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[Election 2017] Multicultural families left out in election, as always

South Korean society is becoming increasingly ethnically diverse, with the trend expected to increase in the coming decades.

But in elections, the voices of the small, but growing group of multiethnic voters continue to be muted or ignored. 

Multicultural families attend a program organized by the Seoul election commission about the coming Korean presidential election last month. (Yonhap)
Multicultural families attend a program organized by the Seoul election commission about the coming Korean presidential election last month. (Yonhap)

The forthcoming presidential election is no exception. 

Facing tight schedules to the May 9 snap vote, candidates have all staked out their election pledges, but few have provided a clear vision on how to make Korea a more open and inclusive society for immigrants. 

A look at the manifestos of five mainstream party-backed contenders, including front-runner Moon Jae-in, reveals their lack of concrete ideas on multiculturalism.

All five promises increased support for multicultural families, but their focus is limited to such agendas like how to tackle domestic violence within multicultural families or reduce school dropout rates of multicultural students.

The presidential aspirants’ lack of vision for multicultural society is, in a way, a reflection of the reality, experts say.

Multicultural families -- there are 890,000 members of multicultural families, including 145,000 marriage migrants, 150,000 naturalized citizens and 560,000 who were born here, according to Statistics Korea -- remain “outsiders,” rarely voicing their opinions, they point out. 

What candidates say about multiculturalism  

Moon Jae-in (center) of Democratic Party of Korea claps next to a Vietnamese immigrant (right) in an election campaign in Uijeongbu, Gyeonggi Province on Monday. (Yonhap)
Moon Jae-in (center) of Democratic Party of Korea claps next to a Vietnamese immigrant (right) in an election campaign in Uijeongbu, Gyeonggi Province on Monday. (Yonhap)

Front-runner Moon of the liberal Democratic Party of Korea, who is bidding for the presidency for the second time, has actually proposed a reduced manifesto for multicultural families. In the manifesto booklet for this year’s election, he addresses the plans to reduce the number of student dropouts with one-on-one customized tutoring programs, establish a “comprehensive support system” for married immigrants and educate citizens to be more flexible towards different cultures.

Still, he is the only candidate who has a special campaigning team targeting multicultural voters.

Consisting of some 20 naturalized citizens from 10 countries including Russia and Nepal, the “Rainbow Campaign” team tours areas with high immigrant populations to enlist their support for Moon.

The campaign team was established soon after 50 naturalized citizens from 16 countries declared their support for the candidate, in a rare press conference on April 22.  

Hong Joon-pyo of the conservative Liberty Korea Party promotes “Open Nationalism,” a perspective that he said encompasses “overseas Koreans and domestic multicultural families” into the concept of Korean nationals.

Appearing on a local multicultural broadcasting system, “tvM,” he talked of the need for an assimilation policy, while also stressing the need to respect the different cultural backgrounds of the multicultural families.

“To those coming to Korea to earn money, we also have a past in which our citizens went out to work in other countries. If I am elected, I will embrace citizens of multicultural families,” Hong said on tvM.

Centrist Ahn Cheol-soo of People’s Party, who has given out a drastic reform plan to start elementary education a year earlier at six years old, says he will expand the national budget set aside to help multicultural children.

“The dropout rate for multicultural students is rising every year but the related budget is always going down,” Ahn said.

His election pledge includes a special afterschool program to help the students to adapt to the school environment.

In his manifesto booklet, Ahn criticizes the Gender Equality and Family Ministry for only dealing with “multicultural families” and failing to specifically deal with the problems female immigrants face.

“Foreign women take up 46 percent of the total foreigners staying in the country. Among them, 14 percent are women who have come to Korea marrying Korean men,” it reads.

Of the top five candidates, the minor conservative candidate Yoo Seong-min appears to be the least interested in the issue.

His election manifesto points at providing support for the married immigrant women who are exposed to domestic violence by increasing the number of shelters for them, among a few other things.   

Sim Sang-jeung of the progressive minor Justice Party has some detailed election pledges covering “minorities” in the society when compared to others. With her manifesto stressing the idea of “respecting diverse lifestyles,” she says she will initiate “World Citizen Education” for all to foster respect for diverse families. 

Why the lack of interest? 

Many people with multicultural backgrounds are shut out of national elections, as the country only grants suffrage to Korean nationals, not those with permanent staying permits.

“Most of the immigrants and naturalized citizens are adjusting to the country, which makes it hard for them to out speak about their rights,” said Lim Won-sun, the chief of Korean Academy of Multicultural Family, told The Korea Herald.

Zhao Hongyan, a Chinese mother living in Korea for 10 years now, holds no ballot to cast in the May 9 election, but she sincerely hopes that the next leader pays more attention to multicultural families.

“I came to study here in Korea and was treated fine for five years before I got married to my Korean husband to earn the title of ‘married immigrant,’” Zhao . “The society seems to have prejudice against us. Even with my master’s degree, they would not take a second look at my resume.”

She also criticized aspects of the “assimilation-focused” approach of the Korean government.

“Difficulties and disputes occur in relationships because of the different cultural backgrounds, but all the culture classes teach Korean culture. They do not teach Korean spouses or others to respect my culture.”

One the demands made by civic groups in the field is for the government to establish an “Immigration Services” bureau that devises and implements policies for supporting the multicultural families.

“Each government body such as the Education Ministry and the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family does works of its own, and a lot of them overlaps. It is not very effective,” Lim said. 

By Jo He-rim (