Understanding Racism in Korea

Black face on national television. Shows Korea's lack of exposure/sensitivity to black people.

Black face on national television. Shows Korea's lack of exposure/sensitivity to black people.

We recently posted a video that discussed anti-Japanese sentiment in Korea. In the video we said that in general, older Koreans are anti-Japanese and that younger people are not as racist. And then we got a flood of comments from Korean netizens saying things like “You’re wrong! I hate Japanese people!” … Idiots. I don’t think they realize how ridiculous they seem to the rest of the world. But they have their reasons, and I understand where they’re coming from.

Author’s Note: Racism is a very sensitive subject, and an ultimately complicated issue. A blog post is way too short to fully analyze and explain racist sentiments in any country. But I’m going to try anyway. I’m sure I’ll get some backlash in some form. But remember, these are only my opinions and conclusions, and I take full responsibility for any hate comments or racist internet trolls to come. Let’s get it on!


General Racism in Korea

Korea is one of most homogenous countries in the world. And although pluralism has recently started to penetrate the peninsula, the vast majority of Korea is still without diversity. And that means there’s still much xenophobia, in particular with the older generation who spent their entire lives living with Koreans, eating Korean foods, doing Korean things. When their way of life is changed with an influx of non-Korean people, foods and things as is the case in recent years, fear and even anger are not irrational reactions. Of course it’s the same with any country that has experienced an influx of immigrants or foreigners (i.e. America, England, France, etc.). But for Korea, it’s magnified because even as recently as the late 90’s, it was extremely uncommon to see a foreign tourist, let alone an immigrant.

Nationalism in Korea


If you haven’t noticed, most Koreans are super proud of Korea. Of course Thais are proud of Thailand, French of France, Brazilians of Brazil, etc. But in Korea, it’s not just nationalism. As a people, it was a means of cultural survival. Historically, Korea has been overlooked for its more globally recognized neighbors to its east and west. Everyone knew of China and Japan, but Korea was often the forgotten country in the middle. Nationalism in Korea was a way of ensuring relevancy on the global scale. That’s why even to this day when people of Korean decent are in the international spotlight (i.e. Hines Ward, Super Bowl MVP; Daniel Dae Kim, American actor; Yoshihiro Akiyama, MMA fighter; etc.), Koreans rush to claim them as their own, no matter how far or distant their connection to the motherland is. It’s Korea’s chance to be noticed by the world.

Also, nationalism in Korea was a means of cultural survival quite literally during the Japanese colonization era.


Olympic Soccer 2012 - Political statement after the Korea-Japan match

Olympic Soccer 2012 – Political statement after the Korea-Japan match

Korean Racism towards Japanese

During World War II Japan did a lot of things to piss off many Asian countries, not just Korea. In Korea’s case, however, Japan attempted to assimilate Koreans into Japanese society. The Korean language was essentially banned at schools, and classes were conducted 100% in Japanese. Even to this day, my 81 year old grandmother is still more comfortable reading and writing in Japanese than she is in Korean because of her education. She is completely fluent, and she often mixes her Japanese with her Korean without even knowing it. The Japanese policy of assimilation was essentially working.

But language is minor compared to the sex slave issue. During World War II, Japan used Korean women as sex slaves to ‘boost the morale’ of their military. Women were enslaved to service thousands of Japanese soldiers. It’s a huge diplomatic issue even to this day. Sex slave survivors continue to demand the Japanese government for formal apologies, which has yet to happen.

So Japan tried to eliminate the Korean language and culture, and they enslaved Korean women for sex. For those that lived through the era, racism and hatred is a completely natural and understandable reaction. For younger racist Koreans that hate Japanese, however, it’s a combination of their extreme national pride and their desire for history to be accurately reflected (the Japanese government denies/deflects many of these accusations). Anti-Japanese sentiment was also encouraged by the government to a certain degree, as the Korean government banned Japanese cultural imports (i.e. music, movies, comics, tv shows, etc.) until as recently as the late 90’s. And of course, there are families that teach this form of racism to their children.

Today, Korea-Japan relations are better than in the past (especially because of economic trade), but these historical issues continue to cause some Koreans to have anti-Japanese sentiments.


Korean Racism towards Chinese

In Korea, Chinese citizens are Korea’s number one immigrants. And ironically enough, it’s Joseonjok (ethnic Koreans from China) that make up the majority of the Chinese population in Korea. But that doesn’t stop Korea from seeing them differently. Although they are of the same blood, Joseonjok are in the end still immigrants.

