A Changing South Korea
What’s the first country that comes to your mind when you hear the words “mixed race?” For most people, the United States is at the top of the list. The U.S. is famously referred to as “the melting pot” because people of various backgrounds, races, and ethnicities live there. In a country that is so racially diverse such as the U.S, it’s natural for there to a significant mixed race population. The mixed race experience in the U.S. is well known and documented. But what about countries that aren’t as racially diverse, such as South Korea? What is the mixed race experience like over there? South Korea “has not been a preferred site for studying race/ethnicity or even ‘mixed race’ as it is projected to be an ethnically homogenous country” (Lee, p. 524). However, while South Korea is an ethnically homogenous country, its demographics have started to change thanks to the presence of migrant workers and immigrants in the country. Foreign residents make up approximately 4% of the population in South Korea today (Collins, 2020). This is impressive considering there was less than 50,000 foreigners in the country in 1990 (Collins, 2020). There is a relatively small but growing mixed race population in the country thanks to the increase of international marriages between Koreans and foreigners (Lee, p. 524). I believe the number of foreign residents in the country will continue to increase with the passage of time. These are some of the reasons why the mixed race experience in South Korea is worthy of being analyzed.
How Colonization Shaped Korean Identity
Notions of race and ethnicity in South Korea have historically depended on the idea of a shared bloodline. This is because Korean society “is inextricably tied to and defined by a unique Korean identity, one based on an uncompromising conflation of race and ethnicity” (Lim, 2009). The origin of this mentality goes back to the Japanese colonization of Korea. Under the political and cultural policy of “kominka,” the Japanese sought to transform the colonized Koreans into loyal imperial subjects (Kim, p. 264). This policy rendered Korean people powerless and robbed them of their identity. “Not only were Koreans stripped of land and of all economic means of survival, kominka further threatened them with total erasure when the colonizers rewrote Korean history, outlawed the Korean language, substituted worship of the Japanese emperor for native religious practices, and demanded that they adopt Japanese names” (Kim, p. 264). In addition, the Japanese ran a slogan of ‘‘Naisen ittai’’which promoted the idea that Japanese and Korean people were members of the same race (Kim, p. 264). Korean people developed a fierce insistence on the sanctity of Korean national identity in response to all of this (Kim, p. 264). They were particularly inspired by Shin Chaeho and his popularization of “minjok” in his book New Reading of History (The Halfie Project, 2020). Minjok has multiple meanings, including race, ethnic group, and nation (Kim, p. 266). Chaeho depicted minjoks as a war-like group of people who bravely fought to maintain and preserve their Korean identity (The Halfie Project, 2020). The belief in the uniqueness of Korean minjok is ultimately what gave Korean people strength in resisting Japanese imperialism and maintaining their culture and ethnic identity (The Halfie Project, 2020). If the Japanese had gotten their way back, Korean culture would have ceased to exist. When one considers all that Koreans have gone through, it’s understandable why they emphasize the importance of a shared bloodline based upon ethnicity. The Korean War is also important in this regard (The Halfie Project, 2020). There was a strong U.S. military presence in the country during this time, and Koreans were heavily exposed to American culture (The Halfie Project, 2020). Koreans experienced and internalized the racist stereotypes, attitudes, and beliefs of Americans towards them and other ethnic groups (The Halfie Project, 2020).
Mixed Race Discrimination in South Korea
Korean notions of blood and purity are detrimental to people who don’t fit in, including mixed race people. Mixed race people in South Korea go through life differently and face a unique set of challenges. They are referred to as “honhyeols,” which literally means mixed blood (The Halfie Project, 2020). Mixed blood has a negative connotation in South Korea (Collins, 2020). For much of Korean history, you had to have a pure Korean bloodline in order to be considered a “real” Korean (The Halfie Project, 2020). For comparison’s sake, half White American, half Black American people in the United States have historically been regarded as Black rather than mixed race (Lee, p. 535). This is largely due to the one drop rule, which determined that any person who had a drop of Black blood was just Black (Lee, p. 535). The same mindset does not apply to mixed race Koreans. Even though they are half Korean, they will never considered fully Korean (Lee, p. 535). Cedric, a mixed race Korean living in Seoul, recounted on The Halfie Project YouTube channel about once coming across a popular restaurant that had a sign outside which read, “No foreigners aloud” (The Halfie Project, 2020). Despite being half Korean and living in South Korea, he knew the sign very much applied to him (The Halfie Project, 2020). It’s common for mixed race people to feel rejected, treated as outsiders, and be subject to severe forms of discrimination in South Korea (Lim, 2009).
