In South Korea, liberal lawmakers have been attempting to pass a law that bans all types of discrimination based on gender, disability, age, language, sexual orientation, and race or country of origin.
As a relatively small and homogeneous population, South Korea has been a conservative society where ethnic and cultural diversity has remained a foreign notion without much political drive to accommodate the needs of foreign-born residents in the country.
But there has been a growing sense of awareness in recent years as the country’s foreign population recently topped 2.5 million.
To discuss what barriers there are to foreign nationals and what should be done to tackle discrimination, I’m joined today by Nikesh Mehta, the Deputy Ambassador at the British Embassy in Seoul. It’s great to see you Mr. Mehta.
We also connect with Jasmine Lee, Chair of the progressive Justice Party’s Special Committee on Migrants’ Human Rights, who became South Korea’s first-ever foreign-born member of parliament in 2012. It’s lovely to have you join us.
Mr. Mehta, having lived in Korea for just over two years, you must have noticed that South Korea is a largely homogeneous society. After living in the UK and Malaysia some of the most ethnically diverse places in the world, what was it like for you to adapt to life in Seoul?
Mrs. Lee: There aren’t many women in South Korean politics but you also have an immigrant background so you smashed through two glass ceilings. Even as a lawmaker, did you face racial discrimination?
Mr. Mehta: South Koreans perhaps inevitably developed a positive perception of white foreigners given that the country had a very limited number of interactions with the outside world, which were mostly traumatic for instance, Japan’s imperialism that led to brutal oppression. On the other hand, South Korea later received development assistance in the late 20th Century from the Americans and Christian missionaries who were predominantly white. To this day, South Korea is heavily influenced by American culture, while less aware or as accepting of other ethnic backgrounds and appearances.
As a British man of Indian decent and also as deputy ambassador here, have you noticed this lack of racial awareness and even discrimination against yourself?
A group of high school students who painted their face black recently stirred controversy, with a Ghanaian TV star here saying that many people hear don’t yet understand the history behind ‘blackface’, and why it is offensive. Would you agree there’s a lack of racial awareness?
Mrs. Lee: Your party has been trying to pass the anti-discrimination law, which is currently being debated at the National Assembly. This is the 7th attempt to pass the bill. Could you explain what major points are in the antidiscrimination law, and why do we need it?
Mr. Mehta: 55 years ago, the UK banned racial discrimination through the Race Relations Act. The law alone didn’t end discrimination, but it was a starting point. How was the UK able to cultivate a society that (for the most part) embraces diversity, and how can South Korea learn from Britain’s example?
Why is it so important to have an anti-discrimination law in South Korea?
Mrs. Lee: Under the Multicultural Families Support Act, South Korea set up over 200 family support centers, language education and counseling sessions. But all of this promotes cultural assimilation rather than diversity. What should be done to systematically protect and promote ethnic diversity, and increase South Korean society’s awareness and acceptance of diversity?
Mr. Mehta: As a diplomat, how have you been promoting racial diversity in the UK’s foreign service and in the previous countries you were assigned to?
We’re seeing a growing number of foreign residents and citizens making South Korea home, and experts usually classify a nation as a multicultural society, if its percentage of foreigners is at least 5 percent and South Korea is now nearing that threshold. Hopefully, as a result, there will be faster and greater changes to advance diversity before that point.
Thank you for joining us today, Nikesh Mehta, Deputy Ambassador at the British Embassy in Seoul and Jasmine Lee, former member of the National Assembly and member of the Justice Party in South Korea.