MBC brings Multicultural Panic to Korea

Xenophobia so sloppy and racist, Glenn Beck himself would blush…

I came late to this controversy, but it merits some quick comment given just how creepy the above vid is.

This ‘report’ was shown in primetime on Korea’s largest TV network, on a holiday when people would likely be home with family (and was then rebroadcast until the explosion of response halted it). While xenophobia is fairly common in the Korean media, this is so nasty – especially at this very late date in the long, tiresome ‘Korean women dating western men’ discussion – that it has gone viral in the expat blog world of Korea. It even got into the Wall Street Journal.

I rarely blog about this sort of thing. As an IR academic, domestic politics and sociology aren’t really my area, and I don’t really see myself as a ‘k-blogger’ or whatever. I don’t like blogging about identity politics in Korea, as I think it is prone to recycled stereotyping that tells us little. And I have broadly argued against our (foreigners) participation in the Korean multiculturalism debate, because it’s their country and they themselves need to decide what they want from us. It’s their choice.

But this is the nastiest race-baiting – primetime, slap-dash unprofessional, on a major network, for a general audience – I’ve seen in my time here. (Full disclosure: my wife is Korean). Casual racism is a widespread problem in Korea, as any foreigner living here can tell you. Wide-eyed kids shamelessly point at you like you are a martian; people stare at your body hair; grade and high schoolers giggle and smirk; the old ladies glare at you on the subway; average folks on their cell phones will pause their conversations to remark, ‘hey, a foreigner just walked by me!,’ as if it’s some kind of major event in their day (presumably they think I can’t understand that, or maybe they don’t care?). It’s all fairly fatiguing (read this for a good example), and that’s for white westerners. I can’t imagine being from Southeast Asia or an LDC here. In fact, Cambodian import brides have been so badly abused, the Cambodian government made it illegal for its citizens to marry Koreans. (This hugely embarrassing and deeply disturbing restriction was scarecely reported by the Korean media.) And when the Korean race hang-up gets wrapped into sex, it breeds genuinely disturbing levels of xenophobia, especially for an OECD/G-20 country that really ought to know better. Hence this vid.

Here is some good background on just how prevalent this sort of ‘pot-smoking foreign perverts steal our women!’ schtick really is in Korea (follow the many, many depressing links). Here is more that captures just how much the Korea media trafficks in creepy race-mongering. The WSJ link above is helpful too, as is this review of this ‘foreigner-gate.’

Next, here is the Facebook page to join to encourage the Korean media to stop this kinda stuff. It’s better than you’d think, complete with discussion of MBC’s soap opera where the foreigner gives his Korean girlfriend… (wait for it)…syphilis! Good grief.

Finally, don’t forget the really serioues problem of race in Korea – not the discomfort over westerners, but the treatment of guest-labor from LDCs.

This is all terribly ugly and should embarrass all those Sarah Palinite Koreans, who never cease to insist to me that Korea is the most amazing country ever. No. It’s not actually, because racist outbursts like this vid are downside of all that self-congratulatory, ‘Korea power,’ minjeok nationalism taught in the schools. So can the government and Arirang TV please stop shamelessly pushing resident-foreigners into mawkish, forced displays of over-the-top ‘Koreaphilia’? Enough with the propaganda!

Enjoy this response video. It’s funny and clever.

the guy’s shirt says ‘foreigner’ in Korean

13 thoughts on “MBC brings Multicultural Panic to Korea

  1. Pingback: MBC brings Multicultural Panic to Korea | Robert Kelly — Asian … | Tour Cambodia

  2. I guess this is why creationism is well entrenched here as to be included in high school textbooks. The rest of us are just AIDS-spreading, MAD cow eating monkeys.

    “No trouble getting women in Korea”?? Wow, why can’t I get that kind of action? 😉


  3. Let me apologize if I was an “ugly Canadian” who in any way contributed to the storm over your IR priorities list. Though it was interesting reading.

    I do note that you have generally avoided this topic in your blog in favor of more serious or academic subjects, and there is admittedly a danger of sounding like yet another expatriate blog griping about xenophobia in Korea.

    Having said that, there is an international relations aspect to this, correct? At some point these ridiculous news programs affect both domestic policies and Korea’s international image, both because they evince horrendous journalism and because the blatant racism embitters returning ESL teachers and other expatriates. I am stunned that a broadcaster such as MBC would have such incredibly bad PR management as to have representatives protest that “we’re only publicizing the BAD teachers” or “I don’t know why foreigners are mad about this; maybe they’re secretly guilty.” This is the sort of public response I expect in a Doonsebury comic.

