The world was alarmed by German Prime Minister Angela Merkel’s remarks against multiculturalism in 2010. The whole world was shocked when a Norwegian committed mass murder and declared war against multiculturalism in 2011.
South Korea is rapidly becoming a multicultural society and it is officially committed to a multicultural policy. It is time for the South Korean government and people to discuss the implications of multiculturalism for the future Korea.
The debate should first begin with the definition of multiculturalism and types of it, and then its implications for the future Korea. An absolute majority of countries have a census based on race, ethnicity and/or national origins but define these terms differently or confusedly.
According to the U.N. Statistical Division, the criteria for ethnic groups include ethnic nationality (i.e. country of origin or area of origin, as distinct from citizenship or country of legal nationality), race, color, language, religion, customs of dress or eating, tribe or various combinations of these characteristics. In the academic community the term “ethnicity” is associated with cultural commonality (shared beliefs, values and practices); the term “race,” physical or biological commonality; and the term “nationality,” regarding ethnicity and race as well as citizenship.
In view of the above, we can see that the term multicultural society used in Korea actually refers to multiethnic society. If multiculturalism refers to only culture, we can hardly see the implications and consequences of the multicultural policy of the state. We should use ethnicity in a broad sense, encompassing ethnicity, race and nationality, as the U.N. does, because South Korea deals with persons of different racial, cultural and national backgrounds, not simply different cultural groups. Also the concept of culture should include religion and language as well as custom.
From a historical perspective, “multiethnicism” can be divided into two models: the primordial and rational (or modern) models. The primordial groups are formed on the basis of biological and cultural ties. Family, lineage, clan, tribe and race are based on blood ties and ancestry, while cultural groups are founded on common religion, language, history and customary mode of livelihood.
Among these primary groups, biological groups have a stronger identity than cultural groups. Although they are not identical, they mutually reinforce. The term “ethnic” group refers to the combination of both groups.
What I call a rational model originates from mainly two sources: decolonization and globalization. After World War II, Western colonies became independent but the political instability and economic poverty of these new states since then have worsened and many of their peoples have fled to their former colonial powers, legally or illegally.
Since the mid-1990s the process of globalization has accelerated and the gap between rich and poor has deepened. As a result, rich industrial countries need more labor power and poor people in the developing countries have migrated en masse to the old and new developed countries. These new migrant workers and the indigenous peoples in their host countries do not share the same primordial ties.
In the countries with diverse primordial identities, the conflict between or among primordial groups are almost inevitable. On the other hand, in the countries with diverse foreign migrant groups, the conflict between the indigenous people and diverse migrant groups may not be inevitable but can become conflictive.
In Western Europe this is already happening. In those countries that belong to the modern model, including South Korea, the issue of foreign laborers and what South Korea calls “multicultural families“ can become serious. It depends on three factors: the composition of foreign residents, the immigration policy and the acculturation policy.
Korea has some advantages over Western European countries in terms of composition of foreign residents; in South Korea a majority of foreign residents are ethnic Koreans. They tend to live in segregated areas. If foreign residents form their own communities, it can become a problem.
Another advantage is that there is little religious antagonism among foreign residents and between indigenous people and foreign residents. South Korea’s immigration policy is rigid; it is an important mechanism to deal with multiethnic conflicts and to support the acculturation policy. South Korea’s acculturation policy is mainly based on educational programs.
As pointed out earlier, primary ties cannot easily be undone. A long and arduous social learning process is needed. The most important thing is what kind of acculturation policy the government adopts.
There are three strategies ― integration (assimilation of foreign residents into the indigenous culture), coexistence, and synthesis (amalgamation of foreign and indigenous cultures). The synthesis strategy is more suitable for Korea in the long term, mainly because the Koreans themselves are rapidly becoming Westernized. Ultra-nationalists will adamantly oppose the idea.
By Park Sang-seek
Park Sang-seek is a professor of the Graduate Institute of Peace Studies at Kyung Hee University. ― Ed.