Until recently, East Asia shunned globalism. Economically advanced and yet ethnically homogeneous, the region seemed to show that modernity can co-exist with the traditional structures of family, kinship, ethny, and nation. We can be more than just individuals in a global marketplace.
Yet East Asia is now catching up to the West. South Korea has gone the farthest, becoming an Asian poster boy for immigration and multiculturalism—a radical departure from the mono-ethnic face it once had.
South Korea opened up to immigration in the late 1980s, initially to repatriate ethnic Koreans from China and the Soviet Union. From the mid-1990s onward, the immigrant stream steadily broadened to include Southeast Asians and, later, South Asians and even Africans (Kim, 2004). Meanwhile, a new channel opened up: brides for lonely men, mostly “never-married men in rural areas and previously married men of low socioeconomic status in urban areas” (Lee, 2014, p. 174). At one point, such marriages accounted for 10% of all marriages in the country as a whole and one third in rural areas (Yoon et al., 2008). These figures understate the demographic impact because the brides, particularly the ones from the Philippines, Vietnam, and Indonesia, eventually outdo the national average of 1.2 children per woman.
How fast is South Korea changing? Officially, the figures are somewhat reassuring: “If the current trend continues, the proportion of foreigners residing in South Korea will increase to 2.8% in 2010, 5% in 2020, and 9.2% in 2050” (Yoon et al., 2008). But these figures are not what they seem. As in Western Europe, there are no statistics on ethnic origin. There are only statistics on the number of “registered foreign residents,” and that number may overestimate or underestimate the actual change in ethnic makeup. On the one hand, the term “registered foreign resident” includes ethnic Koreans from abroad. On the other hand, it excludes the adult children of naturalized foreigners, as well as the growing number of illegal immigrants and visa overstayers who may be as numerous as legal immigrants (Moon, 2010).
The change seems to be most visible in the countryside, both in the schools and in the fields:
All one needs to do is travel around to Korea’s rural towns. I’m serious. Don’t listen to the stupid statistics if it says foreigners only make up 2% or whatever to try and make you feel better. Just visit these towns. Best places to go are at bus stops or bus terminals as most migrant workers can’t afford a car and so they take the buses.
You’ll see Filipinos, Vietnamese, Chinese, Indonesians, other SE Asians, and then you’ll see your Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans…..they are everywhere, at bus stops, at bus terminals, at your grocery stores, walking around in packs and large groups, many of them loiter around the alley ways or behind grocery store buildings and have little meetings speaking loudly in their native tongues. At night, if you listen out your windows, you’ll hear mostly Vietnamese and Tagalog guys and girls yelling and screaming either in drunken stupor or just flirtatious exuberance […] (Makemykimchi, 2014)
This demographic change enjoys State backing. As early as 2006, President Roh declared, “It is irreversible for Korea to move towards a multiracial and a multicultural society” (Kim, 2014a). School curricula are now being rewritten to emphasize diversity and multiculturalism. The old view of Korea as a nation state is being replaced by that of Korea as a proposition nation:
Mono-ethnicism was not officially removed from K-12 social studies and moral education textbooks until February, 2007. For example, social studies textbooks for sixth graders used to mention that “Korea consists of one ethnic group. We, Koreans, look similar and use the same language” (Moon, 2010).
The textbooks are being rewritten partly under pressure from the United Nations, via The Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD). Criticism has especially focused on the teaching of Korean children that their country is “one-blood, one-language, and one-culture”:
CERD has recommended recognizing the multi-ethnic character of contemporary Korean society and promoting understanding, tolerance, and friendship among the different ethnic and national groups in Korea. In education, CERD has recommended that the Korean government include human rights awareness programs in the official curriculum. A revised curriculum should describe a Korean society in which people from multiple ethnic and cultural backgrounds live together harmoniously. (Moon, 2010)
The public are likewise getting into line. Opinion surveys show growing support not only for non-Korean immigration but also for a ban on public meetings of racially prejudiced people (Yoon et al., 2008). The shift in opinion seems to reflect a desire to be modern and Western: “multicultural tolerance is constructed as a virtue of advanced, more developed [Western] countries” (Kim, 2014b).
Hong and Sohn (2014) see the rapid acceptance of multiculturalism as a case of “punctuated equilibrium.” For a long time, multiculturalism was blocked by an entrenched belief that Koreans are one people and one blood. Then, within a little over a decade, this self-image completely reversed itself: “As the number of immigrants increased and Koreans began to face the inevitable reality that they should embrace those immigrants as ‘Koreans’, the Korean government eventually adopted a large, rapid, and radical change in policy in order to make up for past inattention to the issue with the goal of transforming Korea from a homogenous to a multicultural society.” As multiculturalism became the new norm, problems were increasingly interpreted as proof that this norm was not being sufficiently enforced. For instance, in the face of high dropout rates among multicultural children, “a new policy was introduced to protect the human rights of immigrants and support multicultural families.”
