[CULTURAL DIMENSIONS]The question of who is a Korean

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[CULTURAL DIMENSIONS]The question of who is a Korean

For illegal foreign workers in Korea, Monday came with great trepidation as immigration officials began rounding up about 100,000 long-term illegal laborers who had failed to leave the country by Saturday. Illegal workers who have been in Korea for less than three years as of March 2003 can register for a work permit. The possibility of mass deportations brought the issue of foreign workers back into the headlines, particularly when 5,300 ethnic Koreans from China ―Chinese-Koreans ― residing in Korea illegally applied for Korean citizenship en masse as a protest against the planned deportations.
The problem of foreign workers in Korea is a classic example of a plan without a policy. The plan is to allow enough foreign workers in Korea at any given time to contribute to the economy. They do this by taking jobs that Koreans do not want or by keeping labor costs low, which entices manufacturing to stay in Korea. Economically, this makes sense, but it leaves many questions unanswered. The most basic question, of course, is what is a “Korean?” Answering this simple question will help form a policy on which future plans can be based.
The word “Korean” refers to ethnicity and to citizenship. Persons who belong to or have roots in the Korean ethnic group can be found throughout the world. Some have Korean citizenship, but most do not. Likewise, persons who belong to or have roots in other ethnic groups can be found throughout South Korea. Some have Korean citizenship, but most do not. Is being “Korean,” then, a matter of ethnicity or citizenship?
During the heyday of the nation state, ethnicity was the dominant concept behind citizenship. Under this definition, a citizenry from the same ethnic group is desirable because it is usually seen as a way to protect the group from perceived threats. Persons of different ethnic groups were accepted at will, usually as a reward for accommodating to the norms of the dominant ethnic group. For most of the 20th century, the ethnicity model of citizenship was dominant in the West.
The definition of citizenship in Korea developed from this tradition as much as from the nationalistic response to Japanese colonial rule from 1910 to 1945. This explains why an ethnic Korean born in Japan was “Korean,” but an ethnic Chinese born in South Korea was not. The restrictive laws on the activities of ethnic Chinese in the 1960s and 1970s would bring international censure today, but were ignored at the time because Korea was a developing country on the American side in the Cold War.
Meanwhile, sustained emigration since the mid-1960s and increased contacts with countries with large ethnic Korean populations forced Koreans to rethink the ethnicity-citizenship connection that had been wound so tightly by dictatorial governments in the past. As more ethnic Koreans came to South Korea, laws designed for “foreigners” seemed out of step with the needs of people who were “Korean.” The Kim Dae-jung administration was the first to raise the issue of the legal status of ethnic Koreans who come to South Korea to live and work. These efforts got bogged down in questions about which “Koreans” and which types of activities should be included among those eligible for the enhanced legal status.
As the ethnicity-citizenship connection was coming unwound, increasing numbers of foreigners came to Korea to work in the low-wage jobs that Koreans no longer wanted to do. At first, they were thought of as temporary residents who came for work and who would go home in a few years. Many fit that description, but many, particularly Chinese-Koreans, did not. As time went on, they established roots in Korea, but had few options in terms of legal status.
Since the late 1990s, laws governing foreigners in Korea have improved greatly. Foreigners can now apply for a permanent residency and can buy land and real estate. Children of mixed Korean and foreign heritage can take Korean citizenship regardless of which parent is a Korean citizen. The latest work-permit plan is a step forward from the flawed “trainee scheme” that put foreign workers in a weak position.
The new work permits fail, however, to deal with the question of what to do with people who want to stay after their appointed time in Korea―three or four years―has expired. The assumption of a cycle of coming and going among foreign workers implies impermanence. In the world of immigration laws, impermanence implies a lack of membership in the community as defined by permanent residency and, ultimately, citizenship. Until Korea resolves the question of permanence, those of whatever ethnic origin who want to “opt in” will find their desires tangled in the ethnicity-citizenship connection.

* The writer is an associate professor at Kyoto University in Japan.


by Robert J. Fouser
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