[Viewpoint] Apartheid is a part of us, too

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[Viewpoint] Apartheid is a part of us, too

The tragic sinking of a naval warship in the waters near the sea border with North Korea has sent the country into a collective state of shock and grief for the last two weeks, eclipsing and silencing other news and contentious issues.

The gubernatorial elections, political wrangling over the four river project, Sejong City, free school meals and education corruption have been pushed aside as frantic efforts continue to salvage from the seabed the remains of the halved corvette with, presumably, bodies of the missing sailors trapped inside.

Witnessing the disaster, we were swept with shame and powerlessness.

But at the same time, there has been news equally injurious to our good name.

The Cambodian government last month announced a temporary ban on marriages between its female nationals and South Korean men on concerns over human trafficking. The Cambodian government has good reason to suspect human trafficking because these marriages are hardly romantic.

Upon arriving in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, South Koreans pick out their brides from a pool of young women, some of whom are teenagers, fresh from rural hometowns. The women then undergo physical examinations in the afternoon, and make their marriage vows by the evening. Brokers bluntly advertise guarantees on the brides as if they are selling products. Tens of women are lined up and put on display to prospective grooms. The entire process is a modern-day slave trade, and it brings chagrin to our faces.

It gets worse. Adding to the humiliating matchmaking, physical and mental abuse awaits these Cambodian brides in their new homes. The foreign wives and their children face discrimination and indifference from a society generally hostile toward outsiders. As Korea’s foreign population grows speedily through interracial marriage, ethnic discrimination has begun to take root here.

History is a witness to how intolerance to differences and subsequent discriminatory behaviors can eat away at human dignity and community spirit. South Africa committed a crime against humanity with its segregation policy, apartheid, against the black majority, which was accompanied by repression, massacre, torment, lynching, rape and imprisonment.

Nelson Mandela’s victory in the 1994 general elections put the blacks in power for the first time in modern history and put an end to more than three disgraceful centuries of apartheid legacy. But its vestiges still persist. A few days ago, a white South African far-right leader who rallied against the end of apartheid in the early 1990s was beaten to death.

Even as the United States hails its first black president, the country has yet to close the chapter on racial bias. Blacks were treated unfairly in both real and unperceived forms since President Abraham Lincoln freed them from slavery in the 19th century.

A century later, Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to make the famous “I have a dream” speech before his black peers, urging them to peacefully stand up against discrimination as long as their “children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating ‘For Whites Only.’” Nevertheless, black drivers are still stopped by white policemen on patrol, regardless of their social stature.

The Indian caste system that categorizes and discriminates against individuals through hereditary groupings is even worse. The inhumane caste system that undermines individual rights and social unity through segregation and restriction permeates every part of India’s society.

History’s most rigid social mechanism, combined with religion and customs, has dogged and dominated the everyday lives of Indians for centuries and still remains as the bane - and the basis - of Hindu society.

We are no better. We may not be as blunt at making discrimination lawful, but we still exercise it in discreet or more obvious ways. We differentiate individuals according to hometowns, families, associations, schools and gender. Recently wealth, appearance and residence have been added to the list. We would not see the skyrocketing real estate prices in certain areas that families flock to in search of quality schools and tutoring institutes without the element of bias toward educational background.

As the country gets wealthier, its discrimination toward multicultural families and migrant workers has spread to North Korean defectors who have settled here. The International Monetary Fund warns that Korea cannot maintain its economic growth unless immigrants make up at least 35 percent of the total population by 2050. Under such inevitable demographic change, we cannot afford to be partial to parts of our society.

Many of today’s children have been exposed to two or more cultures, and to prize homogeneity is a kind of self-denial among such global nomads. A society of multicultural nomads should appreciate, not disdain, differences. We nomads must pursue greater collective needs to make our community a better and healthier place to live. This harmonious diversity makes the world beautiful.

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

By Kim Jung-kee
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