Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Ask a Korean! News: Islamophobia Reaches Korea

This cannot end well.
An absurd assertion arguing that Islamic immigrants will bring down Korean society, spreading online, is causing a controversy. Other racially discriminatory assertions, not simply against Islam but also demanding the abandonment of the current multiculturalism policy, are also being boldly made, attracting attention as to the identity and the background of those who submit such writing. Some suggest that certain particular groups, dissatisfied with the multiculturalism policy, are intentionally disseminating Islamophobia to gather like-minded people similar to the "Tablo incident."

[TK note: Tablo is a celebrity rapper of Korea who is a graduate of Stanford University. There have been persistent allegations on the Internet that Tablo faked his degree, which managed to survive even after Stanford registrar produced a true copy of Tablo's diploma. The ringleader of the people who spread this false rumor was arrested for defamation. More background on that story here.]

On the 18th of this month, according to the Ministry of Employment and Labor, there have been 1500 posts on the free discussion board on MOEL homepage titled "Exclude Islamic Nations from Labor Export States" since the 23rd of last month. The posts, submitted after having undergone true name certification, argued that "Europe recently prohibited the importation of labor from Islamic nations such as Bangladesh and Pakistan," and "Korea must likewise forgo the multicultural policies." The submitters of the posts also suggested a mass objection against the current administration's multiculturalist policies, linking to the homepages of MOEL and e-People [TK note: Omnibus government website that receives all grievances against the government.] They are also continuing the attack by publicizing the telephone numbers of the chambers of National Assemblyman Jin Yeong, the Grand National Party member who proposed the Unified Basic Law on Multiculturalism last December. Spokesperson for Assemblyman Jin said, "We get dozens of calls a day asking us to give up on the multiculturalism policies." MOEL deleted all related posts, citing that "Same repeated posts are causing inconvenience to the operation of the board." MOEL is also cautiously considering asking for police investigation if such posts continue to be submitted.

Experts are casting their suspicion on an article titled, "Ruination of Sweden by Islamic Immigrants (the Future of Korea)," which is spreading through online communities and blogs. The article is mostly sensationalistic and hortatory, alleging that Sweden's social problems worsened after permitting Islamic immigrants to enter. Choi Yeong-Gil, professor of Arab Regional Studies of Myongji University, noted: "It appears that people who are dissatisfied with not just a particular religion but the multicultural society itself are duplicating and expanding Europe's Islamophobia." Kim Yi-Seon, director of Safety Center for Multiculturalism and Human Rights of Korea Women's Development Institute, said: "As the economy faces difficulty and the society becomes more chaotic, resistance against multiculturalism is gaining traction," and emphasized: "What is clear is that the current problems of Korean society is not due to multiculturalism."
광우병… 타블로… 이번엔 ‘이슬람 공포증’ [Dong-A Ilbo]

Many, many different angles to explore here, in no particular order.

1.  Multiculturalism, as a policy, is not a thoroughly examined policy in Korea yet. Non-Ethnic Korean (let's call them "NEK" for short) Korean citizens, especially in the form of mail-order brides and immigrant laborers, crept up on Korean society until they all of a sudden became a reality for mainstream Koreans. Korean elites were sympathetic enough to set a pro-multiculturalism agenda, such that legislators and mainstream media pushed for tolerance and acceptance. This is the first occasion in which opposition to that agenda is materializing in a meainingful, organized manner.

2.  Dong-A Ilbo is a conservative (within the spectrum of Korean politics) newspaper, and it clearly drew the battle line stating that opposition to multiculturalism is "absurd". More liberal newspapers (for example, the Hankyoreh) have been consistently promoting the multiculturalism agenda also. No politician so far has made a career by antagonizing immigrants yet. Cut off from mainstream media and politics, how will the opponents of multiculturalism legitimize their agenda? Which mainstream media and policians will co-opt into this advantage?

3.  Two faces of Korea's nationalism are in conflict here -- the more traditional race/culture-based nationalism and the more modern citizenship/polity-based nationalism. Which one will emerge victorious? Or will there be another variant to nationlism to accommodate both? (Perhaps, for example, language-based?)

4.  How will the NEK Koreans respond? Probably not much reaction is possible right now, but recall that a significant proportion of children (up to 10 percent) in Korea's rural areas are mixed-race children. Four years ago in the third post ever on AAK! -- so long ago that the Korean was speaking in first person -- the Korean wrote: "Unless Koreans do something to radically change their attitude toward foreignors and interracial people (unlikely), wide-scale race riots a la Los Angeles or Paris in about 20 years is a virtual certainty." Korea has done more than the Korean expected to move toward changing their attitude. But will the progress thus far be enough to avert wide-scale race riots 15 years from now, when these mixed-race children become young adults?

5.  How will Germany's recent disavowal of multiculturalism policies affect this discussion? How will America's anti-immigration rhetoric? Remember, "what other advanced countries do" holds a lot of sway in Korean political discourse.

