I was expecting to see a nation wholeheartedly and clearly embracing multiculturalism. But while there are some troubling demographic trends, the situation on the ground looks manageable. South Korea does not seem to be heading towards the long-term disaster that threatens to engulf the U.S. and Western Europe.
Over the last century, Koreans have prided themselves on their loyalty to the minjok—a word that has been translated as “race-nation.” According to B.R. Myers, author of The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters, the idea is rooted in the early 20th century occupation by Japan, which tried to convince Koreans that they and the Japanese were all part of a united race and gave the Koreans a relatively privileged place in the empire.
Before Japanese colonization, most educated Koreans had seen themselves as sharing a similar cultural heritage with the Han Chinese. The Japanese left, but the idea that Korea was an ethnic nation that could pride itself on its common bloodline and internal homogeneity remained.
For years after independence in 1948, South Korean immigration policy was non-existent or ethnicity-based. Beginning in the 1980s, the government welcomed ethnic Koreans who were living in China and the West [Ethnic return migration and hierarchical nationhood, by Dong-Hoon Seol and John Skrentny, Ethnicities, Volume 9, 2009]. To this day, if North Koreans are able to get to the South, they are given stipends, free apartments, and job training, while practically all other refugees are shunned [Unexpected lives: North Korean Refugees in South Korea, by Laura Elizabeth Pohl, LauraPohl.com, 2006].
But in recent years, the South Korean elite has been increasingly insistent on an official endorsement of multiculturalism. In 2006, the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family began its “Grand Plan,” with goals including raising awareness of multicultural issues and facilitating the integration of non-ethnic Koreans [International marriage and the state in South Korea: focusing on governmental policy, by Hye-Kyung Lee, Citizenship Studies, Volume 12, 2008]. Beginning in 2011, the word minjok was omitted from the oath taken by enlisted soldiers in the Korean army, and that same year the government lifted the ban on mixed-race men serving.
The main source of non-ethnic Korean immigration comes from international marriages. As the economy boomed in the 1980s and the country urbanized, it became more and more difficult for rural men to find wives. Many therefore began to look for foreign brides, mainly from Vietnam and China. In 2005, 13.6% of marriages in the entire country were between a Korean and a foreigner. As of 2015, there were about 23,000 foreign husbands in the country, and 127,000 foreign wives, in a country of 50 million.
Wikipedia has a nice breakdown by country of origin. Of the foreign wives, the vast majority are from Vietnam or China (including ethnic Koreans from China, or the Joseonjok), followed by the Philippines, Japan, and Cambodia. The four most common countries of origin for foreign husbands: China, the United States, Japan, and Canada.
In 2011, South Korea reached a cumulative total of 100,000 naturalizations since the founding of the modern state in 1948 [Number of naturalized Korean citizens passes 100,000, The Korea Times, January 24, 2011]. About 79% of those have come from China, including the Joseonjok, with the second largest group being Vietnamese at 9%—mostly due to international marriages.
Despite the relatively few 10,000-a-year or so naturalizations, the fact that most immigrants come specifically to get married implies that people with foreign origins will be a sizeable part of the next generation.
But remember that although 13% of marriages include a foreigner, about 40% of those involve an individual from the ethnically-close countries of China and Japan, including the Joseonjok. Over another quarter come from Vietnam, a country where the people are at least phenotypically similar and tend to do pretty well on international test scores.
Thus, an estimated 3% or so of marriages in the country involve a foreigner marrying a person from a totally alien culture, and even that number includes many Westerners.
All this is ignoring marriages in Korea that occur between two foreigners, which seems to be a rarity since the majority of legal immigrants come specifically to marry Koreans. The foreigners that do settle as families tend to be Joseonjok or Han Chinese, groups that will not do much to upset the ethnic balance of the country.
Walking around the South Korean capital of Seoul and the surrounding area, I would often see groups of South Asian men, but they almost never had wives or children with them. These are likely economic migrants, legal and illegal, who may eventually settle back in their home countries.
So although South Korea will not maintain its complete “racial purity” indefinitely into the future, it is not facing the “Great Replacement” or wholesale dispossession taking place in the West. Nor does South Korea have to contend with huge settlements of hostile populations which can’t or won’t integrate into First World societies. The half-ethnic Koreans of the future will have at least one Korean parent, they will come from a variety of different backgrounds; most will have two Asian parents and be physically indistinguishable from the rest of society. Generally, Western-style identity politics usually results when there are groups of people that have the numbers to separate themselves from the larger society and are clearly physically distinct from the majority population.
Interestingly, the place where the minjok ideology survives in its purest form is in the nominally communist state of North Korea. In 1960, amid deteriorating relations with other communist states, party members were prohibited from marrying foreigners. The government also began a campaign against existing mixed-marriages, forcing many divorces, with a party cadre giving a speech calling such unions a “crime against the Korean race.” This clearly shocked the East German ambassador, who called the speech “Goebbelsian.” [Kim Il Sung in the Khrushchev Era, by Balázs Szalontai, 2006, p.201 ]
Today, North Korea’s obsession with racial purity takes some quite demented forms. According to a United Nations report, women returning from China pregnant are forced to have abortions, lest they bring in foreign blood [U.N. exposes North Korea’s rampant forced abortions, sterilizations, infanticide, and persecution of the disabled, by Rachel Denhollander, Live Action News, February 18, 2014]. When an American soldier named James Joseph Dresnok defected to North Korea in 1962, the communist government reportedly abducted a Romanian woman for him to marry. [An American GI defected to North Korea. Now his sons are propaganda stars, by Anna Fifield, Washington Post, May 25, 2016]. After she died, Dresnok married his second wife (third if you count his American marriage), a woman who was the daughter of a North Korean mother and a Togolese diplomat.
