[Viewpoint] From assimilation to appreciationJust in the last month, I made two five-day trips abroad - first to Myanmar on business and another to Mongolia on vacation. Between the two trips, I went to Yeosu, North Jeolla, for two days to visit the Expo’s international exhibits. In a short period of time, I had ample direct and indirect international experiences. And a few souvenirs, including a traditional Burmese painting and wooden Buddha sculpture, an elephant sculpture from Sri Lanka, a warrior figure from Rwanda and a Mongolian doll, have been added to the display cupboard in my living room.
In particular, the trip to Mongolia has left impressive memories. The traditional multiple-tone singing of khoomii, and the horse-head fiddle have been designated as World Cultural Heritages. I asked my 28-year-old Mongolian guide, a Ph.D. candidate at Dongguk University, what he misses most when he is in Korea, to which he answered, “Looking out far in the distance.” After spending a night at a ger, or a Mongolian tent, on the wide plain, I understood what he meant.
During the vacation season, we run into Korean tourists around the world. I was surprised to find a fellow journalist at a restaurant in Mongolia. Just as many foreigners come to Korea as Koreans go abroad. Foreigners come to see sights, work, get married and study. As of last year, nearly 1.4 million foreigners resided in Korea, about 2.8 percent of the total population. The resident foreigner population grew by 2.5 times in the past decade. By 2020, it is estimated that the immigrant population will make up 5.5 percent of the total population.
Precedents in other countries show that the discord between immigrants and natives becomes serious when the immigrants make up about 10 percent of the population. The crisis in France in 2005 was led by the children of immigrants. Immigrants in Korea are still considered a target of control and assistance as the number is relatively small.
However, signs of friction have started to appear. A few days ago, members of an anti-immigrant groupprotested in front of the Immigrations Office in Yangcheon-gu, Seoul, calling for an end to multicultural policies. When Saenuri Party representative Jasmine Lee hosted a forum on multicultural policies, a few protesters shouted that multicultural policy annihilates Korean culture.
Immigrant neighborhoods such as Wongok-dong in Asan, South Chungcheong, and Hyangnam-dong in Hwaseong, Gyeonggi, may be considered the foundation of cultural diversity, but they could turn into ghettos separated from the Korean community.
Multicultural policy has two approaches: a melting pot, which focuses on assimilation, and a salad bowl, where diversity is respected. As Korea is in an early stage of immigration, the multicultural policy is more toward the melting pot. The Act on the Treatment of Foreigners in Korea and the Support for Multicultural Families Act were legislated recently. Since no specific law bans racial discrimination, such cases should be addressed under the libel law.
And awareness of immigrant rights is lacking. In Europe, 74 percent are willing to embrace multicultural coexistence while 36 percent of Koreans are tolerant.
We have to change the direction from assimilation to harmony. We should thoroughly design a long-term plan based on analysis of the experiences of other developed countries. Of course, we have to be wary of blind favoritism based on political correctness and idealism.
The conversion from assimilation to harmony begins with encouraging cultural diversity. Let the children of Mongolian immigrant families learn Mongolian and take pride in horse-head fiddles and Khoomii singing. Cultural pride leads to self-esteem, and new Koreans will be politically and economically confident. The multicultural trend cannot be reversed unless we want to let Korea decline.
You may not be able to look far into the future in metropolitan Seoul, but policy makers should have a long-term perspective when it comes to the Korea’s growing foreign community.
*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Noh Jae-hyun