Musings on Migration, Labour, Politics, Dissent etc.
[After couple of mainstream Indian newspapers refused to publish this article I published it in Kafila on 9th August, 2011]
Norwegian mass killer Anders Behring Breivik, in his manifesto, hailed Hindutva forces in India as an important ally in his envisaged fight against what he calls the “cultural Marxist/social humanist” world order. But he seems to be far more impressed by the conservative cultural milieu of South Korea as far as migrants are concerned; so much so that his manifesto is not only replete with praises for South Korean society and State but also his stated goal for Europe is to achieve a “mono-cultural” ethos, modeled on South Korea. Breivik believes that South Korea being a “scientifically advanced, economically progressive” society “out rightly rejects multiculturalism and Marxist cultural principles”.
Breivik’s manifesto might appear to be full of rambling political rants; but it seems he is not radically off the mark in understanding Korea’s hatred for migrants. So much so that right wing groups in Korea must have smiled and said in Unison “At last! Somebody recognizes our real value”.
However, owing to Korea’s own demographic compulsion, it might not remain Breivik’s model 10 years down the line.
Korea, a nation very strongly informed by a unique nationalism, Minjok, derives its origin from one bloodline. Historically contented and proud with mythical notions of homogeneity, Korea today has to deal with over a million migrants which make up 2 % of the total population. Now migrants are becoming a conspicuous presence in the country. This has largely happened in the last decade or so, despite Government exercising an absolute control over immigration policies. In less than a decade the number of migrants has more than doubled – from 550,000 in 2003 to 1.2 million in 2010. And each year the number of migrants is expected to increase approximately by 15 to 20%.
With very rapid industrialization from 1960 to 1980’s and subsequent transition from military dictatorship to a democratic polity in late 1980’s, domestic wage levels in Korea have risen manifold, rendering a demographic transition and restructuring of the workforce in domestic labor market, leading to a severe labor shortage in the lower rung of manufacturing and service sectors. Today about half a million of these migrants are workers from South and Southeast Asia; largely engaged in what is popularly known as 3D (Dirty, Difficult, Dangerous) work in small factories.
On the other hand, with drastic domestic demographic transition, Korean men in the rural workforce find it increasingly difficult to get Korean brides. This has led to rapid in-migration of almost 200,000 ‘marriage migrants’ (‘mail order brides’ in mainstream parlance) into Korea from countries where people are physiognomically similar to Koreans, like that of China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos etc. These ‘marriage migrants’ also eventually have to enter the labor market due to specific class location of their spouse.
Also, with Korea emerging as a major Asian economic power, maximum premium is being given to English education which in turn has necessitated a considerable in-migration of English teachers (almost exclusively white) from western countries.
This in-migration has also brought about overt social and official discrimination, rolling in a process of racialization of migrant identities and racially segmenting the labor market in Korea.
All migrant workers are looked down upon as inferior beings.
It is not unusual to read in Korean media about Special Police conducting brutal raids and arrests in migrant ghettos on the basis of mere speculations. It is an everyday lived experience for a migrant worker to be abused in workplaces, incessantly yelled at as “black bastards”, “Arab”, “smelly” etc. A South/Southeast Asian, whose attire does not invoke a definitive image of the elite upper class globe trotting technocrat, is invariably made to undergo psychological and sometimes physical violence, on public transport and in other public places.
If one takes cognizance of how migrants from South and Southeast Asia are signified and represented in everyday discourse, it becomes very evident that racialization and racism as an ideology is taking strong roots in Korea, meditated by the global hegemony of “Whiteness” wherein many Koreans find themselves more in affinity with “white”.
In Korea, migrants are marked and negatively evaluated by a popular term Kkamdungi (black) which is also becoming a part of a new discursive formation under consolidation, which represents South and Southeast Asian migrants as less intelligent. Apart from the term Kkamdungi, often children of mixed parentage – Korean women and ‘other’ Asian or African men – are referred to as Twigi (a word once reserved for hybrid animals).
