Blend in or bunch up: What path for Koreans overseas?

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Blend in or bunch up: What path for Koreans overseas?

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Over the last 150 years, Koreans have emigrated in numbers never seem before in Korean history. The first recorded emigrants left the country in 1863 ― 13 households moved to the Russian far east. Later in 1903, 102 Koreans boarded a steamboat to Hawaii to cash in on the island’s labor shortage. Nowadays, around 7 million Koreans live overseas.
Since 2000, the Overseas Koreans Foundation has held annual conventions of representatives from various countries, aiming to create a global network linking Korean communities around the world. This year, the four-day World Korean Community Leaders Convention kicked off at the Sheraton Grande Walkerhill hotel in Seoul on Tuesday, bringing together 254 Korean leaders from 53 countries. All the participants were then given a reception at the Blue House yesterday.
As a prelude to the convention, a panel discussion comprising four Korean representatives ― from the United States, Japan, China and Indonesia ― was held on Monday. The panelists were Chung Mong-joo, the director general at the Central Head Office of the Korean Residents Union in Japan; Baik Kum-sik, the chairman of Korean Community China; Kim Young-keun, the chairman of the Korean-American Association of Washington Metropolitan Area, and Seung Eun-ho, the chairman of Korindo Group. The discussion was facilitated by a JoongAng Ilbo senior reporter, Kim Young-hie, touching on topics such as how domestic polices have affected Koreans abroad, efforts by Koreans in Japan to maintain their identity and what they hope to receive from the Korean government to help them succeed overseas.

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The opposition party came to power for the first time in the presidential election in 1997, and then the more progressive Roh Moo-hyun administration took office, upending domestic politics. The government is leaning left, and Mr. Roh has said twice that North Korea’s nuclear development is for its own self-protection. The Korea-U.S. relationship is at its worst point in history. What is the perception of Korean politics in the United States and Japan?
Kim: When the Kim Dae-jung administration came to power, we had both hopes and worries. The worst point was at the beginning of the Roh administration. When there were anti-American demonstrations [following the death of two middle school girls who were killed during an American forces’ military exercise] in 2002, we felt the damage. Some Korean War veterans said they regretted that they had fought in the war, and others boycotted Hyundai Motor cars. Some Korean restaurants were sabotaged. There are also radical people in the United States. They were surprised by how Koreans reacted. Many people who were familiar with Korea said Koreans were ungrateful. The Korean government said it wanted to be on an equal level with the United States, but there must be appropriate steps taken.
Because we live in Washington D.C., we’re familiar with what’s going on in politics. The Bush administration does not expect much from the Roh administration. Rather, it’s waiting for the next administration to come along.
Chung: The pro-South Korean Residents Union and the pro-North General Association of Korean Residents in Japan have reconciled, in part to uphold the spirit of the June 15, 2000 inter-Korean summit. That summit, as well as the 2002 North Korea-Japan summit, created an atmosphere conducive to reconciliation. In an assembly meeting of the Korean Residents Union, we ruled in favor of making the union more suitable for the 21st century. We were determined to talk and stand together.
We also came to a painful realization of how conservative Japanese society has become, after the issue of the abduction of Japanese residents by North Korea arose. We didn’t expect the reaction from the Japanese government and people to be so negative. For example, Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe put the General Association of Korean Residents on a “watch list.” We are going to closely monitor what’s going on in the Diet.
With the two associations of Korean residents in Japan having made peace, is there any possibility that the Japanese government will try to keep an eye on and restrain the Korean Residents Union in Japan?
Chung: The Japanese government won’t be able to do it to the extent that it’s noticeable. The [South] Korean government had proposed to financially support Korean schools in Japan, but the pro-North association refused to accept it.

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There is conflict between Korea and Japan over the rights to the Dokdo islets, and over Japanese politicians paying homage to their ancestors at Yasukuni Shrine. Are Korean residents feeling pressure from these issues?
Chung: It’s heartbreaking. We tried to act as a bridge between Korea and Japan. Amid Korea’s economic development, Japan’s long recession and conflicts between Japan and China, Japan created more controversy whenever things got quiet. As a civilian, what’s bothering me is that a lot of Korean students in Japan go to public schools in Japan and history textbooks used in public schools are becoming very conservative. So are all other textbooks. Textbooks no longer deal with the issue of the comfort women and mentions of World War II are being minimized. The Japanese political parties are abusing the issues such as the conflict over Dokdo and praying at Yasukuni Shrine. Resistance to the Yasukuni Shrine visits is even rising in the United States. The Japanese business community is also speaking out against the visits.

