South Koreans Struggle With Race

Choe Sang-Hun, New York Times, November 2, 2009

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{snip} [R]ival political parties in Parliament have begun drafting legislation that for the first time would provide a detailed definition of discrimination by race and ethnicity and impose criminal penalties.

For Mr. Hussain [Bonogit Hussain, a 29-year-old Indian man], subtle discrimination has been part of daily life for the two and half years he has lived here as a student and then research professor at Sungkonghoe University in Seoul. He says that, even in crowded subways, people tend not sit next to him. {snip}

{snip} Mr. Hussain said in an interview, “Whenever I’ve walked with Ms. Hahn or other Korean women, most of the time I felt hostilities, especially from middle-aged men.”

South Korea, a country where until recently people were taught to take pride in their nation’s “ethnic homogeneity” and where the words “skin color” and “peach” are synonymous, is struggling to embrace a new reality. In just the past seven years, the number of foreign residents has doubled, to 1.2 million, even as the country’s population of 48.7 million is expected to drop sharply in coming decades because of its low birth rate.

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Ms. Hahn said, “Even a friend of mine confided to me that when he sees a Korean woman walking with a foreign man, he feels as if his own mother betrayed him.”

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“Our ethnic homogeneity is a blessing,” said one of the critics [of the proposed law], Lee Sung-bok, a bricklayer who said his job was threatened by migrant workers. “If they keep flooding in, who can guarantee our country won’t be torn apart by ethnic war as in Sri Lanka?”

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