Understanding Racism in Korea – Seoulistic

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

blogfiles12.naver

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
Keith
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.

176 Comments

  1. Francisco says:

    What about people from South America (I’m from Chile and I’m
    slightly tan)?

    By the way, the work of all of you have done to introduce the Korean culture to the world in such clever way it’s remarkable.

  2. Abacaxi says:

    Anyone knows what it reads on the banner the soccer player is holding? I can’t work out the first letter in the last syllable. Is that a ㅂ or aㅍ?

    독도는 dogdo-neun .. vase/pitcher and an object marking particle.

    우리방 could read “our room” according to an online translator.

    All in all I’m nowhere near translating this I think :).

  3. Abacaxi says:

    Making it 우리땅, “our land”, Dogdo must be a region or an island .. “Dogdo is ours only!”

    It appears I was an idiot anyway :).

  4. Jessica says:

    I honestly don’t understand the point of this post. Because Korea has developed so much in so little time, the country has numerous flaws, and xenophobia is simply one of them. It is also a problem that will be solved over time as Korea becomes more and more globalized. The strikingly negative connotation throughout the whole post and your seemingly all-knowing nuance about the cause of such racism amazes me.

    • Keith says:

      Thanks for your comment.

      Not everyone knows about the development/xenophobia, so that’s why I wrote this post. For the most part, the response has been good. And of course there’s going to be negativity. It’s a post about racism.

      Not sure what you’re talking about with the know it all comment.

    • Francis says:

      I disagree Jessica.

      This article touches upon a taboo subject in Korean society that needs to be brought to the forefront.

      And the interest shown by a lot of people that are interested in visiting Korea only reaffirms what Keith set out out to achieve.

      Racism is an ugly subject matter so negative connotations are only naturally part of the package.

      I can see why you thought he had a know-it-all attitude, but perhaps that is just a side effect of him comprehensively covering many facets of racism in Korea.

    • Hay-Z says:

      I bet Jessica is a typical Kpop tard and criticising Korea is a no-no.She can’t wake to go see Big Bag or Girls Degeneration and see a Drama. No way her fantasy land can be bad.

      Ignore retards who calim you are a know-it-all, she’s clearly trying to do it herself. What a retard

  5. Michael says:

    Hi Keith, great article and also I am a big fan of the seoulistic youtube channel. I have a question which is along the lines of this article…

    I am from Hawai’i, I am half Korean and half Hawaiian/Portuguese/Spanish/Chinese. I joined the US army a few years ago and I am going to be stationed at Yongsan next year.

    You touched on Koreans feelings towards Military and also other races, what are their feelings towards mixed Koreans? Will I be frowned upon? Growing up in Hawai’i everyone is mixed and I was used to that until I moved to the mainland, people didn’t know what to call me, Korean, Pacific Islander etc. Now that I’m moving to Korea I just wanted to know what to expect.

    • Francis says:

      Michael,

      Attitudes towards mixed race Koreans have improved a lot.

      Even as recent as the 90s, you certainly would’ve experienced racism against you if you were of mixed origin. And certain race combinations would have had more negative reaction and prejudices than perhaps what a foreigner might have experienced.

      But I am happy to say that the attitude towards mixed Koreans seems to have improved a lot.
      IMHO I think you might get treated better than a foreigner now because of your blood ties to Korea.

      Also there’s been a dramatic improvement towards mixed marriages and that can only mean good things for you and descendants of mixed marriages 🙂

      And I think having an increasing stable of movie/k-pop/Sports stars that are of mixed parentage and their increased media exposure to the Korean people have certainly helped IMHO.

      Whilst it may be impossible to avoid racism altogether, I hope it’ll prepare you mentally if it does happen.

      And Enjoy it while you’re out there.

