It is important for the government to dispel these myths,” he said.

Ruteere’s report on his visit will be handed to the U.N. Human Rights Council in 2015.

  • wrle

    Sounds almost as bad as japan.

    • Charles Henry Wetzel

      I lived in Korea for five years (1988-1990, then 2006-2009) and Japan for three and a half years (2011-present). This is my take on it.

      Both countries are far more similar than they are different, especially in the xenophobia/racism department. I have been watching Korea very carefully since 2005 or 2006 (when I moved there), and at the same time, I have been watching Japan (where I have been living since 3/7/2011).

      Back in 2005 or 2006, Korea was definitely more xenophobic and less foreigner-friendly than Japan. Permanent residency required either a Korean ancestor, marriage to a Korean, or >$500,000 in the bank. You couldn’t do online shopping because all Korean servers were required by law to require a Citizen Registration Number. Foreigners could not own their own work visas, so they were at the mercy of their employers. At that time, Japan was less xenophobic–I watched foreigners in Japan get permanent residency after “just” ten years (without needing Japanese blood, a J-spouse, or a huge bank balance), I watched them buy things from Yahoo! Auctions without needing a Citizen Registration Number, and I watched them on their free-and-easy work visas, changing jobs and teaching private lessons legally whenever they felt like it.

      However, both countries have changed considerably since 2006. Korea has improved. Japan has gotten worse.

      Korea now has a visa called the F-2-7 that most reasonably well-qualified foreigners can get after working in Korea for one year on a regular work visa (most people with a degree and some certifiable Korean ability can qualify relatively easily–it is not nearly as difficult as Japan’s points system visa, which is nearly impossible to get), that allows not only job switching and multiple jobs, but work in just about any sector, something the Japanese work visas do not allow. Korea also now lets foreigners with a good income get permanent residency after just five years (versus ten years in Japan), or three years if they have already acquired an F-2-7. Korea’s foreign population has increased from 1 million to over 1.5 million in just eight years. Korea also has more multi-ethnic children being born than Japan. All of these changes have happened recently, over the past eight years or so.

      Japan, on the other hand, is following a very negative trend. Zaitokukai rallies have increased. There was a Neo-Nazi rally the day that Obama visited (the government claims they were powerless to prevent the group from getting a permit). The foreign population has been decreasing for several years now. Visas are now more restrictive than they were previously (previously, you had until the end of your visa to find a new job if you were fired or quit, but now, you only get about three months before getting departure orders, because they tightened the system). The Prime Minister has specifically said that he wants a revolving door visa system in which foreigners stay for no more than three years, then go home. And this year, the Japanese Supreme Court ruled that, for the first time since 1954, foreign permanent residents are not entitled to any welfare (yet foreigners still have to pay the same taxes as Japanese people). This is very scary because it might only be a matter of time before they make the same decision with National Health Insurance and Pension–if the logic of “you’re foreign, so you’re not entitled” can apply to welfare, then why can’t it also apply to National Health Insurance and Pension?

      So basically, both Korea and Japan are xenophobic countries. However, Korea has a slightly positive trend, and Japan has a very negative trend. Right now, their levels of racism and xenophobia are about the same, but in 2020 or 2030, I wouldn’t be surprised if Korea is a less racist place to live. Japan is going down a very, very dangerous slippery slope, and Korea is changing for the better.

  • Tom Metzger

    Racism is normal and desirable.Tom Metzger

  • Jae Hwan Jung

    Korea’s racism is just this. I know it coz I m Korean and lived there for 16 years. You are white -> In most cases they are not really racist. Rather, people could be more friendly than they do to natives. Black, south east asian, indians, arabs -> higher chance of treated badly. I guess it s the same in Japan?

    • Charles Henry Wetzel

      @Jae Hwan Jung

      “I know it coz I m Korean”

      Everyone, stop talking! We have a REAL LIVE, AUTHENTIC KOREAN IN THE ROOM, and therefore a total expert on what non-Korean minorities in Korea experience, especially white people! Everyone, let’s listen!

      • Jae Hwan Jung

        Well you might have had bad experience. Everyone cannot be friendly y’know. There is no such thing as ‘always kind’ and ‘always friendly.’ You of course know that, right? I’m talking about in general from what I have seen. When someone talks without facts — statistics and so on — it is their own opinion. White superiority does exist. You lived in Korea so you know that right? And I said Koreans “could be” more friendly to White people than they are to natives. Could be means “could be” not always.

      • Charles Henry Wetzel

        Jae Hwan Jung,

        I think that first of all, you’re confusing “hospitality” with
        “racial equality.” It is true that Koreans sometimes treat foreigners well,
        especially tourists and short-term visitors. Many of these
        tourists/short-term visitors who are treated well are white, but I have
        also seen people of other races given this treatment, too. However, this
        is not racial equality. This is just hospitality. Hospitality is nice, and it is a very good quality that Koreans have, but unfortunately, hospitality doesn’t make up for racism.

        Whites experience less racial discrimination overall than blacks or brown-skinned people, true, but there is still LOTS of discrimination against all non-Northeast Asians in Korea. Maybe they don’t tell you about it, because they don’t want to get into an argument with you, or because they don’t want to seem unpleasant, but there is constant discrimination at every level of society (even for white people).