Two of Dresnok’s sons are now in the North Korean military, although one assumes that if they are married it is to women of foreign origin.
B. R. Myers. argues in his book The Cleanest Race that North Korean propaganda no longer mentions socialism or even tries to hide the fact that the South enjoys a higher standard of living. Rather, the Kim regime maintains its legitimacy by portraying itself as the true defender of the Korean bloodline and the sovereignty of its people’s culture. For example, when Korean-black American football player Hines Ward (pictured right with his mother) was welcome by the South Korea government in 2006, the North Korean party daily ranted against “the talk of ‘a multi-ethnic, multi-racial society',” and condemned any policy that “would dilute even the bloodline of our people.” (Cleanest Race, p. 72)
The late Christopher Hitchens, in his review of Myers’ book recounted an incident during his own trip to North Korea where his minder expressed concern:
The people of South Korea, he pointed out, were becoming mongrelized. They wedded foreigners—even black American soldiers, or so he'd heard to his evident disgust—and were losing their purity and distinction.
[A Nation of Racist Dwarfs, Slate, February 1, 2010]
As for my general impressions, there is certainly a great deal to suggest that South Korea is a part of a globalized, international culture. One thing that is striking is how ubiquitous American franchises and brands are. Everything from Starbucks to 7/11 to KFC is about as common in Seoul as in Chicago. Even the clothing and jewelry stores in the mall are filled with familiar European and American brands.
English is everywhere, with practically every highway sign in the capital having a transliteration of the name of the exit or town it is pointing to. Restaurants and shops also advertise in English, along with Korean, and the language is also located on many menus.
An uninformed traveler would think that English is the second language of Korea, but very few people on the street can actually speak it, despite familiarity with the alphabet. In my experience, the average Korean’s grasp of the English language is much below that of even Eastern Europeans.
But despite the overwhelming influence of Western business and the English language, I saw little evidence that the multicultural ideology of the state has become anything close to the massive destructive force that it is in the West. Watching TV for a week, I did not see a single foreign character in commercials or dramas. This is nothing like the United States, where every time we see a doctor or engineer, Main Stream Media SJWs take the opportunity to show us how smart minorities are.
Other small signs of normality were greatly appreciated: For example, on a visit to Seoul National University, the top-rated school in the country, I noticed that the sign for the men’s bathroom was blue and that for females was pink. I thought about the kind of uproar that such signs would cause at an elite American university, and felt both amused at and sorry for my country. This blue/pink distinction in bathroom signage is nearly universal in South Korea.
South Korea in fact has much to recommend to social conservatives, particularly those who worry that Western children are swimming around in smut as soon as they’re old enough to turn on a TV or log on to the internet. It is apparently against the law to show women in bikinis or underwear on TV. When I tried going to a pornographic website (for research purposes of course), I was redirected to this page. When I asked a woman whether there were any gay celebrities, she said yes, there is exactly one (1) with whom everyone is familiar.
There was another telling episode: a man told me that his wallet had been stolen. Surprised, I replied, “Really, in Korea?” He laughed and said of course not, there are no thieves in Korea. He was on a trip to Europe and had been robbed by Gypsies.
But despite the social peace that South Korea enjoys, its elites certainly appear enamored with aping some of the most suicidal policies of the West. In 2012, Jasmine Lee from the Philippines became the first non-ethnic Korean to win a seat in the Parliament—where she is now a strong supporter of increased immigration [Meet the Movie Star Turned Lawmaker Who Wants to Reshape Korea, by Sam Kim and Jiyeun Lee, Bloomberg, February 2, 2016]. Surprisingly, Mrs. Lee is a member of the center-right Saenuri Party, which considers neo-liberalism to be fundamental to South Korean nationalism [Multiculturalism in South Korea: A Critical Assessment, by Iain Watson, Journal of Contemporary Asia, March 18, 2010]. The political right in South Korea is similar ideologically to the U.S. Conservative Establishment in the early 2000s, before Trump-style National Conservatives started seizing power within the party.
So South Korea does face real dangers. However, “there is a great deal of ruin in a nation.” As I’ve described, South Korean demographics remain quite favorable compared to those of the United States and Western Europe, and immigration policies remain relatively strict. And there is little indication that there are large numbers of Koreans scouring the globe looking for the most hopeless cases in order to bring back to their country.
Even as the South Korean government gradually gives up on the concept of minjok, South Korean leaders still seem to believe that any migration must be controlled and actually be a net benefit to the country. Of course, this is why they have kept out practically all Syrian refugees [Syrians Seeking Asylum in South Korea Find Only a Cold Shoulder, by Choe Sang-Hun, New York Times, August 5, 2016]
Historically, both Koreas have had reunification of the peninsula under one government as their ultimate goal. The South is changing slowly, but there is no demographic threat to Korean cultural and racial autonomy in the North thanks to government ideology (and crushing poverty).
One day, however, the two Koreas seem destined to engage in difficult discussions about nationhood, race, and the future of their people. One only hopes that these conversations do not involve the use of nuclear weapons.
Jeremy Cooper is a specialist in international politics and an observer of global trends. Follow him at @NeoNeoLiberal.