SEOUL: South Korea’s efforts to rid itself of a reputation for casual racial discrimination and overbearing ethnic nationalism will come under scrutiny this week from the United Nations (UN) top expert on racism.
Tasked with assessing racism, xenophobia and related into-lerance around the world, UN Special Rapporteur Mutuma Ruteere began a week-long mission to Asia’s fourth-largest economy on Monday.
One of Asia’s most ethnically homogenous societies, South Korea has a small but rising foreign population which 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” which featured chim-panzees dressed as a news anchor and a news reporter.
“I think that type of thing is largely down to a lack of knowledge,” said Kim Ji-Yoon, director of the Center for Public Opinion and Quantitative Research at the Asan Institute for Policies Studies in Seoul.
“It comes from people who don’t really recognise what racism is, or what you should or should not say. We haven’t had that education yet,” Kim said.
Others voice direct experience of overt discrimination, particularly migrant workers hired as low-paid, unskilled manual laborers.
When Filipina-Korean Jasmine Lee became the first foreign-born member of parliament in 2012, her election victory triggered a vicious, racially-charged online backlash.
As well as meeting labour officials, Ruteere has talks lined up with the foreign, defence, justice, education and maritime ministries.
“He’s interested in how Korea’s military treats multicultural conscripts, how school textbooks educate children to prevent racism, how foreign workers are being treated . . . and what kind of rules and laws are in place,” a foreign ministry official said.
Ruteere’s report on his visit will be handed to the UN Human Rights Council in 2015.
Kim Hyun-Mee, a social sciences professor at Yonsei University, argues that discri-mination in South Korea is partly a side-effect of the country’s rapid economic development.
The obsession with growth, Kim told the Korean Herald in an interview, resulted in Koreans grading foreign countries according to their ranking in the global economic hierarchy.
“Collectively, they would perceive specific nations, mostly developed countries such as the US or UK, as their superiors . . . while perceiving economically developing countries as their inferiors with no specific grounds,” she said.
Koreans’ strong sense of ethnic community has its roots in a history of relative isolation and constant threat from powerful neighbors China and Japan.
But recent surveys suggest old models of national identity are in a state of flux.
Koreans travel abroad in far greater numbers than before, and the number of foreign residents in South Korea has nearly tripled from just over 500,000 in 2006 to around 1.45 million in 2013— a little more than 3.0 percent of the population.