[Viewpoint] Multiculturalism under the microscope

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[Viewpoint] Multiculturalism under the microscope

Mired in social conflict, European governments that have accommodated large influxes of immigrants are now declaring multiculturalism a failure. The immigrant riots in France in 2005 led to mistrust of the Muslim community, and the July terrorist attacks in Norway by an anti-immigration extremist showed that multicultural conflict is a pathological problem that is both a social and personal issue.

On the other hand, Korea’s multicultural conflict stems from ideology and appears to be germinating under the surface. Currently, there are about 1.3 million foreigners in Korea, or about 2.6 percent of the total population. That is far less than in some European countries, where immigrants account for up to 20 percent of the population.

The issue lies not in the size of the immigrant population but Korea’s accession as a racially homogenous nation both historically and culturally.

Racially homogenous nationalism is a sentiment that has dominated Korean society. Korea’s sense of community based on blood ties is strong, and in times of political or economic crises, it has been used to mobilize and unify the nation. It is fair to say Korea’s achievements are built atop this sentiment. In particular, the painful experience of colonization during the first half of the 20th century resulted in many Koreans feeling that serving the nation is the greatest general good.

Paradoxically, the national assertion of a “one-race, one-blood nation” never had validity in the first place, according to some cultural anthropologists. After visiting Korea in the 19th century, French archeologist Emile Bourdaret claimed that Korean people’s appearance had a multiracial characteristic. Phillip Franz von Seibold, who came to Korea before Bourdaret, found that Koreans had a mixture of Mongolian and Caucasus features. English painter Arnold Henry Savage Landor said that Koreans were a mixture of all races residing in Asia.

Nevertheless, the dominance of racially homogenous nationalism has not wavered. To Koreans, the concept of a one-race nation is not validated in biological or cultural anthropological terms. Rather, it involves a sense of kinship that has sublimated into a form of group dependency.

The sense of community spirit among Koreans, based on blood, school ties and regionalism, is beneficial when it comes to unity and solidarity. But when it comes to welcoming new values and cultures, it can cause an excessive amount of apprehension. This is visible in Korea’s ranking in terms of cultural openness, which was among the lowest in the annual World Competitiveness Yearbook published by IMD, Switzerland’s leading business school.

The current discussion about the foreign community in Korea is largely about how it fits into Korean society. A case in point is mandatory military service. Earlier this year, the law exempting those of mixed race from military service was abolished. The change is regarded as a symbol for the new challenges that Korea faces. The nation’s law on military service had treated people of mixed race as second-class nationals and thus exempted them from service. Currently, there are approximately 55,000 sons from multiethnic families, according to the Ministry of Public Administration and Security, and 3,400 of them are between 16 and 18 years old and obligated to undergo a physical examination by next year.

There are mixed views about the change in the military service law. There are those who believe that children from multiethnic families must fulfill their obligations as Korean nationals and establish a sense of identity and belonging. On the other hand, there are also those who emphasize the sanctity of Korea’s military service. They claim that introducing multiethnic sons into the military will only increase confusion and instability, damaging Korea’s long-cherished identity as a racially homogenous nation.

Conflicts within a society or between its people may seem to be the price we have to pay for having an open society. But compared to the heated conflict seen in Europe, Korea will face more of a cold war. The ideological stakes in being a multicultural nation run much deeper in Korea, and resolving areas of friction will be more costly in financial, social and cultural terms. What we have to keep our eyes on is whether Korea’s multicultural conflict, still in its infant stages, will follow in the footsteps of Europe’s bad example or turn out to be mere growing pains on the road to becoming a more open society.

*The writer is a research fellow at Samsung Economic Research Institute.

By Choi Hong
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