Among the consequences mixed race people have suffered in South Korea include higher high school dropout rates, lower levels of educational achievement, higher unemployment rates, underemployment, and lower pay (Lim, 2009). This is especially true for Amerasians, who are known in South Korea as the children of Korean women and American men, most often a U.S. soldier (Lim, 2009). Amerasians are “viewed as decidedly non-Korean interlopers who belong, if anywhere, in the land of their fathers” (Lim, 2009). In 1975, a law was instituted which exempted them and other mixed race Korean men from serving in the military, with the intention of denying them work and potentially driving them out of the country (This law was later revised in 2006) (The Halfie Project, 2020). Prior to the 2000’s, discrimination against mixed race people just wasn’t taken very seriously. When anthropological professor Su-Je Lee Gage, a mixed race Korean, traveled to South Korea for the first time in 1995, she was surprised to learn there were no policies put in place that were inclusive of mixed race people and multicultural families, nor policies that would have protected them from discrimination (Kim et al., p. 183). During her time in South Korea, she discovered that Koreans as a whole turned a blind eye to mixed Koreans and Korean women who were married to non-Korean men, such as her mother (Kim et al., p. 183). It’s only in recent years that South Korea has acknowledged their presence.
The Plight of Mixed Race Korean Children
Mixed race children are perhaps the most vulnerable in Korean society. It’s cliché to state but true, kids can be cruel. Starting from such a young age, mixed race Koreans are made to feel unaccepted and like they don’t belong in their own country. These issues are exacerbated by the fact South Korea has historically emphasized the importance of a pure Korean bloodline. One can only imagine what this does to the self-esteem of a mixed race child in South Korea. Author and poet Robert Ricardo Reese shared a poem that brilliantly captures the conflicted feelings of mixed race Korean children in the book Mixed Korean: Our Stories: Anthology. “Fill in the appropriate circle with which you identify / my teacher is for a moment without a word / my confusion tries to fashion race / with her finger on my paper I bow my head / shaking my knees / staring at the scarred oak desk / she looks at me “sweetie just mark one” / I bubble in Black & then Asian & then Hispanic & then all of them” (Kim et al., p. 220). Mixed race children in South Korea are subject to discrimination and racial prejudice as a result of their mixed race heritage. They are often referred to as derogatory terms by their classmates such as ‘‘kosian,’’ ‘‘mixed-blood,’’ and ‘‘half-Korean’’ (Olneck, p. 683). These terms exist to make mixed race Korean children feel less than adequate in their Koreanness. One can only imagine the effects this has on the mixed race Korean children’s self esteem.
The majority of mixed race children in South Korea are born to Korean fathers and non-Korean mothers (Collins, 2020). The mother is considered responsible for educating the child in South Korea, so if the mother cannot speak Korean fluently or hasn’t been through the Korean education system, this has negative consequences for her child’s (Collins, 2020). The Korean government has taken measures to combat this issue, by integrating mixed race Korean children and their foreign parents through language enhancement programs, as well as supporting Korean cultural and multicultural education at the state level (Lee, p. 523). In South Korean schools, kids learn about han minjok, or the unity of the ethnic nation, in their classrooms and textbooks (Collins, 2020). The emphasis of han minjok in the Korean education system isolates mixed race Korean children and reinforces the idea that they aren’t really Korean (Collins, 2020). The Ministry of Education, Science, and Technology has since undertaken revisions to remove words from textbooks which have connotations of the superiority of a single race and homogeneous cultural tradition, as well as teach Korean students about the difficulties foreigners and mixed race children deal with (Olneck, p. 675). While there’s still a lot of work to be done to improve the lives of mixed race Korean children, South Korea is headed in the right direction.
How Hines Ward’s Visit to South Korea Changed Everything
Football player Hines Ward’s visit to South Korea in 2006 left an indelible impact on South Korea (Ahn, p. 392). Ward was born to a Korean mother and a Black American father (Ahn, p. 392). Ward visited South Korea for the first time with his mother after he was named the Most Valuable Player on his team, the Pittsburgh Steelers (Ahn, p. 392). His visit “triggered the unspoken matter of mixed-race and initiated the rise of a multiculturalism discussion in Korean society” (Ahn, p. 392). It’s important to note that South Korean didn’t become multicultural until very recently (Ahn, p. 395). Unlike traditional Korean notions of blood and purity, multiculturalism “rejects the idea that belonging requires identity of racial and ethnic descent” (Olneck, p. 681). An image featured in week 12’s class lecture depicted a sign with the names of different people who grew up in different countries but now live in South Korea. (Collins, 2020). The sign read, “If you live in a foreign country, you’re a foreigner. If you live in Korea, you’re a Korean” (Collins, 2020).Ward’s visit to South Korea, in many ways, signified the official shift towards multiculturalism in South Korea. It opened up a public discussion in South Korea about issues related to the human rights of migrant workers and mixed-race individuals for the first time (Ahn, p. 396).
