South Korea Struggles to Confront Its Own Racial Prejudices

Black Lives Matter has sparked change among a younger generation.

A Black Lives Matter protest in Seoul
Activists hold placards as they attend a rally in support of the Black Lives Matter protests sweeping the United States during a march in the Myeongdong district of central Seoul on June 6. Ed Jones/AFP via Getty Images

As people from across the planet poured into the streets in support of the Black Lives Matter movement over the summer, I expected my fellow South Koreans to rally in solidarity with them.

After all, it was only three years ago when they toppled their president with massive protests. South Korea gave the world BTS, a K-pop boy band, whose legions of fans have matched the band’s $1 million donation to the Black Lives Matter campaign and famously pranked a Trump rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, with fake sign-ups. South Koreans also remember the painful history of police brutality in the 1970s and 1980s, when pro-democracy protesters and riot police violently clashed and a 21-year-old protester died while being tortured.

But when it came to the most important civil rights movement of this generation, South Koreans largely stayed glued to their handhelds and sat out the events. Only about 100 people marched quietly in Seoul with Black Lives Matter signs. The news barely covered the protests.

That is a shame. But it arose mostly out of ignorance—combined with a blindness to South Korea’s own problems with racism.

Overt racism has not been a big concern in South Korea. There is anti-Japanese sentiment that children are taught in school, largely attributed to the Japanese occupation of Korea from 1910 to 1945. It flares up every now and then, with temporary boycotts of Japanese brands such as Uniqlo and vacations in Japan. There is not much interethnic tension within South Korea to speak of. Riot police have abandoned tear gases and carry plastic shields instead.

Many South Koreans are outraged that a Black man can be murdered at the hands of white police officers in broad daylight. But it’s befuddling to them that such police violence could exist in the United States, because, for South Koreans, police brutality is a symptom of dictatorship, not democracy.

Equally incomprehensible is the opportunistic looting and escalating violence that took place on the margins of the peaceful Black Lives Matter protests. They remind many South Koreans of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, when the tension between Black Americans and Korean Americans ran high, and Korean shop owners suffered extensive property damage from the riots. The sight of people ransacking stores brings up generational prejudices against Black Americans, which the South Korean media played no small role in amplifying through lopsided coverage 28 years ago. Many Koreans, for whom former U.S. President Barack Obama’s election was a sure sign that the United States had overcome racism, are oblivious to the systemic racism Black Americans face. The inability to comprehend why anyone would loot anything other than a police station at a George Floyd protest can easily turn to prejudice.

And yet, inconvenient as it may be for many to acknowledge, the fact is that South Korea faces a social reckoning that takes a page from the Black Lives Matter movement. There is a widening gap between the country’s cultural exports and soft power, on one hand, and its age-old ethnocentric prejudices on the other. This gap is visible, for example, in how the country treats its 1.5 million migrant workers from poorer countries. On temporary visas, they live and work in harsh conditions and have no opportunity to integrate into society. Undocumented workers are sometimes killed or injured during police raids. Another example: When nearly 500 Yemenis arrived seeking asylum in 2018, half a million Koreans petitioned the government to expel them, accusing them of being terrorists. In the end, only two received refugee status.

Integration is a concept that has little place in this ethnically homogeneous country of 51 million people, whose cultural guiding principle is conformity. For decades, Korean authorities have promoted interracial marriages between Korean men and foreign brides, especially in rural areas, so the men can have children. In rural areas women flock to cities for opportunities and men stay put to look after the family farm. The family line is carried on by men, not women, so people are less sensitive to Korean men marrying foreign women than Korean women marrying foreign men, because in the latter marriage, a non-Korean lineage would be introduced: a deeply Confucian, and therefore sexist, notion in which men are considered seeds and women fields. Almost half of South Korea’s migrant brides, predominantly from Southeast Asia, report being abused at the hands of their husbands, who often threaten to withdraw spousal visa sponsorship.

It’s no secret that racial discrimination is still legal in the country. A comprehensive anti-discrimination bill that would protect racial and sexual minorities was stuck at the National Assembly—along with a slew of other similar bills— from 2006 to 2020 due to opposition from conservative evangelicals set on denying gay people equal rights and keeping Muslims out. Confucian values still rule the day there, and even though there is no state religion, evangelical Protestant churches wield outsize power, with their ranks filling corporate boardrooms and the National Assembly.

Of course, racism is common across the region. For decades, ethnic minorities in Hong Kong have faced police violence, which pro-democracy protesters only recently came to experience. China is running a campaign of mass detention and forced sterilization against Uighurs and other ethnic minorities, amounting to ethnic cleansing of its Muslim population. Japan arbitrarily detains illegal immigrants in facilities where last year almost 200 detainees went on a hunger strike, one of whom starved to death.

When the news of the coronavirus spread in February, restaurants in South Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, and Vietnam promptly shut their doors to Chinese customers. For South Koreans, it was a repeat of the Ebola scare in 2014, when they suspended flights to Kenya, canceled conference invitations for Nigerian students, and put up signs banning Africans from restaurants.

With a rapidly aging population and one of the world’s lowest birth rates, South Korea will need 15 million immigrants by 2060 to sustain its economy. But the nation needs outsiders not only for economic reasons. It needs them in order for it to become more inclusive, more tolerant, and more diverse—the hallmarks of a healthy democracy.

But there are also signs of change. K-pop artists didn’t start out as guerrilla activists. They owe it to their massive U.S. fan base. When MTV excluded K-pop artists from its main award categories last year, the fans—many of whom are Black and are responsible for K-pop’s global ascent—took to social media, accusing MTV of racism and xenophobia and boycotting the award ceremony. This year, BTS walked away with multiple MTV awards. BTS’ producer said rightly that Black music is the base of the boy band’s musical identity. K-pop is rooted in hip-hop and R&B, even though the industry has been slow to acknowledge this and hasn’t always given proper attribution to Black artists.

But broader change should start with the education system, which fosters an unhealthy level of nationalism in children and young people, feeding into regionwide racism and mixed with historical grievances and cultural ignorance caused by too much homogeneity. The issue is not just hostilities against migrant workers or asylum seekers, but also against women, against the LGBTQ community, against people with disabilities, and against poor people—the list goes on. The Korean media should be aware of their own bias and raise the public’s awareness. K-pop artists should help their fans at home to learn that diversity is a strength, not a weakness.

It’s rare, but there is a recognition among young Koreans that the Black Lives Matter movement is about broader inclusion that transcends race. They might come to understand that globalization is more than ramping up trade or building a global brand. And maybe they’ll use social media to articulate visions of equality, instead of just posting their pets’ new outfits.

Katrin Park is a development expert and freelance writer.

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