[Outlook]Creating a global Korea

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[Outlook]Creating a global Korea

Countless African-Americans in the United States will watch with enthusiasm as Barack Obama is sworn in, but at the same time they will silently cry.

Tears will well up in their eyes because they still remember the fact that their ancestors worked as slaves in the country that they call home. It has not been long since a black man faced certain death if he fell in love with a white woman. If their relationship was discovered, the man would be lynched.

But that wasn’t all. Until some 50 years ago, buses and restrooms had one section for whites and another for blacks.

In the United States, race is still undeniably an issue. But Obama’s election victory and his inauguration tomorrow are historical events that prove the United States is a great country that integrates and embraces its people, no matter their ethnic background.

There are many different factors that made it possible for the country to produce a black president. Obama’s strategy in the election campaign, the abject failure of the George W. Bush administration’s policies and the international economic crisis can be listed as particularly important reasons.

But there is one more important element that many people don’t pay much attention to - the children’s television show “Sesame Street.” In this program, cute puppets and children of different ethnic backgrounds have a great time. Sesame Street is hugely popular among children, and has been for decades.

The innocence of childhood has no room for racial discrimination. At the stage when children start to learn the ins and outs of language by watching the program, they also start to understand that it doesn’t matter if other children look different from themselves, creating a foundation for a future free of prejudice.

The United States has carried out many desegregation policies in the education field. One was to send school buses full of black students to white schools and others with white students to black schools. Such policies failed, however, while Sesame Street generated more fundamentally positive results, reaching deep into families across the country.

I don’t need to mention the theory that the education you get as a young child has the strongest and deepest influence throughout your life. Studies have also proven that Sesame Street helps reduce prejudice toward minority ethnic groups, including African?Americans. Few will deny the fact that the program’s influence contributed to Obama’s ability to rise to power.

Korea is also becoming a multicultural society. As of August last year, over a million registered foreigners had been staying in Korea for an extended period. Most are from other Asian countries but an influx from South America and Europe is also increasing rapidly.

Among couples who got married in 2007, one out of nine included a non-Korean spouse. In urban areas, 7.3 percent of all marriages are international, and 3 percent are between Korean women and foreign men. This makes it clear that not only rural bachelors are finding foreign spouses.

If North Korean defectors and foreigners who overstay their visas are included, the number of foreigners in the country rises even higher. The number of students from multi-ethnic families in elementary, middle and high schools has already reached around 13,000.

Because of our very low birth rate, a decrease in the workforce and the globalization of our society, the number of non-Koreans in Korea is rising steeply.

To cope with the trend, some schools have rolled out programs designed to help students better understand people from different ethnic backgrounds.

It is also essential that similar educational programs are developed for children in all forms of media, television in particular.

The KBS program, “Chatting Beauties,” in which attractive women from other countries speak in Korean about their lives here, has been criticized for using the ladies simply as objects of amusement. Despite the criticism, however, the program certainly portrays the joys and the sadness in the lives of foreign women here to the Korean people.

Likewise, if children are taught to understand and accept differences in ethnicity and culture before they start elementary school, it will help our society abandon cheap nationalism and achieve true integration.

Prejudice and discrimination against different races stains our image in international society. The United Nations has declared that all people in all countries should respect racial and cultural diversity, the freedom of the individual, and universal human rights.

Tolerance must be nurtured as the basic principle of our nation’s social integration. This is the message that Obama’s inauguration sends us.

*The writer is a professor of sociology at Yonsei University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Kim Yong-hak
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