        Of course, you’ll probably say something like “but there’s racism in every country.” Well, that may be true, on a personal level (I’m sure there are racists in America, the UK, etc.), but in Korea, it’s different, because it’s not just social, but in the legal system!

        Your country had a racially-segregated military until 2011! Did you know that? Your country still gives better visas (such as the F-4) to people with Korean blood, even if they can’t speak Korean. Meanwhile, those visas are not even available to people without Korean blood, even those who speak Korean fluently! Your country has no criminal penalty for businesses that refuse non-Korean customers. No matter how bad America’s, the UK’s, New Zealand’s, etc. racism may be, in the OECD, pretty much only Korea and Japan STILL have openly discriminatory laws in their legal codes.

        Korea cannot even begin to be considered on the same level of racial tolerance of other OECD countries (besides Japan) until it implements laws against racial discrimination and removes its existing racist laws (though de-segregating the military in 2011 was a good first step).

        I think that Korea is improving, slowly. At least it desegregated its military in 2011. Although Korea still gives better visas to ethnic Koreans, at least it has more options available for Korean-speaking foreigners now (like the F-2-7). However, the journey to being a racially tolerant country is still far from over. Here are some things that Korea still needs to do (of course, Korea can choose to do what it wants, but then Koreans should expect constant complaints from the UN):

        1. Enact a racial equality law. It is okay if foreigners do not have all the same rights as a Korean citizen (that is normal), but if a white, black, or brown-skinned person has Korean citizenship, that person should be treated equally, under the law, to an ethnic Korean Korean. Similarly, foreigners should be treated equally with other foreigners under the immigration law without regard to blood (more on this in #3).

        2. Criminalize bars/clubs/etc. that refuse foreigners. Make them pay a fine, shut them down, or arrest their owners when they post signs saying “KOREANS ONLY.” Don’t just have the police go there and politely ask them to please, please not do that. The laws have to have teeth!

        3. Either abolish the F-4 (and the special visa for Chinese Joseonjok ethnic Koreans), or make both of these visa categories open to Korean-speaking foreigners, too. Determining any type of visa based on blood only is ridiculous.

        4. Require ALL foreigners (including Korean-Americans and Korean-Canadians) to go through a criminal background check before teaching in Korea. Don’t exempt Korean-Americans and Korean-Canadians from this requirement.

        5. Start teaching children in your schools about racial equality. I don’t just mean a unit on Martin Luther King Jr. and racism in the American South, I mean an actual unit in school that includes types of racism that have happened IN KOREA. Delete any mention of “dan-il-min-jok na-ra” (one-race country) from the curriculum and the textbooks. Teach kids that it is rude to talk about foreigners right in front of them. Teach children to treat all people with respect, not just Koreans.

        If you do the above five things, you will find that the UN will stop complaining so much about racism in Korea. Korea’s image to the outside world will improve. More people will want to visit your country and buy your products, and more “good immigrants” (researchers, scientists, doctors, etc.) will want to come to Korea and make a positive contribution to Korea.

      • Kochigachi

        Trust me, you don’t want to visit these Korean Only clubs and stores, they probably don’t even have English speaking staffs and no English signs, and services are not made for non-Koreans. Koreans are one of the world’st most homogeneous and they’re proud of this so what? If you’ve problem with this then just leave.

      • Charles

        Ummm…I speak Korean just fine. I don’t need English services. Trust me, I wanted to visit these clubs and stores.

        In addition to living in Korea for five years, I spent two years studying Korean intensively at Yonsei University Korean Language Institute (연세대학교 한국어 학당) and graduated from there. Not only can I handle daily life things just fine, I could enter a Korean university if I wanted to, with classes taught in 100% Korean. So your comment of “they probably don’t even have English speaking staffs” is ridiculous. I don’t need, or even want, English-speaking staff.

        I _did_ leave, because Korea was a waste of my time. Why live in Korea and experience racism everyday when I can live outside of Korea and continue to criticize its racism from the outside? It’s all the same Internet…

      • Kochigachi

        FYI, Korea is still 99% Koreans so their major customers are mostly Koreans, what do you expect from small businesses and btw there’s no permanent residency visa in S.Korea F-4 is skill visa only for these professionals like engineers, scientists, doctors, nurse etc.. D-4 visa is for these temporary stayer. Don’t try to fool people here.

  • Kochigachi

    All I know both Korea & Japan don’t welcome foreigners as one of their own but welcomes as tourists and guests. If you’re foreigner then don’t think about settling in Korea or Japan.

    • Charles

      You wrote: “If you’re a foreigner then don’t think about settling in Korea or Japan.”

      Why? Because you told me not to?

      Oh, gee, guess I’d better start packing my luggage and buy a plane ticket, then!

      Oh wait–it’s the Japanese government that gives me my visa, NOT you! Great! I can stay! I can continue to work here, live here, and play (including with hot Japanese and Korean girls, whenever I feel like it)!

    • Scott Beckingsale

      What a racist comment. Should I leave with my Korean wife and children or leave them here? If you want people to seriously consider your views then bring back every overseas Korean, close your borders and stop exporting and interacting with the outside world.