6.  The Korean is not positive that even those Koreans who advocate for multiculturalism policies truly mean "multiculturalism" as the word is understood in other parts of the world.  When this debate intensifies such that the proponents begin to realize that "multiculturalism", originally envisioned when the term was coined, involves a lot more than they might be comfortable with -- e.g. bastardizing traditional Korean cuisine, maybe -- how will they respond?

7.  Kim Yi-Seon is correct that immigrants have little to do with Korea's current problems -- as of now. In the future when more immigrants come, they will contribute to Korea's problems, not because immigration is inherently problematic but because no movement of a large human group is free from at least some negative consequences. Will this change the debate in the future? Could proponents of multiculturalism solidify their grounds enough before the problems inevitably come?

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.


  1. Great post.

    I dont think Korea will escape ethnic riots and other insecure, male-fueled nationalistic thrashing. I have been somewhat surprised that Korea accepts about twice as many foreigners to its society than Japan, and how mainstream "multiculturalism" is compared to Japan. Yet at the same time, I think Korea is too much like Japan - its very cultural identity is mono-ethnic, far more than, say, Israel, which itself feels insecure about losing Jewish identity.

    I dont have much hope.

  2. I don't see why Korea need be "multi-cultural" in the American, European, Indian or Chinese sense.

    Korea is ultimately a small country. The progressive policy of "multi-culturalism" has led to the inability of certain ethnic groups in assimilating w/ the majority ethnicity of a country.

    Korea can handle immigrants as long as within a generation or two, the children and/or grandchildren speak Korean fluently and know Korean cultural norms. I see no reason why Korea has any responsibility to the world to host ethnic enclaves from all over the world, let America, Europe, China and India handle that.

    By the way I am a Korean-American, probably of similar educational attainment and background.. I just lean conservative/libertarian ;)

    Admittedly it does lead to contradictions. I support Arizon'a immigration law, but feel sympathy for undocumented Koreans in America ;)

  3. Just one comment regarding the comments of Angela Merkel, the German chancellor: they have no meaning for Germany as a whole. What she is doing is fishing for votes at the right-end of the spectrum, because she is pretty unpopular currently. But what she says is neither German policy, German public opinion, or anything German else for that matter. It is just a stupid way to fish for votes.

  4. I suspect that the origin of Islamophobia is from some Korean churches. Especially the documents refering CIA are from KWMA(한국세계선교협의회) or something like that.

    In fact the Korean workers in a plant with the foreign workers are paid more money and have more power, and there is no reason to be threthened by the foreign workers, at least for a decade.

    On the other hand the Korean churches are much more threatend by everything evil they feel by their standard. Also, their weaking power in Korean society might make them to find a scapegoat.

    I think the homophobia is also from churches. Why do the common Koreans need to be threatened by homosexuals?

    This does not mean that Korean society is generous to homosexuals or foreign workers. But at least about "phobia" the Korean churches should be blamed for that.

  5. If 'birthers' in the USA can retain an aura of credibility, anything is possible in the Tablo case as well. In the post-Photoshop world, any document can be faked, and any person can be bought.

    The concept of multi-culturalism has never really been a part of Korean society. One Korean people, one Korean family. Two countries, perhaps in the younger generations minds - but ONE Korea.

    It smells like another case of insecurity, passive-aggressiveness, and illogical statements made by those with IQ's that average a single digit. Sorry, but that logic circuit in your brain got disconnected somewhere along the line. Reconnect it, and we'll talk further.

  6. "Korea can handle immigrants as long as within a generation or two, the children and/or grandchildren speak Korean fluently and know Korean cultural norms."

    Can it? Is your average Korean going to consider a person who speaks Korean fluently and knows Korean cultural norms but who is not ethnically Korean a full Korean? Sometimes when people try to promote "multiculturalism," they are really trying to say, "Stop being so racist."

  7. The influence of internet in Korea has is very old. The social network in Korea was vivid already with the advent of cyworld in 1999. Every Korean was familiar with Korean version of Google, Utube, and twitter before 2003.

    What difference is it today from year 2000? Why suddenly internet became much more harmful place than 2003? Or does it just look like? Even though today the government enforces the use of real name. I really want to know what has been changed during the decade.

    One more thing: do the Korean really believe that Donga-ilbo endorses multiculturalism? The reporter could be like that. But the editor might not allow the article to be published if he could not find that title.

  8. This reminds me of a conversation I had once with some students who kept asking if my son was Korean or American (my husband and I are both from the U.S., not ethinc Korean, and our son was born in the U.S.; however, he attends Korean daycare and speaks Korean [he is 2]. He is a strawberry-blonde, blue eyed white boy).

    I remember asking them, "What if he was born in Korea, raised in Korea, went to only Korean schools, and spoke only Korean? Would he be Korean then?"

    Their response: "That would be just weird."

    My response to them was literally "hmmm..."

