South Korean Human Rights Monitor


Discrimination Against Multicultural Families, Bi-Ethnic Children and Foreign Immigrant Workers

May Cho July 19, 2012

With a Bangladeshi mother and a Korean father, ten year old Kim does not have many friends here in Korea. At school, he hangs out with another kid whose mother is Vietnamese and father is Korean.  But these days, Kim says he doesn’t want to go to school either. It’s because he realizes that people discriminate between him and his friend. His friend has lighter skin, whereas Kim has darker skin, and Kim gets teased more for this trait.

Similarly, seventeen year old A(Alias) is Vietnamese, but has followed his mother to Korea when she announced she was getting remarried to a Korean. He is now in his first year of high school, but things are difficult for him because he has few friends and is teased due to his poor Korean skills.

Hardships of the Children of Korean Multicultural Families

Kim and A are just a few of the people who suffer in Korea because they are seen as foreigners. Korea is a country which prides itself in being ethnically homogeneous and racially distinctive; foreigner and/or multicultural families, including the children, are the ones who have to deal with the negative side effects of this attitude.

Unfortunately, this racism goes even further; the reality is that people are open to families that include a Caucasian and/or Caucasian/Korean bi-ethnic children, but are hostile towards families and children of the colored. Even though they may be Korean on paper, because they are considered to have come from third world countries, many of them experience racial discrimination. In a similar aspect, although being the same Asians, people from and/or children who are born out of a parent who are from places such as Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh and South East Asia, experience racism merely because they have darker skin.

In comparison, children who have Korean descendant parents  from China or Japan, but who themselves were born and raised in Korea, are better off than most. People who experience the most discrimination are those whose parent(s) remarried to an ethnic Korean national, and/or children of foreign immigrant workers; in short, those who are ethnically not Korean at all and who have darker skin.

Chairwoman Hyun-jung Lee for the Seoul Center for A Multicultural Korea commented “Children who have come to Korea just because their parent(s) moved to Korea to find work; for them, the Korean education system is very difficult, both because of the language and the workload.” She added that these children often experience identity crises and have trouble getting along with their new Korean parent and his/her family.

Immigrant Workers Discriminated by Low Wage and Racism

According to the Korean National Statistics Office, the number of foreigners living in Korea has been steadily growing in recent years. The foreigner population already makes up 1.3 million, or 2.5% of the whole South Korean population. 3~10%, or approximately 130,000 million people, are immigrant workers.

One of the main reasons there  is an influx of immigrant workers in particular is because Korea is showing severe signs of low birth rates and population aging. The small and medium manufacturing sector, the cheap labor sector is currently active only thanks to a huge foreign immigrant labor force. Many Koreans do not understand that the ‘3D’ (dirty, dangerous, difficult/demeaning) job sector is currently occupied so heavily by these foreign laborers that it would cease to function completely if they were to suddenly stop and leave.

Unfortunately, these workers’ importance is not reflected in the way they are being treated. Many young Koreans hold the conservative view that foreigners are the reason behind low employment rates. Others believe that the 3D sector will start attracting an overflow of illegal immigrants into the country.

Sang-hoon Kim, manager for the Ansan Migrant Helpcall Center, commented “More than 40% of all foreign migrant workers who call our center want to discuss why their monthly wage is being delayed, or why Koreans discriminate against their culture.” For the latter, Kim gave some examples; he said a Mongolian worker was once highly offended when a Korean co-worker ruffled his hair, because in his culture it is impolite to do so.  A Pakistani Muslim worker said  he was forced to eat pork at a company dinner, which went against his religion. Kim says that many Koreans do not put the necessary effort into understanding foreign peoples’ cultures, especially third world countries’ cultures. He also added that Korean descendants from China feel double this discrimination; “Both in China and in Korea, they are a minority. Therefore even when they are in their home country, they are greatly marginalized.”

Multiculturalism in Korea is a reality that the Korean people now have to accept. This acceptance is going to be difficult; currently, there is limited assimilation, little respect for differences and shunning of people from third world countries. South Korea must strive to become a middle ground between a ‘salad bowl’ society’; where foreigner communities can retain their cultures; and a ‘melting pot’ society; where assimilation is encouraged.  Kee-sun Jung, head of the Education and Research department of the IOM (Research Center for Immigrant Policies), commented “We have to start teaching our children how and why we have to respect different ethnicities and cultures. This is the only way we will be able to make a safe and friendly environment for multiculturalism to thrive in.”



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  • Stefanie

    “The foreigner population already makes up 13 million, or 2.5% of the whole South Korean population. 3~10%, or approximately 1.3 million people are immigrant workers.”

    Am I wrong in thinking that 13million out of 50million people is actually 26% of the population? The decimal moves 2 places.

    Please update, this is very confusing.

    • HRM Korea

      the decimals had been placed incorrectly, and have now been fixed. thank you for pointing that out.

      these statistics are out of date, of course. there are currently 1.58 million foreign residents in South Korea, of whom 247,000 are on an E-9 visa (this group is typically who is being referred to when the term “immigrant workers” is used.

  • Maria

    Where did the Interview with Sang-hoon Kim come from? Is there a source I can use to cite this? Thank you

    • HRM Korea

      the sources for the article contents were given at the end of the piece. the comment that you asked about is from the etoday article.

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