By constructing this ‘black unintelligent’ other, many Koreans define themselves as superior – more akin to the ‘intelligent white’. This also manifests in how mostly “white”, “Western” English-teaching workers are not labeled and viewed as migrants, but are elevated to a higher social and economic class within Korean society. Migrant workers as a ‘collective’ are represented as possessing potent sexuality, ignorance, and natural proneness to criminal activities etc. Through these representations migrants are ranked below Koreans in hierarchy of acceptability and presented ideologically as a threat to Korean society.
Rapid in-migration has not only brought about racialization of migrant identities but also has racialized the categories of job they engage in, transforming essentially an economic process into a social process.
One indicative case in point is the level of unemployment among native Korean workers during the Asian financial crisis which erupted in 1997. By February 1999 the number of unemployed reached 1.8 million with unemployment rate of 8.7%. Even with that high a rate of unemployment most Korean workers were not willing to take up the so called “stigmatized migrant work”.
Even “stigmatized migrant work” is further racially divided among migrants on the basis of ‘geographies involved in the migratory processes, physiognomy’ etc. Unwittingly, a Labor Ministry official had put it very succinctly in reference to Chinese-Korean or Chinese women migrants being mostly employed in the service sector as “foreigners with dark skin would be hard to employ in service jobs like waiting tables in restaurants. For example, Fillipinos seem to have good chance because they speak English, but they are unlikely to be employed because they lack cultural similarities due to the racial difference”.
Multiculturalism, over last few years, has been much used and abused term in Korea. 7 to 8 federal and provincial Government agencies were dolling out ‘multicultural policies’ targeted towards betterment of migrants in general. To give more cohesiveness by bringing all the so-called ‘multicultural policies’ under one authority, the National Assembly of Korea passed the ‘Multicultural Family Support Bill’ in 2008.
These ‘multicultural policies’, however, exclusively craters to ‘marriage migrants’. The primary focus of these policies is to encourage ‘marriage migrants’ to take lessons in Korean language, etiquette, culinary skills etc. These policies, in reality, are less about acceptance of difference and more about assimilation in order to harness the labor power of ‘marriage migrants’ more effective to run household economies and a segment of the service sector.
For over half a million of migrant workers who didn’t enter the labor market through marriages, there is nothing on the platter of ‘multicultural polices’.
After being cited by Anders Behring Breivik as a prime example of how to reject multiculturalism, the Korean media has once again initiated a widespread discussion on multiculturalism. But, unfortunately, the discussions so far has been again self appeasing by not recognizing the difference between assimilation and multiculturalism.
With 99.5 % household internet connectivity in Korea, internet has evolved as the most effective medium of mobilization on any socio-political issue. If one goes by the reports of the committee on ‘Monitoring of the Internet for Racial Expressions” of the National Human Rights Commission, hate groups are increasingly expanding and becoming more and more proactive. Take this statement issued by an online hate group just before the G20 summit held in Seoul this year for instance, “We need to keep Muslims atleast 2 kms from the meeting site of the G20. If any of them get in we need to shoot them all on-sight to prevent whatever terror they might cause”. Now it can be anybody’s guess that the Muslim community in Korea is almost exclusively constituted of Bangladeshi and Indonesian migrant workers.
Being cited as the model nation by a mass murderer like Anders Behring Breivik might not be the best compliment for a nation, but it can and should act like an eye opener for democrats in Korea, liberals and progressives alike. It is perhaps the opportune time for democratic and progressive groups and citizens of Korea to press the State for meaningful and inclusive multicultural policies targeted not just towards all migrants but also towards Korean people in general.
Bonojit Hussain is a former Research Professor at Institute for Democracy and Social Movement at SungKongHoe University, Seoul, South Korea. Currently he is a Fellow at Asian Regional Exchange for New alternatives (ARENA). email@example.com