Racism in South Korea: An Observation of Racism in 2020

Racism in South Korea
Racism in South Korea

Racism in South Korea is a controversial topic. However, it is an issue that still exists in the country today. The topic of racism and xenophobia is somewhat ubiquitous with any mention of adjusting to life in South Korea. 

How Widespread is Racism in South Korea? 

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 Spring 2019. The results found that 68.4% of respondents had experienced racial discrimination first-hand. 56% of respondents had experienced verbal abuse.

How Does Racism Manifest itself in Korea?

Racism in South Korea
Racism in South Korea

Racism in Korea often presents itself in the form of openly-racist expressions and attacks. However, racism is also prevalent in many more subtle ways. Foreign workers generally do not have the same rights as Koreans. 

Many people living and working in Korea find that they do not have the 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. It is important to be aware of racism in Korea when assessing the possibility of relocating.

Identifying the Root Cause of Racism in South Korea 

Racism in South Korea
Racism in South Korea

Korea is a largely homogenous society. Yes, globalization is paving the way towards a more multicultural Korea. However, this is a slow process. Korea is not as ethnically diverse as other cultural “melting pots”. For example, the UK and parts of Western Europe. 

Foreign immigrants make up less than 1% of Korea’s population. The majority of these people are American military officers or ESL teachers. There is a nickname for foreigners living in Korea: waygookins. 

Tanjil Minkok and the Korean Master Race

Seokbulsa temple
Seokbulsa temple

The Korean outlook on race and racism is quite shocking from an outside perspective. Te Korean school syllabus taught Koreans that they were the “master race” and ergo were superior to many of their foreign counterparts as recently as 15 years ago. There is even a name for this concept: “tanil minjok” (단일 민족).

Tanil minjok stems from the fact that Koreans have “pure” bloodlines. Citizens are able to trace their family trees back hundreds and hundreds of years. Many people perceive that foreigners are a pollutant to this purity. 

You will find many interracial couples walking hand in hand as you wander the streets of Seoul. The younger generations of Koreans are generally much more open-minded and accepting of different cultures and nationalities. However, older generations still commonly hold the view that Koreans should marry Koreans. 

Korean people hold their family’s approval in high regard when choosing a long-term partner. Consequently, 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. 

Racism as a Consequence of Ignorance 

A lack of education into the lives and cultures from across the world is partly to blame for the matter of racism in Korea. Korean students are not taught about multiculturalism. School syllabuses enforce the idea of nationalism.

Racist comments and questions in Korea are not always intended to be malicious. However, they stem from the fact that Koreans have not been exposed to people of different races and backgrounds. To reiterate – less than 1% of the Korean population is made up of international people. Koreans may live well into adulthood before they ever meet a black or white person. 

The limited (or non-existent) exposure to white people and people of colour often means that Koreans take stereotypes and media portrayals of people of certain races as “fact”. For instance, white people are often assumed to be promiscuous because of how they are portrayed in Hollywood movies. The phrase “riding the white horse” is a derogatory term that Korean males sometimes use to express their desire to have intimate relations with white women based on what they have seen on TV and cinema. Similarly, Koreans may assume that people of colour are involved in crime. I had an African American friend in Suwon who was frequently asked if he had a pet tiger (!)

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 as such. 

A Lack of Accountability for Racism in Korea 

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. I would like to think that 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.

How Different Races are Treated in Korea 

Racist attitudes in any form should be inexcusable. However, racism experienced by white people in Korea is not the same as that experienced by people of colour. One example of this is when it comes to job vacancies and English teaching positions. 

White westerners are often preferred over Black or Indian applicants. This even extends to people who are ethnically Asian e.g. Chinese American. 

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, and 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. 

First Hand Experiences of Racism in South Korea 

I found that despite the fact that there being many Koreans who enjoyed having foreigners in their midst, there are definitely those that do not welcome our presence. I would frequently get on board the subway in Seoul and take a seat to find an entire circle of empty seats around me as nobody wanted to sit next to the “foreigner”. Sometimes, people would snigger, laugh, and push each other towards my general direction. 

Similarly, people in my apartment building would often wait until the elevator with me inside it had gone before getting into an elevator without a foreign person in it. Thirdly, I often found that when I went into stores and restaurants, servers would hide or argue over who had to serve me, even though (admittedly unbeknown to them) I can speak Korean. Sometimes, they would laugh at me using chopsticks or tell me that food was “too spicy” for a white person.  

“Are You Russian?” 

Western women travelling or living in South Korea 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. 

What is Racism and What Isn’t? 

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. 

Racism in Korea:
A Conclusion

You are likely to have mixed experiences in any country where you look different to the locals. My heritage is British and Italian. I acknowledge that as a white girl, I definitely have enjoyed white privilege throughout my life. 

I cannot relate to racism in the same way that my black and mixed-raced friends can. Perhaps experiencing racism in South Korea is a way for white people to acknowledge the privileges that they usually possess, and learn to better empathise with victims of racism in their own country? 

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

with any queries that you may have. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to me via the comments below. 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.

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