중앙데일리

Discrimination persists as foreign population grows

Sept 03,2007
Cho Doo-ri, a migrant worker from Bangladesh and a naturalized Korean, at the Migrant Workers Welfare Society office in Guro, Seoul. By Kim Soe-jung
Cho Doo-ri was eating dinner recently with his family when their waitress asked his wife a question.
“Why is a beautiful girl like you married to a foreign man instead of a Korean man?” she said, in front of their 3-year-old daughter, at a seafood restaurant in Wolmido, Incheon.
Cho, 39, is a migrant worker from Bangladesh who became a Korean citizen two years ago. The family quickly left the restaurant, barely finishing their noodles.
They walked outside. A middle-aged man spotted the couple. He said to Cho’s wife, “What’s wrong with your eyes? Why did you marry a ―,” using an obscene Korean word that refers to a person with dark skin.
“My wife talked back to him, saying ‘It is none of your business,’ ” Cho said in fluent Korean. “And they had a verbal fight while passersby watched. She cried a lot when she came back home.”
He said such abuse is common for him, even as the number of foreigners continues to rise in Korea.
On Aug. 24, the number of foreigners here reached 1 million for the first time in history, according to the Justice Ministry. That number includes foreign residents, students, tourists and illegal aliens. Among them, 104,749 people were married to Koreans, 404,051 were working here and 225,273 were illegal aliens.
South Korea, a country that has been almost completely ethnically homogenous for thousands of years, is not always friendly to outsiders, particularly those with darker skin. “Migrant workers say Korea is a developed country, but its people are not developed,” Cho said.
The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination issued a report on Aug. 18 about South Korea, as part of a regular review of most countries in the world. The committee expressed concern that Korea has shown persistent widespread societal discrimination against foreigners, including migrant workers and children born to inter-ethnic unions. The committee also expressed concerns about the terminology Koreans commonly use, such as “pure blood,” and “mixed-blood,” to refer to their perceived racial superiority.
“I am Korean. But Koreans do not treat me like one of them at all, “ Cho said.
Cho, who studied politics at a college in Bangladesh, came here five years ago by paying a broker 10 million won ($10,650). As an illegal alien, he started working at a plastic manufacturing company in Geumcheon, southwestern Seoul, for 12 hours a day. He was paid about 1.2 million won per month including payment for working overtime, and sent about 400,000 won to his family in Bangladesh every month.
“Because I was an illegal worker, I could not receive retirement pay and worked six days, or often seven days, a week. If I said no to the working conditions, employers would find another illegal employee willing to take the job,” Cho said.
He fell in love with his Korean co-worker, Kim Bong-ja, 39, and married her. Kim’s parents do not support it. “I have never met her family,” Cho said.
Ironically, life got harder when he became a Korean national in 2005. He was fired from his job in May, after his employer found out that Cho was a Korean citizen.
“Because he is no longer now an illegal alien, employers are reluctant to hire him because they have to treat him equally, like a Korean employee, and provide retirement pay, insurance and other welfare benefits,” said Cho Won-ki, an official at the Migrant Workers Welfare Society in Korea.
Cho is currently looking for a job while spending time volunteering at the welfare center.
“I gave up my Bangladeshi nationality. If I had just returned home with the money that I had saved, I could have lived a better life by running a store there,” he said. His family in Bangladesh wonders why he stopped sending them money so soon after becoming a Korean citizen.
“Unlike foreign women who are married to Korean men, the government does not provide any support for foreign men married to Korean women,” said Han Guk-yeom, chairman of the Women Migrants Human Rights Center.
According to Han, the center receives three to four calls per day from foreign wives of Korean men, who suffer from domestic violence. Last year, 400 out of about 700 calls the center received were related to domestic violence, including verbal or physical assault.
On July 4, in Cheonan, South Chungcheong, Huynh Mai, a 19-year-old Vietnamese woman, was found dead with 18 broken ribs. According to police, her 46-year-old Korean husband beat her to death because she said she wanted to go back to her country.
Her body was found eight days after she was killed.
In a letter she wrote to her husband just a day before she died, Mai wrote in Vietnamese, “I am so sad now. I tried hard to be a good mother and wife. I wanted to be nice to you. But you do not care. I will forgive you if I go back to Vietnam.”
The husband, a construction worker, was arrested and detained on a charge of murder, according to police.
“Most Korean men in cities who marry foreign women through a marriage agency are manual labor workers. Many of the men verbally assault the women because they are from poor countries. If the wives were from a developed country like the United States or France, Korean men probably would show them more respect,” Han said.
According to an Agriculture Ministry survey last year of 166 women from East Asian countries who married Korean men in rural regions in Gangwon, Gyeongsang, Jeolla and Chungcheong provinces, 28 percent said they suffered frequent verbal abuse from their husbands and 9.5 percent said they were physically abused by the husbands.
“It is funny how Koreans react to a person’s skin color. When the children of international marriages have a similar skin color to Koreans, they are less likely to be teased by their classmates at school,” said Cho, an official at the migrant workers ‘ welfare center. “I once received a phone call at the center from a middle-aged Korean man. He was angry and said, ‘Why are you trying to mix our pure blood?’ ”


By Kim Soe-jung Staff Writer [soejung@joongang.co.kr]



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