Defining racism in S. Korea

Defining racism in S. Korea
A notice banning Africans was put up in a bar in Itaewon, a popular area for expats and tourists in Seoul. The statement caused outrage after the public learned from reports that the bar admitted a white person from South Africa, while banning almost all dark-skinned individuals.

"We apologise, but due to Ebola virus we are not accepting Africans at the moment."

This is what a bar in Itaewon, a popular area for expats and tourists in Seoul, publicly posted in front of its property last month.

The statement triggered thousands of angry comments online, both from expats and locals ― especially after the public learned of reports that the bar admitted a white person from South Africa, while banning almost all dark-skinned individuals, regardless of their nationalities.

The incident is likely to get attention from Mutuma Ruteere, the UN special rapporteur on racism. Ruteere is scheduled to visit Seoul later this month to monitor the situation of racial discrimination and xenophobia in Korea and will file a report to the UN Human Rights Council next year.

The incident is one of the growing number of racism cases in the country ― Asia's fourth-biggest economy, a key manufacturing powerhouse in the region, as well as the producer of hallyu.

While the nation's immigrant population continues to rise, Korean racism ― both structural and internalized ― is becoming a growing concern to the international community.

Complex nature of racism in Korea

Korean racism, however, must be understood differently from its Western cousin, experts say.

It is a complex product of the country's colonial history, postwar American influence and military presence, rapid economic development as well as patriotism that takes a special pride in its "ethnic homogeneity," according to professor Kim Hyun-mee from Yonsei University.

Unlike racism in the West, Korean racism is mostly targeted against those from other Asian nations, she noted. As of this year, more than 80 per cent of immigrants residing in South Korea are from countries in Asia, the largest number coming from China and Vietnam.

"After the country survived the poverty (after the war) and became a member of the OECD, Korea has been celebrating its own success," Kim said in an interview with The Korea Herald.

"One of the most serious side effects of the country's rapid economic development is that its people started to hierarchize foreign nations according to their economic status. Collectively, they would perceive specific nations, mostly developed countries such as the US and the UK, as their superiors whom they should learn from ― just think about how obsessed Korea is with English language education ― while perceive economically developing countries as their inferiors with no specific grounds."

Prejudices against those from less developed countries often go to the extreme. For instance, in 2011, a woman from Uzbekistan was reportedly denied entry to a public bathhouse in Busan, despite showing her South Korean passport, as the owner of the property was concerned that other patrons may "contract AIDS" from her.

Korean racism also contains internalized white supremacy, Kim added. "After the Korean War, Korea became a country with US military presence. At the same time, it was exposed to American popular culture, including Hollywood films, and was influenced by their representation of visible minorities," Kim said.

"We need to note that interracial marriage was legally banned in (parts of) the US until 1967. The very first children who were sent overseas for foreign adoption in 1954 from Korea were mixed-race children born to African-American soldiers and Korean women."

Internalized white supremacy can be seen even in today's TV shows in Korea, according to a local NGO Women Migrants Human Rights Center of Korea.

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