By Steve Kelman

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Korea copes with multiculturalism

I am in Korea for a few days of lectures, and I arrived in the middle of a national discussion involving the first naturalized Korean citizen ever elected to the Korean National Assembly, in the national congressional elections a few weeks ago. Her name is Jasmine Lee, a Filipina who became a Korean citizen after marrying her Korean husband.

This is a big deal because Korea, like Japan, has for thousands of years been an ethnically homogeneous nation, with great importance traditionally given to ethnic purity and bloodlines. (This is an even more important part of the ideology of the ruling Communist party in North Korea, which portrays South Korea as having been betrayed to American foreigners.) Korea and Japan, unique among the world’s nations to my knowledge, pay a lot of attention to blood types, believing that blood type influences personality and also compatibility between men and women – many Koreans put their blood type in the “About me” section of their Facebook page. (I have been pleased to learn, I guess, that my blood type, O, is considered a very good one for a male.)

However, Koreans are now realizing that their reality is different from their ethnically homogeneous self-image. There are a million foreign workers in Korea (out of a population of 50 million), mostly coming from poorer Asian countries and working in menial tasks. However, these people may only stay for a limited time and cannot seek citizenship, so it’s easy for Koreans to think of them as not “really” being part of Korea. However, Korea also has one of the largest rates of intermarriage with foreigners of any country in the world. Male Korean villagers find it easier to find foreign brides than Korean ones – many rural Korean women are moving to cities, and even those who don’t are less interested in getting married because of the subservience that marriage often produces in the country. The children of these marriages – like the newly elected member of the National Assembly – are Korean citizens, and Korea can’t avoid recognizing they are part of Korean society.

South Korea has advanced since 1960 from one of the poorest countries in the world – with a per capita income below that in many African nations – to a country with four times the per capita income of China, and is predicted to reach the per capita income of Japan by 2030. Adapting to a globalized, multicultural world seems to be the next step for Korean development.

A few other Korea impressions:

1) The U.S. Embassy in Seoul occupies an enormous swath of land, behind barbed wire, right in the middle of the city, near the old emperor’s palace and the offices of the President of Korea. This is a legacy from the Korean War period, and, frankly, if I were a Korean, I would resent this foreign presence in the middle of my capital. I know of no U.S. embassy anywhere else in the world that is so centrally located. Our government is moving our military base in Seoul outside the city (creating Chinese anger because it’s going to be closer to China). My unsolicited advice is that the US should donate our Embassy’s land to the city government for a park and move our embassy to another part of the city.

2) On the facades of the apartment high rises everywhere in the city is a logo of the construction company that built them. I was told that, since each construction company has a reputation for building a certain price range of housing, this was a way to signal how fancy a building is.

3) Once a tea-drinking nation, Korea – at least Seoul – is enveloped in coffee. There are coffee shops everywhere; I don’t think I have ever seen a place with such a coffee shop density. In addition to the American chains The Coffee Bean and Starbucks (which is present but by no means dominant here), there are an enormous number of local chains, including a knockoff called The Coffee Bene (which I have a hard time resisting giving an Italian pronunciation).

4) Lady Gaga will be giving a concert in Seoul soon as part of an Asian tour, but the government has decreed, to some ridicule here, that it will be X rated – people under 18 will not be allowed to attend. A Christian student group, Student Alliance for Safeguarding Korean Culture, has announced they will protest at the Lady Gaga consert against her “abnormal, obscene” performances.


Posted on Apr 27, 2012 at 12:09 PM


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