  6. 진희(JinHee) says:

    Thanks for the articles Keith. I really enjoyed reading them. You covered basics of living in Korea. I, myself was born & raised in Korea, and experienced racism by Korean boys & girls in ’70’s and ’80’s, also. Racism is everywhere though. Look at America. I am still going through it. Being a mixed human being people in America treats me differently,,,,,especially the blacks. Ignorance. Looking forward to reading more,,,thank you. 고마워 :))

  7. Johanna says:

    Thanks for talking about this Keith , i´m from Costa Rica and even after i read all these articles about racism in Korea , i still want to live there , by any chance do you know some latin people ? How is it for them?

  8. John says:

    I am a black man and I have been to Korea and generally encounter a lot of Korean people from my hometown of London, England. I have seen both extreme points on the racism spectrum, having had a Korean girlfriend before and having tons of Korean friends, I can honestly say that Korean people are some of the nicest people I have ever met. Saying that, I understand any racism they have. Every country and culture experiences racism towards another culture, because its just really a form of hate. I like to still believe in individuality and feel that if I do meet a racist Korean, i.e. a store owner who refused to serve me lol, that is all on him and his thinking. I would still live in Korea and plan to do so after I finish my degree 😉

    Generalisation on a whole isn’t good because in the case of black people anyone who was brave enough to tell me the reason why they disliked my kind was just because of stereotyping, saying that most black people are violent, but after you get the Korean approval of safety by lets say going out in a group of your Korean friends, no matter where you’re from, about 80% of Koreans you will run into will no longer be afraid of you.

    Dont hate me for pulling that random statistic from my ass.

  9. abbie says:

    Wow These really help me tohave a deeper understand of South korea hehe .
    How about Hong Kong??
    Wt is the korean impressiom towards Hong Kong people??
    Hah Since Im from Hong Kong, Im really interested but rarely can I find topics like this. Does korean also has racism towards HongKonger like Chinese???

  10. Ashley J says:

    Thank you so much for this article Keith. I knew that Korea and China as well as Korea and Japan had cultural static, but I had not known alot of the details about it such as the outlook on joseonjok and Chinese immigrants. I do plan on going to Korea in the near future to stay for a year or 2 and even though this article doesn’t scare me in anyway being that I’m a black woman, it does give me a good understanding of why many Koreans may feel the way that they do. Keep the information coming! Alot of your viewers and readers really enjoy it and find it quite helpful 🙂

    BTW, your youtube vids are also awesome~!

  11. Dayo says:

    Let’s be real! It does exist! I’ve been in Korea now for a few years! And I have been treated very well as a black guy. The younger generation do not mind seeing or having black friends or interacting with them. However there is a sense of fear they towards black males. I’m not in the military, but I always get asked… “Are you military?” And mind you, I’m not even that muscular!

    I actually resulted to this post because, today I was told I could work for a company because I was black. I couldn’t work as a teacher because parents complained they didn’t want black teachers teaching their kids.
    If this same situation happened back home in the States, I don’t think the president or CEO or manager at a company would adhere to such blatent form of discrimination. (I’m only guessing) I think it’s completely wrong. But hey, what can I do I’m in South Korea. I think I’m just going to pack my bags… And all this on a day when Nelson Mandela dies.

    As race, we still have much to learn. Ignorance is not a valid excuse.

  12. DavidXian says:

    This is a good one. Although it seems like Keith expose the dark side of racism in Korea, I’m very thankful for this one. Why? Because I’ll be prepared. If somehow someone (in this case Korean when I go there) treat me in a racist way, at least I will understand where it came from. 🙂

    And people, please don’t get him wrong. Look at the title: “Understanding Racism in Korea”. I think he just wants to explain and to make us understand why Korean did that—though racist acts are unacceptable whatever the reason is.

    Anyway, it’s not (just) Korean that racist and NOT every Korean is racist.
    Racists are just ridiculous ignorant idiots whatever their citizenship or ethnic are.

