Xenophobia in the media is a recurring complaint among foreigners in Korea. In the summer of 2012, an MBC documentary entitled “The Shocking Truth About Relationships With Foreigners” provoked a particularly strong reaction from foreigners in the country. This and other incidents inspired the following look at the Korean media’s portrayal of non-Koreans. — John
For many Westerners here it was an all-too-familiar example of the media’s habitual vilification of non-Koreans. An MBC segment focusing on Western men and their relationships with Korean women titled “The Shocking Truth About Relationships With Foreigners” provoked outrage online for what many saw as blatantly xenophobic and sensationalistic journalism.
The segment described Westerner-Korean couples walking arm-in-arm as displaying “daring intimacy” and featured unverified claims of foreign men stealing from their partners and infecting them with HIV.
When several “victims” contacted by the show denied they’d had any negative experiences of dating a foreigner, the narration rationalized that “most of the victims avoid telling the truth.”
Defending the segment several days after airing, the lead writer told The Korea Herald that it had attempted to portray “a difference in culture” and was “based on facts.” At the time of writing, a Facebook group protesting the broadcast had garnered more than 8,500 members, including Koreans in relationships with foreigners.
The MBC broadcast was far from the first to be accused of maligning Westerners living here. Previous reports, such as a 2005 SBS segment titled “Is Korea their Paradise? Report on the Real Conditions of Blond-haired, Blue-eyed Teachers,” focused on similar themes.
Kyung Hee University law professor Benjamin Wagner said the most striking aspect of the MBC segment was its focus on HIV.
“MBC has indicated that its program was more of the same nonsense portraying foreign English teachers as sexual predators who victimize defenseless Korean women and infect them with AIDS, but the irony is of course that teachers have been tested and re-tested for HIV ― how is it that they still represent an AIDS threat?” he said.
Wagner, a longtime advocate against mandatory HIV tests for foreigners, said that persistent claims over the years that foreigners carry the virus have represented a “symbolic stigma,” where HIV is used as a vehicle to express hostility toward foreigners and especially sexual relationships between different races.
The MBC program, he said, marked a new low for a major broadcaster in that regard.
“When mandatory HIV tests were introduced for foreign teachers in 2007 the argument from the government was that they were supposed to rehabilitate the reputations of these teachers and reassure Korean citizens about foreigners. Of course, the exact opposite of that has happened, the testing has reinforced the existing stigma and now it’s become acceptable for a major broadcasting network to insinuate that foreigners are spreading AIDS.”
Wagner also pointed out that previous portrayals by even minor media groups have had big consequences for the residency requirements of foreigners in the country, most notably with the introduction of HIV testing in 2007.
“The education ministry has said before ‘well we don’t think foreign teachers have AIDS or the likelihood to transmit it, we just want to make the parents feel comfortable.’ So the question is why do the parents feel uncomfortable, why do they think they have AIDS? So this you basically trace this back to a lot of stories in the media stories portraying foreigners as suspect for HIV like this most recent one from MBC.”
Migrant workers from East and Southeast Asia have also complained of their representation in the media, leading to the formation in 2005 of Migrant Workers TV Network, to counter what one participant described as the media’s depiction of migrant workers as “comical or miserable.”
Mahbub Alam, the director of Asia Media Culture Factory, a group of artists that often explores migrant issues, says that the media has tended to either shy away from migrant issues completely, or only depict migrant workers as “poor” and “helpless.”
He has, however, seen much change in his time here, especially from film and in the emergence of small, independent media outlets.
“In many cases, (with) the programs like (on) KBS and MBC, you didn’t find any kind of alternative TV programs here, not about migrant rights, it’s very hard,” said Alam, who arrived here from Bangladesh 13 years ago.
Much media emphasis, too, has been placed on the rising crime rate among foreign laborers from China, Vietnam and other Asian nations. Last month, the Chosun Ilbo reported that foreigners account for about 8 percent of murders despite making up just 2.8 percent of the population. The story, as with many others on the subject of foreigner crime, did not provide full context for its statistics. While crimes by foreigners have risen in recent years, the overall foreigner crime rate remains below that of the general population.
Seong Sang-hwan, a professor at the National Center for Multicultural Education at Seoul National University, identifies a tendency by the media to idolize Korean ancestry and see collectives rather than individuals as coloring its coverage. He notes the celebration of successful ethnic Koreans overseas such as Fleur Pellerin, who was recently appointed to the Cabinet of recently elected French President Francois Hollande.
“They value these people highly even though these ethnic Koreans don’t have much to do with Korean society. These people are valued highly just because they have a Korean ethnic background,” said Seong.
Negative generalizing about foreigners is the other side of the same coin, according to Seong, as seen in the backlash against ethnic Korean-Chinese in the wake of a brutal murder in Suwon in April.
“When this kind of serious crime case happens, then Korean people, they tend to associate this case, or this person, with the entire ethnic group.”
But not all depictions of non-Korean living here have been negative. The rise in the numbers of so-called “multicultural families” has been followed by a steady stream of stories highlighting the difficulties they face in acutely homogenous Korean society. The Korea Herald featured an interview with Jasmine Lee, the country’s first foreign-born lawmaker, earlier in the year on the challenges multiethnic children face, while a piece in another English-language daily last year spoke of how families from diverse backgrounds can make Korean society more open.
Arirang TV newscaster Sean Lim believes that his station’s status as a public broadcaster allows it to avoid sensationalism in its coverage, including its coverage of foreigners.
“As a public entity, Arirang is not driven to focus on scandals and sensationalism in the pursuit of profit. This gives us space to expand our coverage to a wider variety of topics including human interest stories that show the contributions of those in our foreign community,” said Lim. “For many Koreans, Arirang is a comfortable conduit to the foreign community because we cover events, conferences and foreign news from a perspective that is relevant to Korea.”
He rejects the idea that journalists should do “positive” or “negative” stories, but rather sees the journalist’s job as to “bring light to the dark places.” In telling the news, the station naturally portrays foreigners’ positive contributions.
“Every day we show foreigners who live active, passionate and normal lives here in Korea,” Lim said. “Very recently we covered stories like the Latin American Cultural Festival, foreign students performing traditional Korean music at the National Folk Museum of Korea, and an international chef competition at the 2012 International Congress of the World Association of Chefs Societies. In the past we also covered stories of foreigners volunteering at animal shelters or helping the homeless.”
Lim declined to comment on the coverage of other outlets.
Whether some coverage is seen as positive or negative could depend on the consumer’s views about multiculturalism and assimilation.
Seong referenced a recent episode of KBS’ “Love in Asia” that told the story of an immigrant widow who looks after her sickly Korean father-in-law.
“She lost her husband … so she is raising her kids without her husband and then she is also supporting her parents-in-law. The program portrayed such a picture that what she does for the entire family … is very good. It inherits traditional Korean values.
But the program was criticized by the Korea Communications Commission for elevating assimilation above multiculturalism, according to Seong.
“The commission cautioned the broadcasting team … (They questioned) why the (producers) are thinking why the foreign wives should support parents-in-law and why this should be portrayed as a model case.”