    Sociologically, I find it interesting that these attitudes are so persistent in Korean media when in actual practice the level of xenophobia and racism has diminished in the last decade–things are different from years ago when my wife and I had to be quite careful where we went. I don’t see this binary portrait of foreigners as stunned-by-how-wonderful-Korea-is or drug-addled-predators reflected in how Koreans relate to me on a daily basis, though it may be there. There seems to be a real “486” generation gap between Korean journalists and the public.

    I hope you will write more about this from an IR perspective, though I’m a little concerned that the annoying rap video will be misunderstood by some Koreans who do not recognize that it is satirical.


    • Of course not. You are one of my favorite commenters. Your comment that Canada is more stable than the US was insightful and unexpected. I have recycled that one a few times actually.

      As you’ve noticed, I am wary about wandering into this morass, for a few reasons:

      1. I wonder how much I can add that hasn’t already been said. It seems to me that the expat ‘k-blogosphere’ has been talking about race in Korea for as long as anyone can remember. Given my skill sets, I wonder how much I can add besides my anecdotes about how demeaning it is when Koreans say stuff like, ‘hey a foreigner just walked past me!,’ like it’s some major moment in their day.

      2. I do genuinely believe that we don’t have much moral standing to contribute to the multiculturalism debate in Korea. It is THEIR country firstly, and we are their guests. Racism is their right should they prefer it (Japan being an obvious example). Koreans must ultimately make the choice to reject racism on their own – not because we resident-foreigners guilt them into pluralism. Indeed, this is one my biggest theoretical problems with multicultural political theory. It seems to rely more on shaming the host than the host’s own democratic choice, in order to get polities to accept racial pluralism. Ultimately the HOST must choose how many and what sort of foreigners are taken – which applies wherever immigration is controversial.

      But there is surely an IR fallout from this. Your point that lots of foreigners here experience discrimination, from casual to severe, and bring that bitterness home, is a good one. But I wonder how many Koreans realize how much bitterness there is. My sense is that most Koreans don’t think racism here is an issue at all actually. That MBC response makes that pretty clear. (In fact can you give me a citation for that line: ” I don’t know why foreigners are mad about this; maybe they’re secretly guilty”? I hadn’t actually heard that, but it would not surprise me.)

      Lastly, I like your idea that prestige is really important to the ‘global Korea’/’Korea power’ line of the ROKG, and ethnocentrism obviously reduces Korean stature/soft power. In fact, it is probably Korea’s desire to be seen as a globally ‘elite’ country that will get it to accept multiculturalism more than any other factor. They’ll open because they’ll realize eventually that openness is necessary for national power in a globalized world. But even this is still problematic, because it means racial pluralism is still an instrumental choice for some other goal, not a national value in itself.


      • http://populargusts.blogspot.kr/2012/06/tasty-xenophobic-morsel.html

        Selected comments
        “We only tried to show that there is a difference in culture and I hope that there is no more misunderstanding.”
        “I don’t understand why foreigners get angry about the issue while they are living with their spouses and having no problem.”
        “But why are all these foreigners making a fuss over it? Maybe because they have a guilty conscience.”

        I think readers can see these links for themselves to get an immediate sense of the aggravation in the foreign community and what I would call an immense tone-deafness at MBC about the fallout. Yet I think one of the good sides to the controversy is that the Korean response has been quite geriatric– few seem to have reacted to the documentary with anywhere near the vitriol of earlier exposes such as the English Spectrum “controversy” in 2005.

        I am not so worried about the idea of racial pluralism being used as an indirect goal. If “We Koreans” were to trumpet how wonderfully multicultural our nation is in order to stroke ourselves before another G-20 summit, that would seem contradictory to me– this would negate the idea of “We Koreans,” wouldn’t it? At any rate, my guardedly optimistic experience here is that multiculturalism here is unlikely to take off but outright tribalism seems increasingly old school here, at least among the students I teach.


      • If I may also put this bug in your ear for something to think or write about, Robert, isn’t your argument that “it’s their country and they themselves need to decide what they want from us” based on an assumption? To me it’s true as a general maxim but not absolutely true. The idea that countries have a right to their own rules is perhaps only a few centuries old, in the age of nation-states, no? Is it valid to argue that I’m a citizen of planet Earth and I have certain inalienable expectations wherever I go?

        At minimum, to me there is also a certain idea of justice in reciprocity, no? I find myself furious when I’m in Canada and a Korean treats me or my wife poorly, as though I need to conform to Korean mores in Korea but have no right to the same at home. This is something which maybe needs working out at a theoretical level, seeing as we are such erudite dudes, but nevertheless I don’t think it’s automatically true (though it is generally true, and mostly practically true) that I have no right to complain or advocate about my treatment in a foreign nation.