  13. James says:

    Good article.
    I visited South Korea once, I was insulted and robbed for being “american” and having a Korean girlfriend by a group of young men.
    I am from the UK but they still insisted on saying I was American and taking the little money I had on me and taking my phone. They then pushed my girlfriend over and left.
    so yes, there is a racism problem. I’ve travelled to many places and generally, racism towards Caucasians usually isn’t an issue at all, I encountered it in none of the countries I’ve visited before, which include egypt, kenya, the sudan, india, Mexico, japan, thailand, china, pakistan, malaysia and others.

    • Hay-Z says:

      Trust me incidents against non-whites is higher and more frequent.

      Where you in Daegu or near a US military complex?

      That often triggers an anti US and often an anti-white sentiment.

  14. Santé says:

    I think it’s not about a nationality. You may have to see the background, especially against other Asian nationalities.

    For sad and stupid reason, there are many old Korean males who are single, and they found their brides from some of countries and get married. The problem is they got married without solve ‘Communication problem’. How can you find another half without communicating each other? Then there are many issues among themselves and we observed their marriage fail. Also those families having difficulties in financial wise, the government try to support them as an ‘International Family’/’Multi-Culture Family’.

    From here, there are negative opinion on international marriages. Of course, there are many successful international marriage also with full of LOVE.

    But hey, who cares of nationalities?
    We are all same, and we are same mankind on this planet.
    We shouldn’t use the word of ‘International marriage’, ‘International family’, but ‘Marriage’, ‘Family’.

    I think this is such stupid…

    Just treat them as the way you want to be treated in other countries.

    Just normal…

  15. irina says:

    interesting article…just change the word “decent” in “when people of Korean decent are in the international spotlight” and “And although they are of Korean decent, their association with China probably gives ethnic Chinese ” to “descent”

  16. Az says:

    Hi Keith,

    Please allow me to introduce some additional points to this topic.

    There is a duality that should be noted when considering the prolonged issue of national identity. South Korea’s expansion highlights the government’s emerging successes in exports however teaching cross-cultural awareness and communication through local media has only recently come about.

    As many may know that culture management is a challenging management issue particularly from a control perspective. Further, the systemic issue of wrote learning practices throughout the education system tends to inhibit creative approaches to complex problems such as this.

    So the crux of this comment is to propose that once the critical ratio is reached on a social level and multilateralism is achieved on a political level it is highly likely the prevalence could significantly decrease within a relatively short period of time. Refer to Francis Fukuyama’s recent speech.

    FYI – I’m a Korean-Australian born and raised in Sydney with recent experiences of discrimination. I was physically assaulted and verbally abused on the subway (line 2) three days ago as I was speaking English with my foreign fiance.

    With Kind Regards,
    Az

  17. rouzbeh says:

    hello again,
    sorry to be asking this, but what about middle east? are they depicted as terrorists like in most western media, or are most Koreans ok with them?

  18. From a Singaporean says:

    Sorry but majority of koreans are racist and arrogant. They always bash innocent japanese, discriminate against chinese and SEA people includin black people.. They should wake up and realize that they are the most racist and xenophobic asians in the world. Youtube has too many korean butthurts and racists.

  19. Joann says:

    how do they feel about Mexicans/Mexican Americans? I want to go teach English there but I would like to know everything before hand that might happen to me…. you know, like a precaution. I’ve gone through racism but seeing it from there eyes would give me a better view on things…. thanks 🙂

  20. Az says:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qN_83RHBUUM
    First hand experience of racism from a Korean-American woman thankfully, there are Koreans that are standing up for change.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Korean_ethnic_nationalism
    Theory of where this all came from…

  21. j.e says:

    Is there any racism against muslim girls (muslimah) who wears hijab in korea?

  22. pearl says:

    i am a black girl,precisely from Nigeria.i plan to study in korea though i am a little shaky ccuz of this post.i am risk taker though so i wont change my mind. the only problem i have nw is that even in my country i turn heads when i go out nd i always get pple asking for my contact because i am a really tall girl who aspires to go into the modelling industry.if pple are awed by my height,with racism added can i take it?

