Racism in Korea in 2022: Attitudes and Xenophobia

Racism in South Korea is an unfortunate cultural norm that you may observe or experience if you spend any amount of time in the country. This is particularly true if you identify as a person of color. 
For a lot of people, the topic of racism and xenophobia is somewhat ubiquitous with any mention of adjusting to life in South Korea. Racism is not something that is exclusive to South Korea.

Its prevalence in modern society is disappointing but perhaps not surprising in a country with a largely homogenous population. Obviously, you cannot apply a sweeping generalization to an entire country or demographic of people. Not everybody that you encounter in Korea harbors racist attitudes, but this kind of ignorance and xenophobia is more noticeable here than in other countries in Asia and elsewhere.

Racism in South Korea 

Racism in Korea

Racism in Korea, like racism on a global scale, can present itself in different ways. There have been instances of violent, racist attacks. Then, there have also been instances of more subtle racism such as snide remarks, stares, or the refusal to enter an elevator because a person of color is inside it.

A lot of racism in South Korea seems to stem from ignorance. Children are raised in very homogenous environments with very little (if any) exposure to people from different backgrounds and cultures.

At the same time, there is very little effort made by either Korean parents, or the Korean school and hagwon systems, to educate the younger generations on how people live around the world. Korean students are not taught about multiculturalism. 

School syllabuses enforce the idea of nationalism. With that considered, it is almost not surprising, though offensive that people grow up basing their assumptions about people from certain countries on what they have seen in Hollywood movies. 

In Korea, you may encounter people with ridiculous stereotypes and assumptions about people from different cultures. For instance, as a white person, you may be asked if you eat hamburgers and Mcdonalds every day because that is what people associate with white people from American movies.

As a black person, you may be asked if you have any exotic animals in your backyard. Children, in particular, may ask shocking questions. A lot of this tends to come from ignorance.

Sometimes people don’t even intend to be rude and see themselves as asking inquisitive questions. However, their shocking assumptions paired with a level of bluntness that Koreans have that is not shared by people from other countries, makes it all the more shocking. 

Korean beauty standards favor caucasian features 

Racism in Korea
Racism in Korea

Korean beauty standards, like beauty standards around the globe, strive for unrealistic ideals. The things that are considered “beautiful” in South Korea are not just difficult to achieve, but they are often beyond the realms of what is possible for people of Asian descent.

For example, most Koreans strive to have wide, doe-eyed eyes like caucasian women. Since this is not physically possible without cosmetic surgery, a lot of Korean women will choose to have double eyelid surgery to make their eyes bigger.

Similarly, pale skin is considered the most beautiful. People will often use skincare products that contain whitening agents or use shades of makeup that are several shades paler than their actual skin.

This stems from the fact that historically, people that were tanned and dark-skinned were associated with working out in the fields and doing manual labor. By contrast, people who were fair-skinned and pale were presumed to be spending their time indoors living a life of leisure. (This is a stark contrast to the western desire to be tanned). 

The entire basis of Korean society is that pale is beautiful. People often go to extremes with this, as some of the whitening agents contained in Korean cosmetics and skin care products contain ingredients that block melanin production. When it comes to job postings that necessitate hiring people from different countries (e.g. hiring English teachers in Korea), a person’s ethnicity can play a factor. 

Tanjil Minkok and the Korean master race

Racism in Korea
Racism in Korea

One of the most alarming things about racism in South Korea is that the education system not only promotes nationalism. As recently as 10 years ago, Korean students were being taught that they were a master race.

Tanjil Minkok (단일 민족).is the name for this concept. With this, Koreans believed and were taught that they were superior to their foreign counterparts.

Tanil minjok stems from the fact that Koreans have “pure” bloodlines. People are able to trace their family trees back hundreds and hundreds of years.

A lot of older generations still see foreigners as a pollutant to this purity. They retain the view that Koreans should marry Koreans. 

The younger generations of Koreans are generally much more open-minded and accepting of different cultures and nationalities. You will find many interracial couples walking hand in hand as you wander the streets of Insadong, Seoul.

However, the issue is that a lot of Korean people hold their family’s approval in high regard when choosing a long-term partner. As such, mixed relationships frequently come under scrutiny.

Concerned family members are afraid of the aforementioned “dirty blood”. This may lead Koreans to feel that they can date foreign people in the short-term, yet ultimately have to settle down with a fellow Korean. 

Brannen and MacLellan stated in their 2014 study that this stems from ethnocentrism. In other words, a belief in the integrity and supremacy of Korean culture or in its raw form. Meanwhile, (Kymlicka 2001, 2007) found that Koreans of all ages and backgrounds are concerned about foreigners being a threat to national identity, traditions, and other aspects of Korean culture.

Racism in Korea in practice

The National Human Rights Commission of Korea conducted a 2019 study on racism. The results found that as many as 7 in 10 foreign residents felt that racism was still a widespread issue in South Korea. 

The survey interviewed a small sample size of 310 residents in the spring of 2019. The results found that 68.4% of respondents had experienced racial discrimination first-hand. 56% of respondents had experienced verbal abuse.

