The year 2008 is remembered most around the world for the financial crisis that brought on the worst economic downturn since the 1930s. In South Korea, 2008 is remembered as the first year of recently jailed Lee Myung-bak’s presidency.
In spring, only months after his inauguration, massive demonstrations against the resumption of US beef imports caused Lee’s popularity to dip. In fall, the spreading financial crisis raised the specter of another 1997-style collapse, but Lee moved quickly, and Korea avoided the worst of the crisis.
Despite the turmoil, Lee managed to start several initiatives, some of which remain in place today. Among the most interesting is policy support for “multicultural families.” Multicultural families in Korea are defined as a family in which one of the parents was not born in Korea.
As South Korea opened up after the 1997 economic crisis, men in rural areas who had difficulty finding brides began marrying foreign women, mostly from Southeast Asia. Once in South Korea, these women faced difficulties adjusting to life in conservative rural areas. As their numbers increased, local governments began to develop programs to help these women assimilate to life in South Korea, mostly in the form of language and cultural courses.
By 2008, the number of multicultural families had grown to the point where local governments needed support from the national government. The government responded by enacting the Support for Multicultural Families Act, which expanded programs around the country.
With greater government interest, the media gave multicultural families extensive coverage for the first time. One interesting development was the start of the Korea Immigration and Integration Program in 2010. All foreign nationals are eligible and participants who complete the program are given a fast track to permanent residency or citizenship.
In 2012, the then-ruling Saenuri Party, the predecessor of the current opposition Liberty Korea Party, nominated Jasmine Lee, a Philippine-born TV personality, for a seat as a proportional representative the National Assembly. She won and became the first non-ethnic Korean and naturalized South Korean to become a lawmaker.
Interest in multicultural families began to fall as Lee became a lame duck and his term ended. His successors, Park Geun-hye, who was recently sentenced to 24 years in prison, and Moon Jae-in, have paid less attention to multicultural families. President Moon has been in office only a year, and tension over North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs has dominated his concern.
In the meantime, the number of multicultural families has continued to grow. According to a recent report by Yonhap News Agency, 109,387 children from multicultural families attend school and make up 1.9 percent of the total. Children from multicultural families make up 2.5 percent of elementary school students and 5.9 percent of all students in villages and rural areas.
Though small compared to the situation in North America and Western European countries, it is a dramatic increase since 2000. In 2012, for example, the number of children from multicultural families was 46,954.
The increase in multicultural families has stirred negative feelings among some Koreans. This fits a pattern worldwide in which minority groups face more prejudice as their numbers increase. According to a recent report in the Segye Ilbo, Korean parents in Seoul are increasingly transferring their children out of schools that have a high percentage of students from multicultural families because the “school atmosphere is not good.” One elementary school in Yeongdeungpo started the 2017 school year with 50 percent of its cohort made up of multicultural students but ended it with 80 percent, as parents transferred their children out of the school.
Lack of leadership at the national level, however, has not stopped local governments from continuing to expand their efforts to support multicultural families. At the beginning of this year, Guro District in Seoul set up a division for multicultural policy under the Life and Welfare Bureau. Guro District has a large population of foreign workers as well as multicultural families and decided to streamline support for those groups.
Nongovernmental organizations, religious organizations and other groups have continued to help multicultural families and foreign workers. Some groups, such as Purun People, which started out aiding foreign workers in the 1990s have included multicultural families in their work. In 2008, it helped open the Modoo Library, a children’s library with books in Korean and languages from 20 countries.
Guru District and Purun People offer hope that grassroots efforts will continue despite a lack of interest from the national government. They will also play an important role in helping Koreans develop a better understanding of the ever-increasing number of different people in their midst. By Robert J. Fouser
Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He can be reached at email@example.com. -- Ed.