  23. Mallory says:

    Well thanks for talking about this. I know most people interested in other country’s wonder how they might be received. Even I have had it cross my mind when thinking about traveling to South Korea. I figure it would be something on the lines of what you wrote. I’m a black American girl, and even here in the states we have ignorant people.
    So I for sure figured there would be ignorant people in S. Korea. Where there is far and few diversity. But I think going to other country’s can help with that. I like to think the students and travelers coming over here, Wanna leave me with a happy memory of a person from their country.
    No doudt its scary going somewhere new and where you stand out like a sore thumb. But I love Korean culture and I’m all for going there^^

  24. Sacha says:

    Hello there,

    Your blog here is really interesting, especially since I’ve been seeing a few korean dramas lately.

    Since you’re talking about racism, and no one hasn’t brought this topic yet, how do korean people treat moslems?

    And what is there impression of seeing a girl using a scarf/hijab on their head?

    Thankies.

  25. Marten says:

    Hey =) I am 18 years old, and I will be going to Korea in summer for 1 year.
    I am half german half french and speak some really really really really really basic korean! I have blonde curly hair and I am pretty white. I will be living in Seoul. Now: Do you think I should either work in a german school? Or do an internship with a korean firm in 3 years? ( for the same period of time)
    And should I say I am german or french? My korean friend said I would be fine since I am “European” but I am just wondering!

  26. british girl says:

    Koreans should be the last race/people to think they are better than anyone. They are driving their own to mass murder. Reading some of these commments made me want to hurl, korean are not white but yellow skin mongolian, true blood yeah! then you can say black are true blood too right?

    Korean are selfish, self centered, materialistic people who are not to to family or their kind, they are racist against their own, to get ahead inlife they uses their children to be pimped out to the best buyer.
    I am so perturbed when I hear they run ans scream when they see a black prerson, give me a break, africa is not that far away and they have been going to korea for generations.
    They all need to come into the 21st century. No wonnder when they travel abroad theyare treated that way, they are rude impolite and down right SHAMEFUL!!

  27. Elizabeth says:

    Hey Keith, I always wondered about the blackface in Korea. As you mentioned South Korean racism stems from fear. But, as someone living in Korea and meeting hundreds of different kinds of Koreans, do you really think fear is the cause of someone wanting to paint their face black and make jokes? For example, when I first arrive in Korea I met so many different types of races I didn’t even know existed and I never felt the urge to do something such as blackface when I entertaining my friends at a 술집. What’s your opinion?

    • John says:

      It’s one thing to meet people from ethnic groups you didn’t know existed, but Koreans know black people exist but have just never seen or met one in real life. They only ever see how they’re portrayed in media, whether it be music/movies or new articles.
      Joking or making fun of a particular issue is just one way of coping with a person’s own fear or ignorance, albeit not a very positive one.

  28. trust says:

    i think this article actually did its best to tackle racism in Korea its the best I’ve seen so far (and i have seen a lot). Actually Koreans are nice people when you get to know them its just that they kind of don’t trust each other talk more of someone with a different color or skin tone,beside if you’ve ever seen any of their movies they’re always scared of foreigners at first even where i come from according to my mum first time they saw a white guy they thought it was a goblin some thought he’d been infected by a terrible diseases so i guess its not just Koreans ,by the way i am full African from Nigeria

  29. Dunn says:

    Well tackled keith,thumbs up.
    Though i feel there is a bit of sugarcoating on some issues
    which still puzzles lots.
    Why did an entire tv station air that program?i think a program to run on national tv
    Is not a one-person thing.so let us rule out the ‘ignorance’ excuse.
    If it was for fun,think about throwing bananas, fun but it has bitter consequences.
    But again i am just being open minded and welcome to correction.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *