“Koreans Treat You According to Skin Color”
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“Koreans Treat You According to Skin Color”

In July a writer with PRESSian filed this piece about the entwined racial and economic prejudices experienced in South Korea by southeast Asians working in the 3-D (dirty, dangerous, and demeaning) jobs.

I had a little trouble with some of the language in the first two paragraphs in the final section, so any suggestions for improvement would greatly appreciated.

“I went to a restaurant but they gave me spoiled food. It seemed like it was because I was a foreigner. I guess they thought if you give a poor person spoiled food they’ll just eat it and go.”

Abdul (not his real name), who is from Bangladesh, likes Korean food. At first he didn’t enjoy it. After spending over 10 years living in Korea, having come in 1997, he now cooks and enjoys Korean food. Abdul came to Korea at the age of 21 as an industrial trainee.

“I Always Get Told, Go Back to Your Country.”

“At the time, as an industrial trainee, I made 340,00 won a month. But my boss would take 150,000 of it. He was supposed to be keeping it for when I went home. I think it was in case I decided to leave. I did the same work at the same hours as Korean people but the Korean got 1.2 million and we got 340,000. And at bonus time the Koreans got two to five million and we got two or three hundred thousand.”

He lived for three years on that 340,00 won monthly salary, unable to save any of it. So in the end he had no choice but to become an “illegal immigrant”. Afterwards he was able to earn more as an unregistered laborer and live without difficulty.

But since 2004 enforcement has increased, making it harder to find work. Though a skilled laborer, finding work is not easy for him. A friend and former coworker was caught and deported.

For the rest of them looking for a job, after the worker from immigration had come and gone from the factory, the boss called them over and asked, “you want to be in Korea? Or you want to go back?” He said he wanted to stay a bit more in Korea, but wanted to quit that company. He couldn’t say whether he, too, would have be caught if he continued to work there.

After quitting the company he was unable to find a safe job and worked mainly part-time jobs. But now he has a slipped disc and is unable to work and earn money.


“I want to go back to my home in Bangladesh. And I want to see my family. But I can’t go. If I go to Bangladesh I can’t come back to Korea. I want to stay in Korea for another two or three years and save some more money and then go back to Bangladesh. But I’ve been here for 10 years already and gotten used to Korean life. If I go back to Bangladesh, I don’t know how well I’m going to fit in.”

He has lived in Korea for 10 years and gotten used to Korean life, but he has as much difficulty as ever. The biggest problem is prejudice and discrimination. He is often insulted for having dark skin, and there are people who treat him as a servant. Every day Korean people seeing him for the first time speak to him in banmal. Abdul usually shrugs them off, and sometimes a Korean person with him will scold the one speaking banmal. But usually the person he’s with will stay quiet, and the other continues in banmal.

“Korean people always tell me, go back to your country. They don’t like having foreign workers stay in Korea for a long time. They don’t say why, they just say to get out.”

“Every Day Koreans Speak Banmal As Soon As They See Me”

When Korea was building its economy it needed cheap labor, and industrial trainees were “imported” from foreign countries for their labor power.

At first the number of migrant workers coming to Korea was not large, and the government strictly regulated them, leaving them totally unable to integrate into Korean society. They were here but not here. Migrant workers in Korean society are “invisible men”.

But as businesses continued to cut costs with the strengthening of neo-liberalism they relied on immigrant laborers to keep labor costs, but with ambivalence about and hostility to immigrant workers restrictions began. They got cheap labor from them but treated as disposable products to be “used and discarded”.

The endless status of “illegal immigrant”, intended to prevent immigrant workers from settling in Korea long-term, has resulted in over 300,000 of them staying here undocumented.

And as they are concentrated in low-wage industries and compete with the low-income Koreans who used to work those jobs, enforcement of immigration law has created a new under-class in Korean society.

As soon as immigrant workers began competing with Koreans for jobs in those low-wage industries, the Korean government created the nationalist “protect Korean workers” policy, punishing and illegalizing them. Being stuck in the neverending status of “illegal immigrant”, being divided into “illegal people” “legal people”,  and being deported all contribute to the prejudice that all immigrant workers are criminals.

And while people recognize “multicultural policies” and the particular cultures of immigrant workers they also demand that they actively assimilate to Korean society and if they cannot, look down on them as immigrant workers who refuse to assimilate.

“When I’m walking or in a restaurant with a friend, talking in Vietnamese, Korean people will say ‘hey, you’re being loud! Quiet down!’ I feel bad then but there’s nothing I can say. Korean people know our weakness, that we are undocumented, so if they don’t like us they could call immigration and get rid of us.”

Reanam (not his real name), who is from Vietnam, says that he often is ignored or discriminated against by Koreans. Friends that he is with worry about him, but also ignore it, which bothers him.

“Sometimes I go to a nice restaurant but the people working there see my appearance and ignore me. But they seem to act all nice to the white customers. I really hate that. A lot of times Koreans treat people differently depending on their skin color and what country they’re from.”

Korean Racial Sentiment Makes Victimizers Out Of Victims

When the economy was being built, Korean society aspired to be an “advanced country” and acquired a superiority complex over “developing countries”.

Nations were ranked according to their differing economic strengths. And the people of those nations were also ranked the same way. In the course of economic development immigrants from southeast Asia came to Korea, and Koreans, prosperous compared to the economically lesser southeast Asian nations, came to feel superior to those immigrants. Economic development brought many people from “impoverished countries” to Korea, but most of them worked in low-wage industries and looked different.

In that process feelings of superiority to “impoverished countries” and discrimination followed from the racism that said, “Koreans are superior to people from impoverished countries, those southeast Asians of inferior skin.”

Over that time period the problem of race in Korean society was the problem of “submission” to the United States and to white people and the problem of being the victims of western imperialism. But with immigrant workers from southeast Asia in Korea being societally singled out, Koreans have joined the global order of racialism, and where once they were victims are now the victimizers. But racial sentiment in Korean society is fused with the fixation on each country’s place in the hierarchy of economic strength and Korean society’s ethnic sentiment, so on its face it doesn’t appear to be racism.

“I got on the bus and asked the driver in Korean how much it cost, and the driver looked at me and just cursed at me in Korean. But if you spoke English he was nice to you.”

That was the experience of Mohammed, a Jamaican. Mohammed, who has been in Korea for 11 months, said, “it seems like Koreans feel superior to people from poorer countries,” adding that when his one-year visa expires he will go to a different country.

Who Creates and Uses Racism?

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The strong sense in Korean society of the importance of being one race is naturally linked to a racialism which seeks to exclude other “races”. And racialism being linked to economism leads to strengthened stereotypes and prejudice.

In particular, as the number of immigrant workers increases, lower-class Koreans placed in competition with them in low-wage industries are increasingly likely to develop racial and economic prejudices. Owing to the structure of Korean society, lower-class Koreans are forced into poverty, but because they happen to be in competition with immigrant workers they believe that that is the reason they cannot escape poverty and easily begin to develop racial prejudice. More than for the immigrant workers, their unsatisfactory situation of being structurally trapped in poverty is concealed by their own race and this easily causes them to be more and more aligned with basic economic prejudices. And so this can be seen as the result of Korean businesses and government, who want to use as much low-cost labor as possible, essentially killing two birds with one stone by putting immigrant workers in a bad economic condition to both lower labor costs and make low-wage Korean workers relatively easier to control.

“If Korean society doesn’t change, in 10 years something like what happened at Virginia Tech in America last year could happen in Korea.”

Reianam believes that Korean society must think seriously about the people cast into the lower classes.