How migrant workers and foreign employees are treated

Racism in South Korea
Racism in South Korea

Foreign workers generally do not have the same rights as Koreans. Migrant workers from Southeast Asia and the Indian continent that relocate to South Korea in search of blue-collar work, and a better quality of life, are particularly poorly treated.

Many people living and working in Korea find that they do not have adequate health and insurance coverage. Foreigners are treated differently from their Korean counterparts.

The American and British travel advisory boards have even warned people about the way that foreigners are treated in Korea. Still, as a white American, for instance, you will receive notably different treatment than an Indonesian immigrant.

It is important to be aware of racism in Korea when assessing the possibility of relocating. Less than 1% of Korea’s population is made up of foreigners.

A lot of blue-collar workers live in the city of Ansan, just west of Seoul. This is, in part because they are not accepted and do not integrate into Korean society.

Segregation in Korea 

It would be excessive to define Korea as an apartheid state. However, places, where races are segregated, are not unheard of. Some beaches, festivals, and outdoor events often separate seating into “Korean only” and “foreigner only” sections. 

There are often reports of bars and clubs in Seoul and Busan that refuse entry to foreigners. Some establishments even go as far as displaying signs in the doorway to reiterate such. 

There is no accountability for racism

Racism is a global problem. There is no denying that fact. It is unfortunate that even in 2020, there are still those that believe that the colour of your skin is somehow indicative of your character or of how much respect you deserve. 

Racism is a problem in my native UK just as much as it is in South Korea. However, one thing that differs between the two countries is the level of accountability on the issue.

If you were in a public place in the UK or the US and someone started being openly racist and aggressive towards someone, another bystander would swoop in and stop the offender. This is absolutely not the case in Korea. 

Many expats have reported verbal aggression or racist attitudes in public places in Korea. It is something that people feel that they have to sit back and tolerate. It is highly unlikely that a stranger would involve themselves and call out the behaviour.

Changing a racist outlook

Issues appertaining to racism in Korea need to be addressed at the source. School syllabuses need to be updated to teach children about how life is different across the globe.

Parents need to enforce to their children that racist attitudes are not acceptable. Korean government bodies need to better enforce the rights of foreign workers. This is likely to be a long process that may take several decades to improve. 

People of colour that work in South Korea can at least influence the attitudes of young Koreans, and help them to understand that racial stereotypes are both offensive and false. However, more work needs to be done. This responsibility should not stand on the shoulders of individuals alone. 

“Are You Russian?” 

Western women living in South Korea or embarking on a Korea travel itinerary will often find themselves presented with the question “Are you Russian?” This may seem like a simple mistake of nationalities.

However, it is a well-known fact among expats and Koreans that this question is used to establish as to whether a western woman is an escort. It is not the most pleasant experience when you are taking out the trash, or commuting to work and you are asked this question.

Imagine a much older male leering over you and asking this question as he makes such an assumption based on your race. Similarly, it is not uncommon for a Korean man to invite a strange western woman to a Love Motel, whereas he would never dream of doing the same to a Korean woman. 

Staring in Korean culture

Staring is quite common in Korean culture. This would be considered extremely rude in western countries. However, in Korea, this is relatively commonplace. It is not unusual to board a subway in Seoul and find that someone is gazing at you, seemingly transfixed.

It is easy to start to think that people staring is a negative thing or a consequence of racist thoughts. However, staring in Korea doesn’t have the same connotations of rudeness as it does in western countries.

People generally don’t even notice that they are doing it! Generally, this isn’t something malicious, but more of an inquisitive, interested look. 

At the same time, this can become problematic if the staring is accompanied by other undesirable behaviors and attitudes. For instance, you may find yourself riding the Seoul Subway and noting that all the seats around you are completely empty because nobody wants to sit next to the “foreigner”.

You may find that you are waiting for an elevator in your apartment building, and people wait for you to leave, and for the next elevator to come down, rather than stepping foot in an elevator with a foreign person in. The unfortunate thing, as mentioned, is that many Koreans are very passive. Nobody ever calls this behaviour out.

Racism in Korea: A Conclusion

You are likely to have mixed experiences in any country where you look different from the locals. White people definitely experience white privilege in Korea, as they would in other countries.

However, the instances where Koreans stare at or refuse to enter an elevator with a white foreigner can hopefully encourage white westerners to learn to better empathise with victims of racism in their own country.

Do you have any questions or queries about racism in Korea? I spent several years working and teaching English in Korea. I am happy to hear your views on the matter.

Safe travels! Melissa xo 


Melissa Douglas

Melissa Douglas is a British Travel Writer and Blogger based in Athens, Greece. She writes for numerous high profile travel publications across the globe - including Forbes Travel Guide, Matador Network, The Times of Israel and The Huffington Post.

2 thoughts on “Racism in Korea in 2022: Attitudes and Xenophobia”

  1. If you have dark skin such as myself I urge you to avoid Korea.
    Koreans are racist overall and there is a huge white preference. Don’t go to a country where you will be treated as a sub human.

    Source – victim of racism, sexual harrasment, sexual assault and verbal abuse at Kyung Hee University of Seoul. A so called gloab university that treats African, South Asian, Southe East Asians and some Latin American peoples as lower animals.

    • Thanks for the warning. I never sensed Koreans were racist after meeting them abroad but I guess the ones who travel and work abroad are more open-minded than average.

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