The speed of it all is surprising. As Hong and Sohn (2014) ask, “Why did a shift in multicultural policy happen relatively fast in Korea?” A commonly cited reason is a sense of inevitability: “citizens believed that the social process and resulting multi-ethnic society is an inevitable trend that Korea must accept whether it likes it or not” (Hong and Sohn, 2014). This reason often appears as the main one:
Most of all, globalization is inevitable. More and more foreigners move into Korea every year. How to peacefully coexist with new comers and consolidate social members are significant issues in the twenty first century. The old paradigm of ethnic exclusivity and separation is ineffective and even dangerous. (Woo, 2013, p. 35)
There are other reasons. The same cultural conformity that blocked multiculturalism for so long may now be accelerating its acceptance. There is also a widespread perception of multiculturalism as a Western value and thus worth emulating (Kim, 2014b). Finally, Americanization is much more advanced in South Korea than elsewhere in East Asia, particularly among the largely U.S.-educated elite. Knowledge of English is widespread, and the native language itself has become highly anglicized. North Korean defectors feel confused when they hear South Koreans because of the many English words in their speech (Sung, 2015)
Today, South Koreans believe they will do better in the global marketplace if they become multicultural and multiethnic. Will they? Keep in mind that their country has few resources, other than its people. It is this asset, more than any other, that has enabled South Korea to succeed in competitive world markets. Future economic performance will thus hinge on how well “multicultural” children perform, for such children are a growing share of the population. In 2011, the government announced that the number of children with at least one parent of non-Korean heritage had reached 150,000, a fourfold increase over the last four years. They are expected to number over 1.6 million by 2020, with a third of all children born that year the offspring of international unions (Lim, 2011). By then, they will also make up half of all rural children (Park, 2011).
To date, these children are underperforming, as seen by their dropout rates in 2005: 15.4% in primary school (vs. 0.4% of all South Korean children); 39.7% in middle school (vs. 4.0%); and 69.6% in high school (vs. 8.7%) (Hong and Sohn, 2014; see Note). The blame is usually placed on social or linguistic factors: lack of fluency in Korean, teasing by classmates, and unfamiliarity with Korean culture. “The main problem facing the targeted students is not their inability to overcome the differences but the othering of the students by the schools” (Park and Watson, 2011).
Yet school performance is no better among those multicultural children who speak Korean fluently and have no history of rejection by classmates. The underperformance is not in the spoken language, where deficiencies could result from lack of interaction with native speakers, but in reading and writing, where deficiencies tend to be more cognitive in nature. “These students do not have any particular problems in daily conversation, but get into great difficulties with their reading comprehension, vocabulary, and writing skills” (Youngdal and Hi-Won, 2010).
An interview with one teacher provides a description of three such children:
[…] the three students were very passive and had less confidence in themselves. When it came to their mothers, in particular, they appeared embarrassed and discouraged. They were never alienated or teased by others, but they had very poor performance in class. In fact, they were away behind in writing. Even though I gave them an extra lesson after class for an hour every day, there was no improvement.
Kang (2010) similarly notes that the children of international marriages tend to prefer less abstract subjects: “Their favourite subjects are music/painting/physical education (42.6%), while they dislike math (38.1%), social studies (19.2%) and Korean (12.7%).”
Youngdal and Hi-Won nonetheless conclude that reading and writing skills, but not speaking skills, are impaired by the presence of a foreign mother in the home. Yet the pattern of impairment should be the reverse, since the relationship with one’s mother generally involves verbal face-to-face contact.
If we separate the children of foreign workers from the offspring of international marriages, we find that the first category shows the expected pattern. Deficiencies are greatest in those subjects, like social studies and Korean, that require the most familiarity with Korean language and culture. The pattern is reversed, however, when we look at children from international marriages. Deficiencies are greatest in math, where learning tasks are more abstract and incur higher cognitive demands. English, too, is difficult, even though many of the children have Filipino mothers who know that language better than do most Korean mothers.
The students from international marriages indicated that math (26.8%) was the most difficult subject, followed by Social Studies (22.3%) and English (21.5%). Among the students of foreign workers, on the contrary, Social Studies (25.0%) was ranked highest in difficulty, followed by Korean (21.8%), Math (18.5%), and Science (14.1%). In other words, the students from international-marriage families are having a hard time in school due to a higher level of math curriculum and different culture rather than the language barrier. Children of foreign workers, on the other hand, face language and cultural barriers as the major obstacles for fitting in at school. (Youngdal and Hi-Won, 2010)
In short, the cognitive deficiency seems unrelated to social or linguistic handicaps. To the extent that the latter are reduced, the former remains and becomes proportionately more serious. The high dropout rate among “multicultural” children is due not so much to poor language skills or social exclusion as to the high demands of South Korean schools.
South Korean schools are tough. It’s not just the advanced level of the coursework; it’s also the regulation uniforms, the semi-regimented nature of the classroom, and the long school day. If one includes after-school tutoring, middle and high school students don’t get home until well after dark.
Just imagine North American children going through the same system. Many of them would likewise drop out, not because of teasing or language problems but because the bar is set too high.
South Korea is not prosperous because it has natural resources or because it had once colonized other countries. Korea was in fact a colony from 1910 to 1945 and had previously been a “Hermit Kingdom” largely shut off from the rest of the world.
South Korea is prosperous because it has … Koreans. Replacing them with immigrants will destroy its competitive advantage. We see this in the poor performance of second-generation immigrants, which is only partly due to social or linguistic handicaps. There is also a cognitive deficiency that persists even when these handicaps are greatly reduced. Sure, more research is needed. In the meantime, wouldn’t it be best to put this massive demographic experiment on hold?
It’s not too late for South Korea to change course. To do so, however, will require a willingness to chart one’s own course, as opposed to blindly following what others do.
Lim (2011) cites lower dropout rates: “Due to discrimination, poorer language proficiency, and limited school support, they are facing below national average dropout rates of 20 percent in middle school and 40 percent in high school. This, along with a lack of social capital, suggests these children face a future as the country’s permanent, racialized underclass.” No reference is provided, although these figures resemble those from an earlier survey conducted in 2001.
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