This year under the guidance of the Seoul Office of Education a new elementary school and a new high school were opened in the Seoul area. While generally the opening of new schools would not be cause for comment, in this case the new schools are specifically for children who come from “multicultural” backgrounds. The high school is designed to educate “multicultural” teenagers who have dropped out of regular public high schools, while the elementary school will operate as a regular school but with special emphasis on teaching Korean culture and language. The Seoul Office of Education argues that this is a necessary and progressive approach to assist in the education of these children; however, segregating these students from their Korean peers is neither appropriate nor desirable for the future of South Korea. And the use of the term “multicultural” to describe these children is a thinly disguised euphemism for mixed-race or mixed-descent, a concept that has no place in 21st century discourse.
For a comparison one only has to look to the failed experience of the United States in segregating the races during the first half of the 20th century. In the United States the euphemism used was “separate but equal” and the idea was to have schools only for black children and schools only for white children. The United States then extended it to separate cars on trains, to separate public bathrooms and even to separate drinking fountains and soda shops. However, after almost 60 years it became apparent that the “separate but equal” approach was an abject failure and, in 1954 the United States Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional. Since that time integration and equality have been driving forces behind affirmative action programs in education, employment and everyday life in the United States. Nonetheless, the United States still struggles with the impact of that half century of segregation as reflected in the racist attitudes that still exist among the less educated and provincial members of American society.
The United States struggle with integration occurred when minority groups only comprised around 10 percent of the population. While the non-ethnic Korean and mixed-descent portion of South Korea’s population is currently below 10 percent, the percentage is rapidly increasing. Nowadays international marriages comprise about 40 percent of the total marriages in the countryside and over 10 percent of all marriages in Korea. Further, while Korean women often wait until they are 30 before marriage and then limit themselves to one child, the women of these international marriages are generally in their early 20s and often produce a number of offspring. The result is that in one generation the mixed-descent children of these international marriages could comprise a quarter of all children in Korea. In the countryside mixed-descent children could easily outnumber children with two ethnic Korean parents. Thus, regardless of any attempts by the education office to segregate these children, the next generation of ethnic Korean children will grow up with mixed-descent friends and integrated schools simply due to sheer numbers.
Instead of trying to isolate mixed-descent children ostensibly for their own good, the Seoul Education Office and the South Korean people and government should embrace these children and use the opportunity they offer to teach ethnic Korean children about integration and the acceptance of different cultures. Currently Seoul spends billions of won every year hiring foreign language teachers to provide cultural and language instruction to students, while at the same time the education office has, in these mixed-descent children, a free resource to improve foreign language skills and cultural awareness of all students. Since both bias and xenophobia are usually learned in childhood there is no better way to eliminate them from the minds of the children of South Korea then through an integrated educational experience for all.
If the Seoul Education Office is concerned about protecting mixed-descent children from classmates who are xenophobic or who believe in the farcical concept of Korean pure blood, segregation is also the worst solution. Separation and isolation of these children only perpetuates the appearance that these children are not as good as children who are the progeny of two ethnic Korean parents. Instead the education office should be focusing on teaching all the children of South Korea to accept multiculturalism. It is certain that the officials in the education office are aware that the entire concept of Korean pure blood did not exist during the Joseon Dynasty but arose in the early 20th century during the Japanese occupation as a reaction to the Japanese attempt to eradicate the Korean culture. Allowing the children of South Korea to continue to learn these inane concepts that originated during the Japanese occupation is obtuse and ultimately endangers South Korea’s goal to become the “hub of Asia;” a goal which requires the accommodation of cultural diversity and flexibility. Finally it is certain that South Korea does not want to follow in the footsteps of Japan where xenophobia and a refusal to integrate or to accept input from outsiders have contributed to an extended economic malaise, a shrinking population, and an even bleaker economic future.
South Koreans are justifiably proud that their country rose from third world poverty to first world wealth faster than any other nation on earth. Perhaps by embracing these mixed-descent children and preparing ethnic Korean children for a multicultural future, South Korea could also progress socially faster than any other nation in history.
By Daniel Fiedler
Daniel Fiedler is a professor of law at Wonkwang University. He also holds an honorary position as the lawyer representative for international marriages in Namwon. -- Ed.