ASAP Column – 2014 November/December (Haines)

Multiculturalism Korean Style

David Haines (George Mason University)

Originally: Anthropology News (November/December 2014; p. 37)

South Korea has witnessed a surge in both temporary and permanent migration. One quite practical policy problem posed by this new diversity is that, lacking any very clear historical precedents, the very nature of diversity in society has to be conceptualized from the beginning. In Korea, this new diversity is usually described as damunhwa, a perfectly legitimate Korean word meaning “many cultures” but one which was only called into use in recent decades to match the English word “multiculturalism.”

The South Korean case thus provides an opportunity to reconsider what “multiculturalism” might be both as a description of social interaction and as a public policy objective. One way to approach that policy is through consideration of overall national policy as with the First Basic Plan for Immigration of 2009. That document is an impressively detailed attempt to construct a new kind of framework for Korean societal diversity. But it is also possible to consider Korean diversity policy in more ad hoc programs. As a specific example, consider a set of awards launched in 2012 by The Korea Times, the oldest English language Korean daily, in cooperation with the Korean government, several voluntary organizations (e.g., the Seoul YMCA), and the foreign diplomatic community.

The awards simultaneously addressed new diversity in Korean society and the state’s interest and responsibility in positive channeling of that diversity in and through the educational system. Specifically, the goals were to help promote “diversity,” support children from “multiethnic” backgrounds, and “honor interracial students who serve as role models.” There were also awards to volunteers who had made efforts “to eliminate racial discrimination.” A similar range of terms was used in the published list of award recipients. The word “multicultural” was used only twice, for example, in the description of the awardees, as compared to three uses of “multiracial,” two of “interracial”, and one of “biracial.” (The race-related terms were used despite the fact that there was only one non-Asian student awardee; the others included one Taiwanese immigrant awardee and six children of marriages between Korean fathers and Asian wives: two Japanese, two Chinese, one Filipina, and one Vietnamese.)

At the awards ceremony itself, the organizers were uncertain about attendance, but the showing was reasonable for the room, and the effort and cost of the arrangements were manifest: large photos on easels along the corridor leading to the room, an elaborate stage, engaging young MC’s, good representation from the diplomatic corps, a congratulatory message from the soon-to-be elected president of the country, and an ample post-ceremony food offering. The highlight of the event was a performance of Psy’s break-away hit Gangnam Style by one of the awardees, nicknamed Little Psy, who had also performed in the Gangnam Style video. He is the child of a Korean father and a Vietnamese mother.

The details of the event show a narrowing of the terminology already discussed. Damunhwa (“multiculturalism”) was prominently on the banner at the front of the room and frequently invoked in the many speeches. Furthermore, the other more race-related terms were not used during the event itself. Instead there was a uniform damunhwa lexical standard: multicultural children in multicultural families in a multicultural society. Rep. Jasmine Lee, the first non-ethnic-Korean member of the Korean General Assembly, read the entirety of soon-to-be-President Park Geun-hye’s message on the awards and multiculturalism in general, and the English word itself cropped up in the otherwise largely Korean language proceedings.

In policy terms, perhaps the crucial element is the overall emphasis on children and youth in an education context as being at the heart of the public policy construction of multiculturalism and diversity in contemporary South Korea. This is where the state knows it must step in. The soon-to-be president herself noted in the message read by Rep. Lee, the hardships faced by those with cultural differences “while fighting loneliness and prejudice” and how this broke her own heart when she heard of the “hardships suffered especially by children.” Only through that recognition that children are people and that one is instinctively drawn to their suffering, comes the recognition that children live in families and that their parents, by extension, might also be fully “people” in policy terms as well.

Much of the recent general discussion of immigrant integration has focused on granting legal rights (especially in the form of full citizenship) and on how immigrants take on participation in their new society (often discussed as a kind of social or participatory citizenship). The case here suggests a somewhat different situation in which people achieve status not directly through their own actions but through those of their children. In the eyes of Korean government and society, the adults assume personhood through parenthood. Since children must almost automatically be viewed as people (or people-to-be), their parents also become people by refraction.

These Korean multicultural awards illustrate one important path by which migrants come to be viewed as people and not simply labor. That path suggests some interesting twists on how public policy on immigration might be developed in Korea. For example, one might imagine that migrants who have children should receive special consideration as long-term immigrants because their children represent a demographic bonus that is vital to a country with plummeting fertility rates. One can also see how useful would be a revision of citizenship laws toward some kind of birth citizenship, followed by some retroactive legalization of the parents of those with birth citizenship. This is an issue both of the content and timing of public policy. If the legalization of children born to migrants is delayed, it inevitably contributes to the well-known problems of newcomer children in Korean society. The state pays a great cost by this delay: high rates of school non-attendance, low achievement rates, and frequent bullying. Such problems are best addressed earlier than later, proactively rather than retroactively.

But there is also here a general methodological point that policy as an arena for reconceptualizing societal relations may be seen in a more fluid guise in less formal and less fully governmental activities, such as this awards program. Furthermore, while the critiques of multiculturalist policy in Korea – as elsewhere – may be on target in the ways that such policy often obscures rather than ameliorates hierarchical and exclusionary social relations, still the kind of event discussed here shows that public attitudes and public policy are in flux, that terminological choices may be crucial to understanding that flux, and that – despite the inevitable critiques – the policy arena can indeed provide opportunity for the exploration of more egalitarian and inclusive societal planning.