All through the Korean media and in business lunches and casual conversations, people are talking about race and Korean identity, a civic discussion shaped by the confluence of four news events.
The first was the gruesome murder of a young Korean woman (which hit the front pages in part because of the bungled response of police to her emergency call) by a Korean-Chinese man in Suwon. Then came a shooting spree by a Korean-American in California. Next was the election of a Philippine-born immigrant to the National Assembly. And finally came the approval on Tuesday of a Korean-American as head of the World Bank.
At the center of the civic and media discussion has been a spate of race-tinged criticism and false rumors spreading on Korean Internet sites about Jasmine Lee, the Filipina-Korean who joined the Parliament as a proportional representative from the New Frontier Party after its victory last week.
The vitriol has caused a rare alignment in the South Korean media – both the Chosun Ilbo, the country’s biggest paper and leading right-wing voice, and the Hankyoreh, the biggest media force on the political left, published strongly-worded editorials smacking down the apparent racism.
Both papers connect the dots from the Suwon murder to the slander against other immigrants over the past week and the criticism directed at Ms. Lee, which marred what should be a proud moment for South Korea – the first time a foreign-born immigrant has made it to the heights of the National Assembly.
“While outrage at a brutal murder is natural, it is shameful to allow this to descend into racism and xenophobia,” Hankyoreh said. It said that the name-calling and criticisms were “irrational” and pointed out that Americans did not resort to sweeping generalizations against Koreans in the wake of shooting incidents that involved Korean-Americans.
Chosun Ilbo sees a double standard in the pride that Koreans are taking in the appointment of Korean-born American Jim Yong Kim to head of the World Bank with the knee-jerk, xenophobic criticism of Ms. Lee and other immigrants.
“It does not befit the world’s 15th-largest exporting country to get excited about the achievements of an American who comes from Korea but on the other hand to react with hostility to an immigrant who achieves something here,” a Chosun columnist wrote. “Such double standards are unacceptable.”
Robert Koehler, whose Marmot’s Hole is one of the best-read blogs in the Korean expat community, suggests there’s politics at work even in the way the various media are playing different aspects of this discussion.
While that may be true, it’s a noteworthy turn in an ethnically homogenous country that only in the past decade has seen a sizable flow of immigrants and is trying to sort that all out. There are two main sources of the population inflow: women coming to marry Korean men and men coming to work in lesser-paying, so-called “dirty and dangerous” jobs that aren’t attractive to Koreans.
The immigration flow is fuel to both the South Korean economy and health of society overall as the country’s population growth is quickly leveling off. Even so, there’s plenty of anxiety or antipathy in South Korea about immigrants and it plays out in more ways than racist comments on Web sites.
Amid the onslaught of media coverage about the topic in recent days, the English-language newspaper Korea Herald weighed in on Wednesday with a long feature story about foreign labor in South Korea. Government policies illustrate the broader conflict, the story points out.
For instance, while the country has become more open to immigrant workers, it places limits the amount of time they can stay, which prevents them from settling in, rising up the ladder at their workplace and becoming full-fledged members of Korean society. Permanent immigration remains relatively low in South Korea compared to other industrialized countries.