[Column] No country without anti-discrimination law can be called advanced

Posted on : 2022-06-05 10:59 KST Modified on : 2022-06-05 10:59 KST
While discrimination may have eased to some extent, vulnerable people and outsiders certainly do not receive equal treatment in the hierarchical pyramid of Korean society
Illustration by Kim Dae-jung
Illustration by Kim Dae-jung
Pak Noja (Vladimir Tikhonov)
Pak Noja (Vladimir Tikhonov)

By Pak Noja (Vladimir Tikhonov), professor of Korean Studies at the University of Oslo

For a few years in the late 1990s, I was a professor at a private university in Korea. To be sure, I was a professor in name only.

My precise title was lecturer, and I was on a three-year contract that had to be renewed every year. Even so, faculty council dues were deducted without fail from my meager salary, which amounted to around 1.5 million won per month.

At first blush, you might assume the professorial community recognized me as being on equal footing, given the dues it collected from my salary. The problem was that dues notwithstanding, I was never invited to a meeting of the faculty council.

Nor was it because I’d been deemed “unqualified” for being a foreign national. Even after my application for Korean citizenship was granted, nothing changed.

Both then and now, I’m not sure whether the problem was my foreign origin, or my status as an “irregular worker.” That was merely one sample of the discrimination I witnessed in my daily life.

In the late 1990s, discrimination was a routine matter in Korea — as ubiquitous as the air around us. Men in the Jehovah’s Witnesses — who had to endure a lifetime of discrimination as second-class citizens following a prison sentence for refusing military service on the grounds of conscience — were sometimes labeled “ttorai” (“freaks”), even in educated society.

I would sometimes hear derogatory slurs like “byeongsin” (“retard”) hurled at people with disabilities. Among ordinary folk, I quite often heard biracial people referred to by the offensive term “twigi” (“half-breed”).

In that atmosphere, I felt a strong urge not to raise children in Korea. When I pictured my children — who were destined to be biracial — crying after being called a “half-breed” in kindergarten or school, my only desire was to start raising them in a country with less discrimination.

More than 20 years have passed since then. Today, Korea has managed to become more globalized than either of its neighbors, Japan and China.

Added together, foreign residents and naturalized citizens born overseas make up nearly 5 percent of Korea’s total population. In short, the foreign community accounts for a larger share of the population in Korea than in any other country in East Asia.

Thanks to Korea’s elevated international stature, the greater diversity of its population, and the ferocious struggle of human rights activists, overt discrimination isn’t as palpable as it used to be. Now that Korea is being scrutinized by the outside world, outright disparagement of vulnerable groups is regarded as “outdated.”

That means the most blatant expressions of discrimination face corrective actions from time to time.

Fifteen years, I saw a banner on the side of the road in the Korean countryside that made me cringe with embarrassment: “Marry a bride from Vietnam — she’ll never run away! For ----- won, even disabled people can get a bride in her 20s, virginity guaranteed.”

But after those banners were mentioned in a US State Department report on human trafficking, the Korean government swung into action and swept the banners out of sight. Pressure from both inside and outside the country has brought some degree of relief to minorities from the hell of discrimination.

While discrimination may have eased to some extent, vulnerable people and outsiders certainly do not receive equal treatment in the hierarchical pyramid of Korean society.

President Yoon Suk-yeol boasts that “the younger generation has grown up without facing collective, structural discrimination for being men or women.” But in a fact-finding survey conducted last year by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family (a ministry that Yoon intends to dismantle), 73.4 percent of women in their 20s reported feeling structural gender discrimination in their daily lives.

At the workplace, women (and younger women in particular) are saddled with unpleasant and tiresome tasks; online, they confront a deluge of misogyny.

Misogyny isn’t the only thing that abounds online. Derogatory terms for Chinese that date back to the Japanese colonial period — in Korean, “jjangkkae” and “jjangkkola” — are especially common on various message boards and comment sections.

In a country in which the total Chinese population (including Chinese of Korean descent and naturalized Koreans of Chinese descent) amounts to nearly 900,000, racial slurs against China (and Chinese people) go completely unchecked.

It’s normal for discrimination to manifest in intersecting ways. Women from China who work at restaurants without the benefits of reliable employment are exploited economically as low-wage irregular workers while suffering dual discrimination, first as women and second as foreigners (in this case, Chinese nationals). In the end, the very surplus value arising through the exploitation of these low-wage workers, who are exposed to various kinds of discrimination, is what nourishes capital accumulation in Korean society.

Considering that discrimination is directly connected to the distinctive economic exploitation of a capitalist society, it will not be easy to eradicate discrimination so long as capitalism persists. Even so, if there were a law criminalizing the discrimination that remains so common, if less visible, in everyday life, it would greatly aid groups including women, young people, irregular workers, foreigners, disabled people, and gay people in their daily grind.

While legislation banning discrimination would not be a complete solution to discrimination, it would be a very important step toward that solution. Such a law is especially urgent now that Yoon is president, following a campaign in which he denied the existence of structural gender discrimination and made inaccurate remarks about foreigners’ “unfair” use of Korea’s state health insurance system, in a strong appeal to jingoistic attitudes toward China and other countries.

As became quite clear in Yoon’s presidential campaign, Korea’s hard right wing frequently makes use of discrimination as a political tool, such as in its tendency to stoke xenophobia and the gender war. Now that the hard right has taken power, it goes without saying that Korea will backslide on human rights without a ban on discrimination. If things go badly, we might even forfeit the gains made over the past 20 years.

What has changed the most during those two decades is public sentiment, or in other words the level of popular sensitivity to human rights. While the hard right habitually stoops to discrimination as it appeals to anti-Chinese sentiment, a survey conducted by the National Human Rights Commission of Korea in April found that no less than 67.2% of Koreans feel positively about enacting anti-discrimination legislation. In fact, the Korean public’s orientation toward equality is much more mature than the politicians who have already delayed passing such legislation for 15 years now.

The time has come for politicians to finally answer the call. While political attention is currently focused on Wednesday’s local elections, far more fundamental than the question of who will serve a term as elected officials is the question of whether members of vulnerable groups that are exposed to discrimination will receive legal protection.

As long as democracy endures, no party or government can last forever. But no matter which party wins at the polls, a country that doesn’t even have a law against discrimination can never be an advanced democratic society.

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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