In 2012, South Korea’s public broadcaster MBC sparked outrage among international viewers when it aired a segment of two Korean female comedians in blackface on its comedy show “Three Wheels.”
The show received mounting criticism, mostly from overseas viewers, who claimed the particular scene was blatantly racist. The producer of the show eventually offered a public apology, explaining the two women were simply parodying Michol -- a black male character featured in Korea’s hugely popular 1987 TV animated series “Dooly the Little Dinosaur.”
Regardless of the intention, many critics argued the scene was undoubtedly insensitive and discriminatory against blacks. While appearing in blackface, the two comedians sang “Shintoburi,” a 1999 Korean pop song that praises Korean heritage and culture, specifically mentioning kimchi and soybean paste.
“I did not think it was funny. What were they thinking?” an international viewer said in a YouTube video she posted to criticize the show.
Some three years have passed since then, but just last week nine Korean broadcasters -- including terrestrial MBC, KBS and SBS -- agreed to not use language that is discriminatory in all their programs, especially toward women and racial or ethnic minorities. Upon the agreement, the Korea Communication Standards Commission released the nation’s first language use guidelines for all broadcasters, which stipulated that “expressions that promote prejudice against, or mock or insult individuals on the basis of gender, age, education level, disabilities, regional origin, socioeconomic status and race must be refrained from.”
“I hope this agreement would help promote gender equality and multicultural values in our country,” said Kim Hee-jung, Minister of Gender Equality and Family.
The agreement was announced almost a year after a United Nations expert on racism urged the Korean government to ensure that the media is “sensitive and conscious of the responsibility to avoid racist stereotypes” and that “perpetrators are punished where appropriate” during his visit to Seoul last year.
Korea’s concept of “multicultural families” in particular was often used in the local media to convey negative connotations of foreign workers and migrant wives from Southeast Asia, said U.N. expert Mutuma Ruteere, who also urged Korea to enact a wide-ranging antidiscrimination law.
In a report submitted to Ruteere last year, local activist Jung Hye-sil pointed out the term “mixed-blood” was still being used frequently by the Korean media when referring to multiracial individuals, in spite of the U.N. committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination’s 2007 recommendation that Korea end the use of the particular expression. The committee also urged the Korean public to overcome the notion that the country is “ethnically homogeneous” back in 2007.
According to Jung’s report, however, a total of 1,287 Korean news reports -- from both print and broadcast outlets -- used the term “mixed-blood” when referring to multiracial individuals from 2012-2014. Jung also addressed that a number of these reports were favorable toward those with a Caucasian parent, notably by praising their physical attractiveness.
The report also pointed out that the Korean media unnecessarily differentiates between multiracial children and children of foreign-born immigrants who are not ethnically Korean.
For example, a news segment aired by MBC in 2012 used the term “mixed-blood multicultural children” when delivering information that Korean-born children of migrant wives are more likely to receive education in Korea than children immigrants who were born overseas.
“The discourse of ethnic homogeneity based on the notion of ‘pure blood’ has been causing discrimination in the form of social exclusion by placing restrictions on the lives of the multiracial population in Korea, as they are seen as a threat to Korea’s ‘pure bloodline,’” Jung wrote in her report, noting that the very first children who were sent overseas for foreign adoption in 1954 from Korea were mixed-race children born to African-American soldiers and Korean women.
Jung also pointed out that a large number of news reports in Korea described multicultural families as troubled beings or “potential problems for the future” in need of social support.
From 2012-2014, a total of 69 reports aired by the nation’s three main broadcasters, MBC, KBS and SBS, described multicultural families as those “in need of support,” while 27 reports referred to them as those who belong to a “marginalized group,” rather than active members of society or citizens. A total of 40 news reports also dealt with problems that children of such families faced. Only one report described the children of multicultural families as potential “global talents.”
In the print media, 1,792 stories described the families as marginalized groups that need support, while only 67 stories referred to the children of the families as global talents. Such reports are based on a notion that welfare services for immigrants are being provided by the generosity or benevolence of Korean citizens, rather than seeing welfare as a right to all immigrants, the report said. “Even the reports that describe the children as ‘global talents’ are based on the notion that these children need support (from Koreans) in order to become useful global citizens,” Jung wrote.
Heo Young-sook from Women Migrants Human Rights Center for Korea also addressed that internalized white supremacy can be seen in today’s TV shows in Korea. In her report submitted to the U.N., she pointed that when a Korean person married a (Caucasian) citizen of a Western country, his or her family was referred to as a “global family” with a positive connotation by hosts on TV shows. On the other hand, families where a Korean man married a woman from a Southeast Asian country were called “multicultural families,” a term that shows stigmatization and is discriminatory among Koreans.
“The Korean government’s policies for migrant wives aim to implement social integration based on discriminatory perspectives against women and ethnic minorities, rather than implementing multiculturalism based on pluralism,” Heo wrote.
As of this year, more than 80 percent of immigrants residing in Korea are from countries in Asia, the largest number coming from China and Vietnam.
According to Rep. Jin Sun-mee of the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy, the number of marriage migrants increased significantly from 142,015 in 2007 to 305,446 this year. More than 85 percent of marriage migrants in Korea are women.
Activist Jung also said many TV comedy and variety shows in Korea are ignorant to discriminatory remarks, having casually used terms such as “dark son-in-law” or “dark brothers.”
During his visit to Seoul last year, Ruteere also addressed that the vast majority of policies toward multicultural families applied only to foreign women who marry a Korean man, and not vice versa. “The definition of these marriages also excludes families where both of the couple are migrant workers from a non-Korean background, he said.
Despite his requests, the U.N. expert was not given a chance to speak to any of the country’s ministers during his visit to Korea last year.
By Claire Lee (email@example.com