Foreigners Should Not Intervene in Korea’s Multiculturalism Debate

This an unpublished letter to the editor at the Korea Times.

The poor treatment of Bonojit Hussain ( is a sad commentary on race relations in Korea but is no crime and certainly not a ‘human rights’ violation. Mr. Hussain should do all us foreigners here a favor and drop his complaint:

1. Racism is not a crime, and neither is stupidity. Open societies like Korea do not criminalize thought, even repugnant foolishness. Mr. Hussain was not physically assaulted, and his Korean harasser is entitled to his beliefs and prejudices. It makes a mockery of the notion of ‘human rights’ to charge a drunk ajeossi on a bus for 60 seconds of vulgarity. Racism is overcome in the marketplace of ideas not by an orwellian ‘opinion police.’ The US went down this road into the political correctness wars of the 1990s, and Mr. Hussain’s home country, India, is balkanized by exactly such racialized law-making. We should hardly encourage that among our hosts.

2. We foreigners are guests in someone else’s house. The Korean harasser’s behavior was improper, but we foreigners do not have the moral standing to take legal action on our hosts’ opinion of our presence. As voluntary guests, there are limits to our claims against our hosts, and exaggerating racist vulgarity as a human rights violation certainly crosses them. Barring physical intimidation, we have no claim to an ‘appropriate’ Korean opinion. We have chosen to come to Korea. We are not a conquered or coerced population (like Canadian francophones or Native Americans) with a moral claim to special rules, much less a ‘human rights’ committee. It is part of our duty as willing guests to absorb Korean ambivalence, and occasional resentment, about our presence with aplomb and restraint.

3. Korea is scarcely a ‘multicultural’ society, and we have no right to demand or describe it as such. For all the talk of ‘globalizing’ Korea, Korea is still quite ethnically homogenous. Over 97% of the ROK population is Korean. Over 90% of the foreigners here are other East Asians who blend in more easily. Most others, such as the hagwon teachers or US military, are transients. Hence, Koreans expect us to either assimilate or leave at some point. There is no permanent, unassimilated minority here that demands a multicultural restructuring of Korean society (as there is, for example, in India or Switzerland). More importantly, it is not at all clear that Koreans want their country to be a multi-culture. And this we must respect. This is their country, and we must honor and abide by their choices. It is terrible bad faith for us to come voluntarily and then promptly demand multiculturalism as our due. It is not; the burden of obligation lies the other way. It is our responsibility to integrate, learn Korean (god help us), eat our kimchi, and otherwise behave well, including respect for our hosts’ ambivalence on the foreigner question.

As Koreans accustom themselves to non-Korean faces, attitudes will change. But we may not demand that change, nor try to shame our hosts into it. Polyethnicity is a change for them to make at their own pace and in their own way. As a democracy, any shift toward multiculturalism in Korea must have public opinion support. It cannot be the product of lawsuits by guests. Koreans may get there, but then again, they may not, and they may not want to. However the debate ends, it is not our place to intervene.

14 thoughts on “Foreigners Should Not Intervene in Korea’s Multiculturalism Debate

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  9. 1. Racism is, in fact, a crime.

    Article 11 of the South Korean Constitution
    (1) All citizens are equal before the law, and there may be no discrimination in political, economic, social, or cultural life on account of sex, religion, or social status.

    ” Racial discrimination was strictly prohibited in accordance with the principle of equality enshrined in the Korean Constitution and other relevant laws, even if it was not mentioned specifically.”


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  13. You are conflating being outsiders in a society with said society’s right to abuse people that don’t look like they expect them to look. You are an utter moron, and I am more stupid for having read your inane argument.


  14. Dear Prof. Kelly

    This article is being passed around facebook right now, and a lot of people are wondering if you have updated your opinions in the time since you wrote this.

    (June 2017)


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