Shifting over to multiculturalismAs Korean society continues to grow more multiethnic in composition, discourse on the nation’s identity and values is set to intensify. So far, official policy has underscored assimilation. But it is time to plan more complex policies in anticipation of further influxes of migrants. The focus should be on a combination of measures that maximize the advantages of multiculturalism and reduce the disadvantages to achieve sustained social stability.
The number of multiethnic families - married immigrants, their spouses and children - reached 550,000 in 2011, up from 340,000 in 2008. The government predicts the number of such family members will reach one million by 2020 to account for 1.9 percent of the population, up from 1 percent last year.
Life in Korea for many migrant spouses is less than ideal. The income of multiethnic families is relatively low, with 60 percent earning less than 2 million won ($1,710) a month. Moreover, married immigrants’ education and job experience are rarely effectively utilized once they arrive in Korea. With many only able to land low-skilled jobs, their financial health is fragile.
Korean society in general is not ready to fully embrace cultural diversity yet. According to the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, 36 percent of Koreans are positive about embracing other cultures and living together, significantly lower than 74 percent in European countries. This has led to social and emotional hardships for many multicultural families.
Children in multiethnic families often experience sociopsychological problems and learning disorders due to discrimination at schools and society at large, and a sense of confusion about their identities. Consequently, their school attendance records are far below average. Meanwhile, married immigrants suffer from a lack of cultural understanding between couples, leading to marital friction. The divorce rate of married immigrants has risen seven fold in the past decade.
To resolve such issues, it is necessary to increase society’s acceptance of married immigrants and show respect for their cultural background rather than pushing for their total immersion into Korean culture. To this end, government policy must change from its current focus on assimilation toward one that pursues harmony. The core of this policy would be opportunities to promote understanding and increase acceptance of multiculturalism so immigrants and their families can live and participate in their local community.
There are several tasks to be done to achieve this goal. Multicultural activities and events could be promoted to permanent fixtures on the nation’s cultural calendar. For example, in Toronto, Canada, immigrants organized a “Caribbean Carnival” in 1967 during the centennial celebration of Canada’s founding. Approximately 1.2 million people now visit during the Carnival annually, generating more than $400,000 of revenue for the country’s economy.
Another approach would be to better enhance the self-supporting capabilities of immigrant spouses. This would involve job training and using their language skills and knowledge to help create specialized products.
Establishing an integrated education system consisting of schools, households and figures from the local community, and providing related consulting services is also a desirable path. With the participation of teachers, parents, kindergartens, health centers, private education institutes and local welfare centers, the programs could provide comprehensive consulting. Harvard University, for example, has devised a “complementary learning” program for children of minority groups.
A fourth task would be strengthening mental health services for multiethnic households. Treatment and counseling can be provided in connection with local mental health centers for the members of multiethnic families who have experienced discrimination or social maladjustment.
The fifth task would involve the creation of new and value-added jobs to support the social and economic activities of immigrants. Social enterprises and cooperatives for multiethnic households can be fostered to this end.
Creating a multicultural society in which everyone is happy is essential as Korea will increasingly need foreign labor to replace its aging workforce.
by Kim Jeung-kun
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