  9. I'm not going to rationalize Islamophobia, but I will say that the Saudi government does not make it better by promoting Islam in Korea. I know that they have spent millions setting up mosques and supporting efforts to convert Koreans to Islam. They have said that they wanted to spread Islam to Korea because Koreans would be a great ambassador for the religion. I believe in freedom of religion and if private individuals were involved, I would not mind it as much. But having a foreign government campaign to spread a religion to another country is just religious imperialism. And what makes it worse is that the Saudi government would not allow individual Korean Christians to spread Christianity. So it is very arrogant and audacious for them to do that in Korea. Islam as practiced in Arab countries is not a good influence for a Korea that is already too conservative.

  10. Check this out:


    If the US, with a long tradition of openness to immigration, can't escape this crap, I don't see that Korea will either.

  11. If the US, with a long tradition of openness to immigration, can't escape this crap, I don't see that Korea will either.

    A long tradition of openness to immigration? Sure, if you don't count the Chinese Exclusion Act, the quasi-IQ tests designed to weed out southern and eastern Europeans, etc., etc.

    Frankly, the highly race-conscious and highly race-schizophrenic US means that race-infused issues (e.g., illegal immigration, legal immigration, affirmative action, segregation, integration, automatic citizenship at birth, etc., etc.) don't get discussed so much as they get shrilly screamed about.

    South Korea is an entirely different animal. Essentially, there are two kinds of Koreanness, blood and culture. Ten or twenty years ago, predicting that 1 in 8 SoKo marriages would be "international" and that a similar number of kids in Korea would be multi-ethnic would have sounded like crazy talk. But South Koreans are voting in favor of their own individual interests in favor of discarding essential Koreanness as blood.

    And that leaves Koreanness as culture. Learn Korean, speak Korean nowadays and you are much more accepted. This is quickly becoming the new norm as Koreans are being trained — by the media — to accept formerly non-Koreans as Koreans. That so many people want to not just come to Korea but come and be Korean is a major national ego stroke.

    Contrast that with the US, where immigrants are typically viewed with suspicion by a large number of Americans, and you can see that the American experience may have not as much relevance to South Korea as it may seem at first.

    How about looking at Canada?

  12. You can't compare Korea to America or Canada because the histories are too different. America and Canada are essentially countries founded on colonization. Korea is not. So pretty much everyone in America and Canada are immigrants or descendants of immigrants if they are not natives. And racism was imposed on those two countries due to the history of colonization. Korea does not really have a race-based history, but one that is more centered on ethnic identity.

    I think the Korean government is trying to get ready for multiculturalism through its programs and public service announcements. Too many people are trying to compare the Korea of the now with America in its current state. But although Korea has a shorter and newer history in regards to immigration, it has shown a much more proactive and progressive approach to the incoming population. There are many programs and services to help foreign wives adapt to the Korean language and culture. There are public service announcements/commercials to help Koreans open their minds to accepting those who look different as Koreans. There is even a TV show that is aimed at doing that called "Love in Asia". I don't see anywhere in American history that provided for such accommodation of new immigrants. Perhaps the most accommodating thing would be ESL classes. So yes, you can't compare Korea to Canada or America. And eve in you did, Korea would still come out ahead in terms of the changes it has implemented in such a short period of time.

  13. [Does] the Korean really believe that Donga-ilbo endorses multiculturalism? The reporter could be like that. But the editor might not allow the article to be published if he could not find that title.

    The Korean is sure that the editorial board is in favor also, given that it ran a 33-part series on multiculturalism on its paper recently.

  14. Some statistics on the provenance and religious affiliation of the immigration to S.Korea would be welcome. However, I'd think most of it is from China, Vietnam, mostly non Muslims, and practising Muslim women can't marry non Muslims, so no rural Muslim babies for Korea. Even if heavily Muslim populated countries are in the Korean vicinity, it's in no way comparable to Europe. I would be surprised if Korea ever developed any sizeable Muslim community, be it indigenous or immigration born.
    Islamophobia is, however, fashionable nowadays. This must be a symptom for something else, there must be some other target less fashionable to bash behind those terrorist Muslims.
    Any idea who?

    @Itissaid: Please, Saudis are in no way representative or legitimate to act or speak in behalf of Muslims, citizens of Muslim countries, Arabs or Arabophones anywhere outside their borders, even representing their own citizens is questionable... I would ask you please to be careful with the distinction.

  15. Maybe it's my 70s upbringing, but I really don't see Korea embracing anything more than "superficial multiculturalism." NEK look different from ethnic Koreans and they'll have tough time being truly accepted. Even ethnic Koreans (Koreans from Manchuria) and Korean Koreans (either due to regional differences or feudal class differences) are still discriminated against, sometimes openly, to some degrees today.

    If reunification happens in the near future, that may delay the inevitable conflict for generation or two as famished North Korean population will take place of most migrant workers. But that's going to open up a whole new can of conflict.

  16. I wonder what Koreans think about Islam. Here in Europe (and apparently also in America) this so-called Islamophobia is growing all the time. Anti-Islamic parties (SVP in Switzerland, PVV in Netherlands, FrP in Nowray etc.) has become a major political forces, and so on. Does anything like this happening in South Korea?


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