What was different this time, however, was that, once it was reported in the South Korean media, prosecutors sprang into action, charging the man they have identified only as a 31-year-old Mr. Park with contempt, the first time such charges had been applied to an alleged racist offense. Spurred by the case, which is pending in court, rival 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.The recent enlightenment of prosecutors comes, as Mr Choe describes, at a time when South Korean citizens of Korean ancestry are just getting used to having more and more non-Koreans around them as a routine thing:
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.After describing the serious problems faced by foreign nationals living in Korea today — detailed and publicized by groups like Amnesty International — it goes on to lay out how Korean xenophobia is tied up in notions of racial purity, particularly as it relates to women's sexuality:
Many of the foreigners come here to toil at sea or on farms or in factories, providing cheap labor in jobs shunned by South Koreans. Southeast Asian women marry rural farmers who cannot find South Korean brides. People from English-speaking countries find jobs teaching English in a society obsessed with learning the language from native speakers.
For most South Koreans, globalization has largely meant increasing exports or going abroad to study. But now that it is also bringing an influx of foreigners into a society where 42 percent of respondents in a 2008 survey said they had never once spoken with a foreigner, South Koreans are learning to adjust — often uncomfortably.
Centuries ago, when Korean women who had been taken to China as war prizes and forced into sexual slavery managed to return home, their communities ostracized them as tainted. In the last century, Korean “comfort women,” who worked as sex slaves for the Japanese Imperial Army, faced a similar stigma. Later, women who sold sex to American G.I.’s in the years following the 1950-53 Korean War were despised even more. Their children were shunned as “twigi,” a term once reserved for animal hybrids, said Bae Gee-cheol, 53, whose mother was expelled from her family after she gave birth to him following her rape by an American soldier.
Even today, the North Korean authorities often force abortion on women who return home pregnant after going to China to find food, according to defectors and human rights groups.
Some of this sea change is attributable to careful analysis of what happens in other advanced countries, but I know from numerous in-depth conversations with Immigration officials (my company did some freelance consultation with people I knew personally) that there is a sincere and genuine desire among many Immigration workers and management for fairer treatment. They want to attract honest, hard-working, good people from all over the world and they want to make it easy for them to stay, and they themselves bang their head against the wall sometimes over archaic or arcane rules that block that.
I take issue with some of the points of Mr Choe's article, which to some extent cherrypicks bad stories to paint a desired picture. Some of his statements are misleading or exaggerated, if not flat out wrong:
A hugely popular television program is “Chit Chat of Beautiful Ladies” — a show where young, attractive, mostly Caucasian women who are fluent in Korean discuss South Korea. Yet, when South Koreans refer to Americans in private conversations, they nearly always attach the same suffix as when they talk about the Japanese and Chinese, their historical masters: “nom,” which means “bastards.”First off, I have trouble with the idea that 놈 (nom) is "nearly always" attached to miguk (or even ilbon or chungguk). And even if it that inflammatory statement were true, I don't buy the equally incendiary notion that ~놈 packs the same cultural power or meaning of bastard. The word means boy and often carries with it a disparaging tone, the degree of which entirely depends on speaker and other context.
Depending on who is speaking, it often carries a nuance much like you, as in Ross Perot saying "You people" or a snooty Brit saying "You Americans," except that it is a third-person attack disparagement instead of one in the second person.
There is something inherently problematic about using a simplistic one-to-one correspondence when explaining in one language what someone said in another. I covered this in my "Do you know Ch'usŏk" piece, but I think a more relevant example comes in, say, the outrage about Koreans saying "Nigger."
I have long felt, and The Marmot seems to agree with me, that 검둥이 (kŏm•dung•i) is better represented as "darkie." The word is still insensitive and inappropriate, but it by no means carry the historical baggage — and violence — of nigger. Koreans have not been lynchers of Blacks, they have not legally or physically barred Blacks from marrying Koreans (or anyone else), nor have they enslaved, segregated, red-lined, or systematically and institutionally tried to keep down Blacks. Nigger comes from that violently supremacist mentality, which is far different from the xenophobic race-infused mentality that produces words like 검둥이 (or 흰둥이 for "whiteys"), and that makes it terribly misleading to use them as equivalents when describing racism or attitudes about race.
[Of course, if you're on the receiving end of it, it may be seen as tah-MAY-toh/toh-MAH-toh, but I submit that the latter is far less damaging and much more amenable to change than the former. I also recognize that a
And back to my point, ~놈 is simply not the same as "bastard." It might be used sometimes as a stand-in for bastard because in some instances it packs the same degree of punch, but in the cases Mr Choe describes (and I want to re-emphasize that I disagree that this is "nearly always" how Americans or Japanese or Chinese are described in private) its meanings vary widely.
So what if I'm right and there needs to be more nuance in describing these problems? The problems still exist, so what of it? Well, I think one reason I always find myself tilting at windmills on these issues is that I think "Oh, these Koreans are so fu¢king racist" not only distorts the problem (
In both America and Korea, I see things going in a positive direction when viewed in the aggregate. Korea has a long way to go, but I think America does, too — a lot more than most White Americans may realize (for starters, statistics say that Whites are 78.6% more racist than anyone else). But both are going in the right direction. At the same time, though, there is a fringe on the edges that becomes more and more obdurate and extreme about their racial views. Something to watch out for.