AFP, July 11, 2017
Teenage male model Han Hyun-min’s long legs and powerful strut have made him a rising star on South Korean catwalks, but his agent knew there would be a problem in the ethnically homogeneous country: he is half black.
Han, 16, has a Nigerian father in a society where racial discrimination is widespread and people of mixed race are commonly referred to as “mongrels”.
“A dark-skinned fashion model like Han was unheard of in South Korea, so recruiting him was a big gamble,” said agent Youn Bum.
Now Han is posing for top glossy magazines as the country’s first black fashion model.
South Korea has for years sought to foster the image of a modern, sophisticated and tech-savvy nation whose pop culture has made waves across Asia.
But behind the facade of an economic and cultural powerhouse lies a deeply-rooted racism – even as its immigrant population creeps up, doubling over the last decade but still only four per cent of the population.
Most foreigners in the country are from China and Southeast Asia, migrant workers or women who marry rural South Korean men unable to find local spouses willing to live in countryside.
Discrimination against them is widespread. Many are openly mocked at public transport for being “dirty” or “smelly”, or refused entry to fancy restaurants or public baths.
South Koreans have until recently been taught at school to take pride in the country’s “single ethnicity”, with one race and language enduring for centuries.
A history of repeated invasions by powerful neighbours China and Japan has amplified the sense of victimhood and rampant ethnic nationalism, many analysts say.
In addition, according to Choi Hang-Sub, sociology professor at Kookmin University in Seoul, Korea’s ultra-competitive culture “worships those with money and power and despises those without”.
“The rule also applies to foreigners,” he told AFP. “So white people from advanced nations are welcomed with open arms, and those perceived to have hailed from less developed nations are relentlessly looked down upon.”
The South has a growing number of foreign or multiracial figures on TV and other public sphere – but almost all of them are Caucasians, whose looks are favoured by many South Koreans as “beautiful”.
Commentators on social media, though, have warmed to Han. “He has such good aura around him,” said one. “I hope that our society will become more open to people like him.”