Hines Ward’s visit is also significant because it marked the first time ever that a Black body was represented with honor and respect in Korean television (Ahn, p. 397). Visual images of Ward were broadcast on various television programs, and they all emphasized his blackness as a marker of racial otherness, as well as a new Koreanness (Ahn, p. 397). This is significant considering anti-blackness is prevalent in Korean culture. Hines Ward’s mother, Kim Young-Hee stated in an interview that she didn’t return to South Korea following her divorce with Ward’s father because she knew how poorly mixed race people were treated in South Korea (Ahn, p. 400). She also feared what the public reaction would be towards her as a Korean woman who married a Black man and had a half Black son (Ahn, p. 400). The personal story of Hines Ward and his mother accurately reflects the racial discrimination and state racism experienced by Amerasians and other mixed race Koreans in the 1970s and 1980s (Ahn, p. 400). Mixed race Koreans were an invisible and voiceless community for the longest time in South Korea (Ahn, p. 400). Hines Ward’s visit and the media spectacle that followed it signaled a change and finally gave mixed race Koreans the space to be recognized and a platform to be heard.
The Future of Mixed Race Koreans
While the mixed race experience in South Korea has been far from pleasant, it will likely improve as South Korea shifts away from homogeneity and becomes more multi-ethnic. More and more Koreans will exposed to foreigners and multicultural families in the country. This in turn will make mixed race Korean people seem like less of an anomaly. “Mixed race” is also still a relatively new phenomenon in South Korea, so it’s going to take some more time before mixed race Korean people are fully accepted and assimilated into Korean society. However, that doesn’t mean there won’t come a day when they are viewed and treated the same as any other Korean person. There is a growing consciousness of race and racism in South Korea, more than there ever was in the past. The mixed race Koreans of the past were especially unlucky because the pure Korean bloodline mindset persisted and dominated Korean history for so long. The mixed race Koreans of the future will likely not suffer from this same issue, because South Korea has moved away from placing emphasis on blood and purity. South Korea is also one of the most powerful countries in the world and frankly cannot afford to remain homogenous or hateful towards foreigners. Questions concerning who is and isn’t Korean, what it means to be Korean, and who belongs to Korean society will continue to be less strict and more inclusive of non-Korean people. This will be greatly beneficial to mixed race Koreans and hopefully lead to better lives for them in South Korea.
Ahn, J.-H. (2014). Rearticulating Black Mixed-Race in the Era of Globalization. Cultural Studies, 28(3), 391–417. https://doi-org.proxy-tu.researchport.umd.edu/10.1080/09502386.2013.840665
Collins, S. [Samuel Collins]. (2020, October 19). ANTH 307/ CLST 301, October 19, 2020 [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z4fTu5ZTokk&feature=youtu.be&ab_channel=SamuelCollins
Lee, C. S. (2017). Narratives of ‘mixed race’ youth in South Korea: racial order and in-betweenness. Asian Ethnicity, 18(4), 522–542. https://doi-org.proxy-tu.researchport.umd.edu/10.1080/14631369.2016.1219940
Kim, C., & Kim-Russell, S. (2018). Mixed Korean: Our Stories: Anthology (K. Kim, Ed.). Bloomington, IN: Truepeny Publishing.
Lim, T. (2009). Who is Korean? Migration, immigration, and the challenge of multiculturalism in homogeneous societies. Asia-Pacific Journal, 30(1).
Olneck, M. R. (2011). Facing multiculturalism’s challenges in Korean education and society. Asia Pacific Education Review, 12(4), 675.
So Hee Chi Kim, S. (2017). Korean Han and the Postcolonial Afterlives of “The Beauty of Sorrow.” Korean Studies, 41, 253–279. https://doi-org.proxy-tu.researchport.umd.edu/10.1353/ks.2017.0026
The Halfie Project. (2020). 혼혈: Mixed Koreans in South Korea – the History of Mixed Race in Korea & Why Racism Exists Here Still [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KPDJDGhW6PM