[Us and Them] I’m Korean, You’re Not, and There’s a Fine Line You Can’t Cross

In a new interview with The Korea Herald, Gi-Wook Shin discusses ethnic homogeneity, its nationalist roots, and the limitations to building multicultural identity in South Korea.
crowd in seoul People walking along Myeongdong street in Seoul.

This interview with APARC Director Gi-Wook Shin was originally published in The Korea Herald, South Korea's largest English-language daily newspaper.

Silas Harper Bray, a 30-year-old English teacher based in Gyeonggi Province, has never regretted marrying her Korean husband. But others weren’t so fond of her decision, and they weren’t shy about letting her know.

She has found out during her three-year stay in South Korea that some Koreans do not like the idea of “mixing blood,” and they made sure she got the message, no matter how offensive it might be.

“Many people have told my husband that he should have married a Korean,” Harper Bray told The Korea Herald. “Two people have told us that if we had kids they would be ‘mongrels’ and to take them out of Korea as they will never be Korean.”

Most people may not care about foreigners marrying Koreans, but Harper Bray sensed that racism is a reality in Korea, and she learned that the ideology of homogeneity definitely had a role in it.

What Harper Bray learned goes back to how many South Koreans have erroneously taken pride in Korea being ethnically homogeneous. This has given reason for Koreans to treat those of other ethnicities differently and effectively bar them from identifying themselves as Koreans.

And that is slowly eating away at Korea’s reputation built with cultural heritage and economic success, as foreigners are left out and ostracized, told there’s no room for them at the party.

The country has been rapidly transforming with its demographic landscape becoming more colorful than ever before. With its socioeconomic and cultural appeal, Korea has become a destination of choice for many immigrants.

However, much more is needed for the country and its people to truly accept newcomers, experts say, especially when many Koreans still believe today that they live in a single-race nation, which must be protected to preserve its identity and sacredness.

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More than 2.3 million foreigners were reported to be in Korea as of late last year, but the notion of Korea being a single-race nation remains alive today, expressed through stereotypes and discriminatory actions against immigrants.

“My grandmother always says that white, Black or whoever other than Koreans aren’t Koreans and can never be one, as they belong to places other than here by blood,” recalled Lee Jin-ho, a 30-year-old who said his grandparents maintained a tight boundary of who can and can’t be a Korean.

“She went full-on rage mode when she learned that my brother was dating a white American. She threatened to oust him from the family and whatever, and he had to give up. It was intense back then.”

Experts say such belief in homogeneity, a belief that Korea was born to life exclusively by the work of ethnic Koreans and no one else, is largely unfounded.

Many research projects in recent years have debunked the myth, showing how Koreans today are the result of massive mixtures from war, migration and travel, but the belief remained strong enough to be taught at home and in schools.

According to a report from local genome analysis firm Clinomics released in 2020, Koreans are a group of diverse ethnic backgrounds, best explained by the mix of the Neolithic Devil’s Gate genome in Russia and the Iron Age Vat Komnou in Southeast Asia.

Researchers said Koreans are likely to be the result of large population expansion and mixture that occurred throughout East Asia, rather than a unique isolated group that came into being from unitary migration.

“We speculate that this admixing trend initially occurred mostly outside the Korean Peninsula followed by continuous spread and localization in Korea, corresponding with the general admixture trend of East Asia,” the report said.

“Over 70 percent of extant Korean genetic diversity is said to be derived from a recent population expansion and admixture from the South.”

Yet historians and ethnic studies scholars say scientific backgrounds are not what has formed today‘s belief of homogeneity and the strict definition of “Korean-ness.”

“This concept of ethnic homogeneity that we still emphasize today was born rather recently,” said Shin Gi-wook, a sociology professor at Stanford University who is an expert on Korea’s demographics.

This concept of ethnic homogeneity that we still emphasize today was born rather recently.
Gi-Wook Shin
Stanford University

“This kind of idea didn’t exist in Joseon Dynasty, and it hasn’t been that long since Korean became a national language. Discussions on the identity of those in the Korean Peninsula only started in late 19th century, but still that wasn’t about ethnic homogeneity or anything.”

Shin says the nationalist belief dates back to the Japanese occupation in the early 20th century, when Koreans emphasized their own identity in distinguishing themselves from the Japanese.

Countering Japan’s objective to unite Asians from different countries under its colonial empire, Koreans preferred to categorize themselves as a different ethnicity, a tendency that peaked in the 1920s and ’30s.

The ideology grew again under the Park Chung-hee administration in the 1960s and ‘70s, which promoted modernization coupled with national awareness in strengthening the nation with everyone working as a single organism.

While Park’s dictatorship ended and democratization sped up, the ideological unity mostly remained. It has continued to today and served as a blockade between conservative ethnic Koreans and those who do not look like them.

“South Korea divides people into insiders and outsiders, and there is no concept of minority in their minds,” Shin added.

“Reality is that Korea is not so much a livable country for foreigners. They are categorized as outsiders, and they are never truly welcomed as valued members of the society even though Korea wants to be viewed as a country that is desired to be visited from elsewhere.”

Even though the country has been promoting multiculturalism as a policy initiative since 2006, Korea has not been very inclusive. Instead, newcomers are asked to assimilate into Korean culture and society on their own.

And even then, Koreans do not always consider those who have worked to assimilate as part of Korean society, believing they will leave soon or give birth to “mongrels,” as Harper Bray described.

This has also made Koreans take the problem of racism lightly, Shin says, believing the issue is more relatable to other diverse nations like the US and other countries in the West.

“We tend to examine cases of racial discrimination against ethnic Koreans in countries like the United States, but we don‘t really spend much time reviewing such cases in Korea,” he said.

"This is a sign that people take this issue of racism less seriously in Korea."

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