Foreigners cite nationalism, discrimination as barriers to life in Korea

Posted on : 2007-04-23 14:16 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
In wake of Virginia Tech incident, Korean society called on to accept its own immigrants

A 30-year-old foreign woman, who gained South Korean nationality last year after leaving her home in a central Asian country to marry a Korean, wept on April 20 as she talked to a Hankyoreh reporter. Her bloodshot eyes were mixed with anger and chagrin. Her anger centers on how her 10-year-old son is treated in school, where he is a third-grade elementary student. "Fourth and fifth grade students beat my son because he is different in appearance. Despite my appeals to the school, the matter hasn’t been resolved.” Because of the matter, she transferred her son to another school, but the situation did not change. "My son is scared of going to school," she sighed.


A 36-year-old Mongolian woman came to South Korea in 2003. Though she received Korean nationality last year, she has seen no difference in her poor treatment. While she received a Korean identification card instead of a foreigner’s one, and while her appearance is similar to that of Koreans, these do not help her. "When I go to a restaurant or a store, people use polite expressions to greet me. But when they hear my pronunciation, they begin to talk impolitely to me." She plans to change her name to a Korean one because her five-year-old son would otherwise be discriminated against at elementary school, which he begins next year. Even in kindergarten, students ask the teacher whether her son, Min-su (not his real name), is Korean or not.


Given this atmosphere, how would South Korean society react if an immigrant commited a crime similar to the Virginia Tech massacre?

In the wake of the tragedy caused by a South Korean immigrant, some critics pointed out that South Koreans should reflect upon their attitude toward foreign immigrants such as Southeast Asian workers and others. In particular, as some foreigners who have gained South Korean nationality still suffer from widespread discrimination and prejudice, racism in South Korean society is under close scrutiny.

The central Asian woman said, "While the U.S. is a multiracial society, discrimination and prejudice are much more rampant in South Korea because Koreans think of themselves as a homogeneous people." The Mongolian woman said, "When I talk with my Mongolian friend on the subway, I am surprised by the coldness seen in the reactions of Koreans around us." She said her Filippino friends were told by other Koreans they were being noisy when they talked in their mother language.

Lee Cheol-seung, head of a foreign labor consultancy in South Gyeongsang Province, said, "Typically, Koreans treat immigrants as expatriates because they aren’t ethnic Koreans. If one were to commit a crime similar to that of Seung-hui Cho, ethnic Koreans would consider him as a non-Korean, as still being a member of the society from which he initially came," Lee said.

Kim Yun-jae, a lawyer who emigrated to the U.S., said, "Most Koreans see the [Virginia Tech] tragedy as a cause for shame and guilt, instead of considering it an incident caused by structural problems in American society. In light of this attitude, most Koreans are likely to treat immigrants and naturalized Koreans in the same way [they treated the Cho incident]," he added.

Kang Seong-hye, head of an emergency call center for immigrant women, said, "To resolve the matter of Koreans’ nationalistic exclusivity, we should figure out ways to reshape the community, and teach this in schools in order to share it with society. Services are also needed to help immigrants adapt to being Korean," Kang said.

Please direct questions or comments to []

Most viewed articles