When South Korea promotes itself as “the hub of Asia,” it’s an aspiration rather than a description. Hub cities — central locales within vast networks of trade — are by their nature multiethnic, multilingual and at least moderately tolerant: think of ancient Rome, imperial Vienna and London, New York and Hong Kong and Bangkok today. Seoul is so bereft of anyone other than non-Koreans that even in the heart of it’s business district, white faces were enough to make me turn around for a second look. (South Asians and Africans, also conspicuous, turned up primarily in the large markets and in Itaewon, a district popular with GIs, and we noticed a few Peruvians here and there.)
If proof is needed that Korea is not ready to face the reality of its hub fantasy, look at the way it treats those of its people who are of mixed race. In an article in Korea Focus, novelist Kim Jae-young details the ways in which mixed-race Koreans are excluded from society: sent to special schools, exempted from military service, discriminated against by employers and generally treated like non-citizens.
About the best notion Koreans seem able to come up with to deal with these issues is further segragation: separate schools and even villages have been proposed to shield mixed-race families from the pain of exclusion and discrimination. The problem, of course, is that the children of mixed-race couples will still grow up to face a hostile Korea that doesn’t want them, while ethnic Koreans will continue to be raised in mono-ethnic schools and communities, never confronting the challenges raised by the presence of minorities. The mixed-race Koreans will remain strangers to their brethren, and the cycle of discrimination will continue.
Today, more than 10 percent of marriages in Korea are mixed-race, while Koreans in America and elsewhere outside of the Peninsula are presumably intermarrying at least as often. In a nation of just 49 million people, there are 200,000 mixed marriages already. It is thus inevitable that over the next couple of decades, Koreans will be forced to confront much more seriously the issue of mixed-race children. Segregation, as Americans know, cannot be sustained for a minority population approaching 10 percent of the population. Korea cannot create a separate but equal state within a state for half-bloods. This approach failed American blacks miserably. Similar efforts are failing for Muslim minorities in Europe, though they are rooted in liberal thinking and free of the taint of historical slavery. Separate but equal isn’t.
South Korea needs an immediate, massive effort to reshape public opinion. Multicultural education is needed at every level, from kindergarden through university and beyond. Public outreach campaigns should blanket the country. Only a complete reversal of current racial attitudes and a radical rethinking of what it means to be Korean can save Korea from the nightmare of a permanent underclass, living in impoverished ghettos, disaffected and angry, and with nothing to lose.
Unless Korea wants its own banlieu riots in 20 years, it had better get its act together, and fast. Sadly, I doubt that it will.
Also published on Medium.