      • Our liberal-universalist human rights sympathies are similar; I lean your way. But democracy is also a value, and it permits local self-determination – including racism. Korea should not pluralize unless it wants to – and I am not at all sure it really wants to no matter how many people say Korea is ‘multiculturalizing’ (which the data don’t really support btw: http://asiansecurityblog.wordpress.com/2010/05/14/pnu-multiculturalism-conference-how-mc-is-korea-really-not-much/).

        Again, this is a fundamental flaw in multicultural theory, IMO – multiculturalism is not popular. People won’t vote for it. People are tribal. Multiculturalism can be a ‘pre-existing’ condition (like Indonesia) or it can be pushed onto states by guilt (Germany after the Holocaust) – but it doesn’t enjoy broad democratic approval in most places. (Genuine ‘immigrant countries’ are few: Canada, US, NZ, Australia – and even there tribalism is hard to displace.)

        If we accept that citizenship grants certain privileges and duties which foreigners cannot access, then debate over immigration, which strikes at the heart of how nations self-define, seems like an obvious off-limit space to me. In the same way that I think Mexico has gotten far too involved in the US own internal immigration debate, I would say that we resident-foreigners shouldn’t really be telling Koreans to be nicer to us. They need to decide that for themselves. We can always leave.

        This is a fairly conservative sentiment, I realize. I am ‘reifying’ the national community, I suppose. But I think most people want some kind of national distinctiveness. We want some kind of community between us and the species as an entirety – as Aristotle said, man is a social animal. We want in-groups for communitarianism and distinction, and we use prejudice and racism to build the logically necessary out-groups. Hence, I think multiculturalism is an elite language most people don’t like and strikes them as odd and vaguely threatening, which is why racism and nationalism occur all over the place. If accept democracy, then we have to accept that racial/national distinctions will almost certainly be an outcome.


      • I would like to add the following point in favor of Korea opting to become “multicultural”, as opposed to accepting national decline like Japan or to a more limited extend Russia (although Russia is reforming immigration procedures, and immigration is going somewhat upwards recently).
        A couple of decades down the road, the Republic of Korea will likely face the task of “assimilating and integrating” a very large number of North Koreans, and I would not be terribly surprised if the cultural differences between North and South Koreans have accumulated quite a bit, and may, in some extend, exceed “differences” between certain “foreigners” and South Koreans.
        Trying to assimilate and/or integrate foreigners is likely a good “national training exercise” for this quite monumental task.
        What may be smart for Korea on the subject of immigration is to do something similiar to what Taiwan did when they decided to get a health care program going. Appoint a planel of experts that pick, analyze and choose from existing immigration policies around the world, consider what would work for Korea in their given situation, and come up with a set of policies that will work for them.


      • I have heard of this ‘English Spectrum’ flap. What was that all about? We brought AIDS to Korea or something, wasn’t it?


      • Yes, there were likely “foreign-disease” scares in Korea in 2005, but the believed AIDS scare from ESL teachers spreading the disease is more recent, from about 2009. The 2005 controversy stemmed from a now-defunct internet forum called English Spectrum which had an infamous thread in which posters bragged about sexual conquests with Korean women. As I remember this dovetailed into a series of photographs from a very bawdy party with ESL teachers and Korean girls around the same time which went viral.

        Interesting points. I must admit that while I have a very soft spot for Mexico I see their insistence on immigration rights as galling. As well, Canada is not as multicultural as its image would have you believe, with lots of resentment among the older generation about people from country X breeding us out of existence etc.; it forms what people often call ‘soft racism.’

        My point, and I’m simply floating ideas to an extent, is that the right of a nation to make its own policies regarding foreigners is valid but not unconditional. I think we are essentially agreeing on this– a country which ate foreigners wouldn’t be excused on the lines of “it’s their country and you have to respect their rules.” There are some universal expectations we would grant to foreigners that they have some right to safety or trial, or the like, correct? I also maintain that we would be justified in arguing that there’s some national hypocrisy in enjoying the benefits of other countries which much more strongly advocate the rights of foreigners while residing in them, or worse, of presenting a media facade of national racial tolerance which plainly doesn’t exist. I am not saying Korea always does this or is unique.

        Other than these provisos, I have to agree that, yes, nations and peoples do exude feelings of inclusion/ identity / exclusion, and that’s the nature of the beast. Again, my country is as guilty as any of praising a multiculturalism that only grudgingly exists at best. Yet I think these situations aren’t binaries (monoethnic / multicultural) but points on a spectrum. To me Korea does have a reasonable responsibility to provide basic fairness in labor / contracts / investments / civility to non-citizens, but I concede that it isn’t obligated to full equality or parity in all ways (adoption, employment, protest, perhaps). In some spheres such as my relative ease in finding university employment I even have what might be an unfair advantage.


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