As an anthropologist living and studying in Korea, I have become fascinated with the political uses of the idea. Indeed multiculturalism has become popular in the so-called new and “globalizing” Korea. Much like globalization, multiculturalism is an idea that comes from the West and it seeks to present the world in way that is not accurate. Korea, we are told, is becoming a “multicultural” nation because of the growing presence of foreigners. But we cannot forget the reason for these new arrivals: the simple fact of labor. Foreigners in Korea are not here – much like in Europe or the United States -- so that Korea can add cultural richness to its traditional culture and society. Foreigners are here to do jobs that Koreans either cannot do (teach “native English”) or won’t do (work in factories for substandard wages; or marry Korean men in the rural areas).
Lost in this confusion about “multi” cultures is a very “real” political and economic conflicts in Korea. Over the past few decades, with the demise of the dictatorship and the rise of neoliberal economic policies, the gap between wealthy and poor Koreans has been rising. Part of this increasing inequality stems from the economic model that seeks to drive down wages, release companies of responsibility for worker’s needs, and break up unions.
Another issue that gets lost in the idea of multiculturalism has been the denigration of Korea’s rural areas and an agricultural policy that is a nowhere road – once again, much like the US and Europe. Amid Korea’s industrial boom, capital and investment has been redistributed toward the urban areas. Indeed with industrialization the allure of the cities has continued to stigmatize the rural areas. Part of this process of denigration and stigmatization has been the fact that rural men and farmers have difficulties finding life partners and wives. The government has stepped in by encouraging “international marriages” – which has piggy-backed on the sex trade in South East Asia – by connecting rural and lower class Koreans with women from Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Cambodia. Let’s not forget that this is about labor as well. Women perform large amounts of labor in the household, which often goes unpaid.
By calling attention to labor and social conflict within Korea, I am not discouraging Koreans from being open to new cultural values and people from different parts of the world. Instead this quest for a more liberal Korea, and its relations beyond the peninsula, must begin with a more truthful and sober understanding of what is happening within Korean society. Otherwise, Korea is doomed to go down the same mistaken road that has made racism and migration an ongoing problem in the US and Europe.