Analyzing South Korea’s ‘ethnic homogeneity’
SEOUL — Plastic containers of kimchi and spaghetti sit side by side in Diane Wiggins’ refrigerator, and rows of shoes are lined up, Korean-style, inside the entryway to the house.
When the 39-year-old leaves Yongsan Garrison, where she lives with her husband and three children, she sometimes hears whispers about her dark skin and Asian features.
But Wiggins, who is half Korean and half African-American, usually gets a warm reception from Seoulites even though her Korean isn’t perfect.
“They’re very forgiving,” Wiggins said.
Had she grown up in South Korea, she probably would have been ostracized because of her mixed blood — the reason her South Korean mother left the country when she became pregnant by an American soldier in the 1960s.
“It would have been frowned upon, being mixed, because of the way that Koreans believe in the bloodlines — how people don’t like to mix, how they like to keep it pure Korean,” Wiggins said.
In a nation fiercely proud of its traditions, half-Koreans historically have faced discrimination, though some say that is changing as more foreigners move into the country and a generation more open to other cultures grows up.
“They are a minority in a nation proud of being a homogeneous country,” said Lee Seok-jun, director of the National Human Rights Commission of Korea.
He said there are no laws that discriminate against or protect biracial citizens, but it’s almost impossible for them to get well-paying jobs because they look different. Many live in poverty because they weren’t able to get into universities or get good jobs, a cycle that left their children impoverished as well.
All able-bodied Korean men are required to serve two years in the military, but biracial Koreans were banned from serving in the military until 2005. Lee said the government feared they would be harassed, bullied or sexually harassed because of their appearance.
“The reality is they are still discriminated against in society,” he said.
A recent United Nations committee reported South Korea’s “ethnic homogeneity” and emphasis on “pure-bloodedness” still leads to discrimination against foreigners and half-Koreans.
Aside from Western missionaries, most Koreans didn’t see non-Asians until the United States put troops in Korea after World War II, said Mark Monahan, who was born in North Korea and teaches Korean history at the University of Maryland in Seoul.
After the 1950-53 Korean War, few Koreans saw mixed-race children, possibly because many were quickly adopted by American families.
Monahan predicts it will take Koreans 10 to 15 years to accept mixed-race residents.
“It’s similar to what the U.S. went through, with black and white,” he said. “I think it’s kind of a new thing for (Koreans). It takes awhile for it to settle.”
Michelle Fletcher, 29, said people frequently asked her if her South Korean mother and American father were still together during the 15 years she spent here as a child and teenager. Many incorrectly assumed her mother was a prostitute.
She left the country in 1997, and returned in 2003. In that short time, attitudes toward half-Koreans changed dramatically, she said, and people here are more welcoming today than they were when she was a child.
“Now, the younger generation seems to open up to Westerners a lot more than the older generation,” said Fletcher, who works at Yongsan Garrison’s Child Development Center.
The number of foreigners living in South Korea grew 158 percent over the past decade, and one million of the country’s 49 million residents are foreigners, according to the country’s Ministry of Justice.
About 104,000 foreigners are married to South Koreans, ministry officials said. Army Spc. Amanda Snowden’s American father met her Korean mother when he was stationed in South Korea. The 21-year-old grew up in the United States, but spent her summer vacation in South Korea when she was 6 years old.
Now stationed at Yongsan Garrison, she has a South Korean boyfriend she met while attending Daegu University last year and she is almost fluent in Korean. She doesn’t feel like Koreans look down on her because she’s half-American.
“I’ve had Korean friends tell me they don’t see me as an American friend. They see me as a friend that’s good at speaking English,” she said. “I would have no problem living here forever. I feel just as comfortable living here in Korea as in America.”