For the most part, immigrants in general are coming from poorer countries looking for better opportunities. Since they’re coming from poorer countries, immigrants in any country usually get blamed for stealing jobs and benefits from citizens, causing danger and harm to the population, and they generally have a bad reputation (think Mexicans in America, Vietnamese in France, or even Koreans in Japan). Also, when an immigrant and a native citizen commit the same crime, it’s usually the immigrant that gets highlighted in the news and not the native citizen. This happens in most countries, not just in Korea. And in Korea, it just so happens that Korea’s immigrant population is dominated by Joseonjok.

And although they are of Korean decent, their association with China probably gives ethnic Chinese citizens a bad reputation as well. It’s obviously not the only source for anti-Chinese sentiment. Far from it. But the sheer number of Chinese immigrants definitely is one of the main reasons for anti-Chinese racism in Korea.


Mini Psy has been subjected to racism for being half Vietnamese

Mini Psy has been subjected to racism for being half Vietnamese

South East Asians / Other Asians

All that immigrant based racism towards Chinese? Apply that to Vietnamese, Cambodian, Thai and Filipino nationals, the newest immigrant demographic coming to Korea. Most of them are coming as foreign brides for Korean men, and many are also birthing interracial children. This rapid increase in international marriages and families started in the 2000’s and continues today. It’s a new phenomenon that’s happening very quickly. And for many Koreans, it’s scary to see their country change so drastically and so quickly.


Korean Racism towards Americans

Koreans have a love/hate relationship with the United States of America. The US was South Korea’s most influential ally during the Korean War. Without the US, there wouldn’t be a South Korea today. And many Koreans have a deep appreciation and even fondness of Americans because of this. But after the war, the United States installed military bases in South Korea to protect from the North. Some support it, some don’t (this in itself is a controversial topic that I don’t want to get into). And those military bases are very active with thousands of US soldiers roaming about. With thousands of Americans, there’s bound to be a few idiots that make all Americans look bad.

Any time an American soldier runs over people with a tank or Korean girls are raped, it becomes huge news stories that overemphasize their Americanness and deemphasize their individual stupidity. Also, the weekend fights and arrests with drunk American soldiers near US Military installments help perpetuate the bad reputation as well. Couple that with general cultural differences between the East and the West, and you got yourself a few reasons for why anti-American sentiment exists in Korea.


Korean Racism towards Black People

Black face on national television. Shows Korea's lack of exposure/sensitivity to black people.

Black face on national television. Shows Korea’s lack of exposure/sensitivity to black people.

Racism against black people (Africans, Americans, Caribbean, etc.) comes from a fear of the unknown. Again, Korea has historically been one of the most ethnically pure nations in the world. And although caucasians and other asians are seen often enough in Korea, the reality is that some Koreans will go their entire lives and never see a black person. So to see someone that looks completely and utterly different can be awe inspiring. For some it’s a curiosity. And for others its fear inducing. Just like most forms of racism, this one is purely out of ignorance.


Again. I don’t want you to get it wrong. There are tons of Koreans that have very positive sentiments for people all around the world. In fact, most of the Koreans around me are quite international, and have many international friends from all over. That’s because I tend to avoid the ignorant people I encounter in Korea. I don’t like dealing with idiocy. But as crazy as they are, and as much as I don’t agree with them, I do understand where some of them are coming from. Obviously this blog post doesn’t do any justice to the extremely expansive and complicated issue of racism in Korea. And yes, there are more reasons. Of course there are. But many of those reasons are ridiculous (i.e. they’re dirty, they’re poor, they’re stealing our women, we’re pure blood). Essentially it’s a racism that is based on ignorance, and I’m not going to waste my time with that. But I do hope this blog post brings some awareness and understanding to the reasons for some of the racism found in Korea.

It’s a complicated issue that deserves plenty of discussion. Leave a comment and don’t be an idiot please.

P.S. To the racist Korean netizens that hate on SeoulisticVideos, you’re welcome.

Keith Kim is a Korean-American who has been living in Korea for almost a decade. Being in a unique position as both a Korean and a non-Korean, he's put all his experience and knowledge for surviving in Korea in Survival Korean . Read it to learn how you can survive in Korea. Follow him on Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram.


