PNU Multiculturalism Conference: How ‘MC’ is Korea Really? (Not Much)

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Multiculturalism is growing issue in Korean life because of Korea’s severe demographic slow-down and aging. I have written about this before here. The following is my discussant response to a paper on the confused Korean administrative response to Korea’s growing non-citizen population. Multiculturalism is growth area in Asian studies; there is a good dissertation here waiting to be written. Email me if you want the paper on which this post is based. The conference is today.


“This paper provides a valuable first overview of the emerging Korean policy response to the oft-declaimed ‘multiculturalization’ of Korea. Chung provides an impact assessment of various policy tools with which the Korean government is experimenting. She finds that Korea is increasingly treating its foreign population as a resource to be cultivated and exploited through outreach, where in the past the Republic of Korea Government (ROKG) viewed the foreign population more as a burden or necessary evil to be managed. In the jargon of public administration, this is her identified switch from policy instruments stressing ‘negative coercion’ to ‘affirmative non-coercion.’ She also notes the ‘experimentation,’ if not disorganization and bureaucratic turf-conflicts, that characterize the administrative response. I have four comments.


1. Organizational Theory: Bureaucratic Failure

The experimentation and gradual drift of the ROKG toward more positive interaction with the resident foreigner population strikes me as typical bureaucratic behavior in response to new and awkward issues. An organization’s first, pathological response is to punish and sanction what it does not understand. Only as anomalies and policy failures accumulate are new methods tried. In the language of social science theory, Chung has uncovered classic institutional behavior, and I think a future version of this paper would benefit from some comparison of Korea with other, traditionally non-immigration states’ public policies on multiculturalism (MC). Japan would be a fine East Asian example, particular as the contrast would be quite stark. Japan remains in Chung’s first stage of sanction and punishment; ethnic Koreans, e.g., despite decades of residence in Japan, are excluded from Japanese citizenship. Japan has clearly rejected multiculturalization in the last generation, even as its demographic crisis accelerated into absolute population contraction in the last few years.


2. Non-Korean Multiculturalism Experience: Unused Western theory

I wish Korean MC theory would more clearly use the pre-existing Western theory and policy experience. My sense of the media debate and policy response in Korea is that Koreans see this as some radically new issue. And Chung’s work clearly demonstrates the organizational and policy ad hocery and confusion of the last decade. But obviously this debate is not new in the classic immigrant countries – the US, Canada, NZ, and Australia. And European countries face the same dilemma Korea does: they have a strong national sense of distinction and find the ethno-religious pluralism of sustained immigration a major social challenge. So there is a lot of experience out there among Korea’s OECD peers that I think is not being utilized.


3. Low Empirical Multiculturalization of Korea

I believe we can explain Korea’s generally disorganized response – regardless of its improving intentions – because the issue of multiculturalization is not, in fact, as pressing as is made out to be in the Korean media. In a population of 50.2 M, only 1.14 M are not Korean citizens. Of those 1.14 M foreigners are 400k ethnic Korean ‘returnees’ and 100k USFK soldiers and affiliates who live in artificially Americanized and short-term circumstances. In short, the ethnically distinct population of long-term resident foreigners is only about 600k. That is awfully small number. And how many of them actually intend to stay and settle in Korea? Very few I imagine. There are of course issues of racism in Korea, and Koreans remain deeply attached the romantic-organic notion of the minjeok that makes it tough for long-term resident foreigners to join the community. But still, as a public policy issue, Chung’s finding of experimentation and ad hocery should not surprise us given the statistical tininess of the cohort examined.


4. Korean Democratic Consensus for Multiculturalism?

There is a democratic theory problem in the discussion of Korean multiculturalism that I believe is frequently overlooked. It is not clear at all to me that Korea wants to be ‘multiculturalized.’ Before we engage in the normatively self-congratulatory discourse of Korean’s imminent multiculturalization, we should discern whether the median Korean voter actually want this. To be honest, I am not sure. My sense is that Koreans have a strong sense that they have suffered from invasion and turbulence so often in their national history, that they very much want this tiny sliver of land in the world to be theirs and manifestly culturally Korean. At the very least, the multiculturalization of Korea, whether in social science theory or public administration, should proceed on the basis of a deep democratic consensus for this change. I would like to see far more polling data that substantiates that a durable majority of Koreans do in fact want the major socio-cultural shift implied by sustained immigration. Japan again is a good Asian counterfactual. Its citizenry reject MC, even though the demographic argument for immigration is quite strong.

Part 2 is here.

6 thoughts on “PNU Multiculturalism Conference: How ‘MC’ is Korea Really? (Not Much)

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