Mr. Seung, you’re the chairman of the Korean Association in Indonesia. What are the big issues for Koreans there?
Seung: Since there are no residency laws in Southeast Asia, most Koreans cannot gain citizenship no matter how long they live there. Most Southeast Asian countries do not issue residency rights, except Hong Kong and Singapore. It is impossible for Koreans there to take roots like they can in Japan or the United States. Unlike the Chinese, many of whom immigrated to Indonesia a while ago and are Indonesian citizens, Koreans started immigrating to Indonesia only a couple of decades ago. There are now 30,000 Koreans and 1,100 [Korean] businesses in Indonesia. As you know, a large number of Korean companies have moved to places like Vietnam or China.
It’s difficult to catch up with the Chinese for the time being, as in other places in Southeast Asia.

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Do you provide internship programs for young Koreans?
Seung: There was a similar proposal at the World Korean Business Convention. But Koreans think of Indonesia as a remote third-world country. The Indonesian government also restricts the entrance of foreign workers. It expects us to hire fewer Korean technicians and eventually transfer technology to Indonesians.

There are Korean-Chinese and Koreans in China. How many Koreans are there?
Baik: There are a half-million long-term Korean residents in China, including 60,000 students. It is quite an increase, considering it has been only 14 years since Korea and China opened diplomatic relations. Most of them are spread countrywide, but they are concentrated in large cities. There are more than 2 million Korean-Chinese living in China. China is the closest country [to Korea] geographically and Korean Chinese in China will play an important role when the Korean peninsula is unified. I hope the Korean government takes that into consideration. There are over 150,000 Korean companies doing business in China. It is difficult to do business in the country. It has been a communist nation for several decades, and many companies failed in the beginning. The companies starting now can learn from their mistakes and reduce their losses.

Are they basically welcoming to foreign investment?
Seung: There is an investment agency that tries to attract foreign investment, but there are competing voices within the governments, such as the labor ministry or the immigration authority. They don’t want to make issuing visas or paying taxes difficult for companies.

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The question is whether to assimilate or to remain loyal to Korea.
Kim: There are fewer Korean immigrants who look back to Korea anymore. The average age of Korean immigrants has fallen. The main issue is how to further enhance the political power of Korean Americans and help them prepare to succeed. Many immigrants are reluctant to naturalize, but citizens discriminate against residents. Koreans’ political power is minimal, but it will expand. What’s important is to teach the next generation of Koreans where their roots are.
Chung: The question is whether Koreans are allowed to have their own identity. Their ancestors were forced to move to Japan. Ninety percent of Koreans use Japanese names and are discriminated against if they use a Korean name. What we do is to have Koreans live as Koreans. Japanese policy still encourages assimilation, through discrimination and oppression.

The Chinese government has been sensitive about the growth of the Korean community there. How have Korean Chinese reacted to this?
Baik: Koreans should realize that Korean Chinese are Chinese citizens. Koreans have warm hearts and believe that [the former] are Korean, too. The Korean-Chinese community is one of the most well-connected among minorities in China. The Chinese government is interested in the relationship between Koreans and Korean Chinese. The latter have been of great help to Koreans who have started businesses in China. They are valuable assets. The Korean government should support the Korean-Chinese community in some way. The community is being torn apart as more people move to large cities like Shanghai. There are signs that the Chinese government might bring an end to the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Zone. Korean leaders in the region are very worried.

Some say the best policy for Koreans living abroad is no policy. What do you think?
Baik: The Korean community has grown really fast in China. I hope the government resolves issues such as opening more Korean schools. Many Korean Chinese are staying in Korea illegally, but we can co-exist and help each other. I hope that more Korean-Chinese can work in Korea and benefit from it economically.
Seung: Since the Korean government has cracked down on admitting migrant workers, it became more difficult for us to go to Indonesia. The government has asked migrant workers to learn Korean before coming to Korea, but what if the Indonesian government asks Koreans to learn Indonesian before going to that country? I hope the government becomes more flexible. Koreans should be willing to accommodate other cultures.
Chung: My hope is that Koreans continue to keep their identity and do not assimilate into Japanese society until they have full rights and opportunities to have a Korean ethnic education. If they assimilate, they will remain second-class citizens. Even if we naturalize, there is still an unhappy history to deal with. I hope Koreans understand the uniqueness of the Korean community in Japan.
Kim: The 7 million Koreans living abroad are a valuable asset. We want to be treated according to our size. Considering the total of 70 million people in both North and South Koreas, the Korean diaspora is the world’s second largest, behind the Jews. The Korean government provides 24 billion won ($25.4 million) a year to the Overseas Koreans Foundation to run schools and distribute absentee ballots, which is smaller than the budget for a county. Some people say we don’t pay tax to the Korean government, but Korean Americans send $500 million to Korea every year.


by Limb Jae-un
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