  1. mc says:

    “When their way of life is changed with an influx of non-Korean people, foods and things as is the case in recent years, fear and even anger are not irrational reactions.” Wrong. They are *precisely* irrational reactions. What they are are “not unexpected reactions”. Sadly, though. Humans are irrational. But somewhat predictable, especially sociologically speaking.

  2. Kwak Dae Han says:

    Koreans are the people most proud of World!

  3. Meena says:

    I live in a area that has a nice hand full of Koreans 🙂 My mother is Black(Quarter indian) and I’m Multi-racial(Creole). They’re very fond of us because we always visit their fabric store, they treat us like family! And I would always meet a random Asian man/woman and they would always compliment me. I never been to South Korea and I really want to go there, I’m also learning because its the third most spoken language in my state lol But this article helped a lot, I didn’t want to fly to a country that would be rude towards me, but this gave clarification, and I highly understand. Lucky for me, I’m not the type to get offended easily, and I could understand why they would be that way(I would to if I was them!) and its not a big deal unless you make it seem that way 🙂 But no doubt, I’ll definitely visit South Korea, I’ve always been curious to see their culture up close and personal!

  4. Michael says:

    Thanks for this post. I plan on going to Korea but every time I start to do it, I get worried that Korea will ruin my generally positive perception of Koreans. I live in Koreatown in Los Angeles, California, and I’m black. The majority of my girlfriends in recent years have been Korean because of where I live mostly, and I’ve grown an affinity for the culture and the people. But I’m terrified that if I go to Korea, something will inevitably happen to hurt my quest to bring people everywhere together. Anyway, thanks for writing this 🙂 that blackface thing was painful to look at 🙁

  5. Ani says:

    What are they like with Arabs?

    • Fatemeh says:

      Don’t let this article fool you. My friend has lived and studied in Korea for 5 years and we are Muslims too, she had compete Hijab there. Not even once was she treated with disrespect or was ostracized for being different. The only thing Koreans really care about is that you have to follow their social codes meaning respecting someone who is older or in a higher position. So in a university you have to respect the seniors and in return they support you and help you if you need anything. Some Western people find it very difficult and maybe strange to respect older people as they do not even have the needed terms in their languages like Koreans do.
      I have met some Koreans and I can guarantee they are very friendly towards other races.

  6. Marie says:

    I think your example with Vietnamese in France is off the mark. Vietnamese living in France are actually considered a model minority. They are the most established overseas Vietnamese group (since they’ve been there since colonial times) and have high education and assimilation rates. They are far more successful than Vietnamese-Americans or Canadians.

  7. Sonya says:

    Honestly, living around Koreans and living in Korea is so much different. I’m originally from LA and have been in Korea for about 3 months. I’ve definitely felt a love/hate from Koreans. First of all, if you’re not Asian, you tend to get stared at a lot, especially around areas where there aren’t many foreigners. Also, there are many Koreans that are super friendly and will peak an interest in getting to know who you are or where you come from, but sometimes they’ll bring up stereotypes and will be so confused if you tell them that those stereotypes are not all that true. It’s usually the older generation that tends to discriminate (for lack of a better word). Usually when I get ugly stares they’re usually from older women. I even had an 아쩌씨 firmly put his hand down on the seat next to him so I wouldn’t sit there. I’m not Chinese, but I’m constantly meeting people who highly dislike the Chinese for their “behavior” and “loudness”. It is true that this country does not have the immigration history that other countries have had, therefore, you may encounter some things that seem a bit racist when coming to Korea. All that aside, still a great country.

  8. Lilian says:

    Sonya you are right. Am an african and i always get stares from older women. They touch my hair and my skin, i never fet offended because honestly ihave nothing to do and i understand where theyre coming from. But still the love-hate thing cgoing on here and the short tempers are alittle confusing. But am sure in years to come all these habbits will be erradicated. They opened up their boundaries to other nations, they will be no turning back.

  9. Korea says:

    I am a korean and I think It depends on city and age. As you know, there are less racists in well-educated city. And young ppl are less. Elder ppl…. some of them are racists because theyd grown up in tough era (from colonization by japan, dividing into two country by US and Russia to Korean War.) They seldom open their minds. Changing their sights are so difficult, but I belive Racists wil be dispear in Korea.

  10. Leah Yi says:

    Hello! I am a10year old girl who goes to KIS. I’m doing a project on cultural discrimination. I saw ur website and l love it!️ I also have a few questions. Ca u tell me why Korea and Japanese discrimination each other? Thank u!

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