Antipathy toward ethnic Koreans from China and migrant workers is spreading in the wake of a recent murder in Suwon. News that the alleged perpetrator is an ethnic Korean prompted some to talk of anti-Chinese-Korean sentiment. Jasmine Lee, a Filipina who immigrated to South Korea through marriage, has been disparaged since her election as a proportional representation lawmaker for the New Frontier Party. While outrage at a brutal murder is natural, it is shameful to allow this to descend into racism and xenophobia.
Cyberspace is spinning with outlandish claims about the need to expel all Korean-Chinese from the country or the supposed disappearance of over 100 women from the area where the murder took place. Most ethnic Koreans from China work diligently and quietly to support their families and educate their children in China. It is irrational to say the least to direct sweeping criticisms at all of them. When Seung-Hui Cho carried out a shooting spree at Virginia Tech a few years ago, Americans did not criticize Koreans as a group. We should step inside the other side’s shoes and consider how dangerous it is to blame a group for the misdeeds of a single member.
Claims that the migrant worker community is a hotbed of violent crime also lack factual support. More often, they are victims of crime. The crime rate among foreigners living in South Korea is lower than among South Koreans. Obviously, we do need to increase the security presence in high-crime areas to prevent offenses. Ahead of that, however, we need preventive measures to stop foreigners from being made into social outsiders.
The main reason for the violent crime and hatred of foreigners is the notion that migrant workers are taking jobs away. While it is true that foreign workers take certain types of jobs, it would be more correct, in view of the overall economic structure, to say they are filling these jobs. Since South Koreans don’t want to work in areas like small-scale manufacturing and livestock farming, those sectors would be difficult to sustain without migrant labor.
The 1.4 million foreigners currently living in South Korea make up about 3% of the total population. Yet we still see discrimination toward those from certain regions, as well as frequent violations of their human rights. In a society where the boundary between races is coming down, the enemy of openness is the propensity to discriminate against people according to the outdated notion of an ethnically homogenous nation.
Some blame also lies with the government’s handouts and policies that are all show and no substance. When unemployment and other symptoms of collapsing working class livelihoods are stirring up hatred toward foreigners, any fundamental resolution must involve relieving social polarization. At the same time, we also need to take measures for the social security of migrant workers and address their discriminatory treatment.
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