[The Korea Herald] Are multicultural schools a problem waiting to happen?

Korea, a country with little history of immigration, is rapidly becoming more racially and culturally diverse. With society coming to terms with how to ensure social harmony and successful integration of immigrants, the idea of specific schools for so-called “multicultural children” has been one approach taken by the government. Such schools have sparked national debate about integration, segregation and future national identity. — John.

By John Power

Korea’s children are ethically and culturally diverse as never before. There were more than 151,000 children of mixed ethnicity in the country last year, a more than 350 percent rise since 2007.

With many arriving from overseas in their teens, language and cultural barriers are a challenge to succeeding in school. About 30 percent of children with a foreign parent are outside the school system entirely, according to the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology.

Against this backdrop, the Education Ministry in March opened high schools in Seoul and Jaecheon, North Chungcheong, for such children. Seoul Dasom High School has 48 students who grew up overseas and have a foreign parent. While the school currently caters to children raised abroad, it plans to accept those born in Korea to a foreign parent in the near future.

“… There are students who came to Korea after a certain period in their home country, and therefore, have difficulties in adjusting to general schools in Korea,” an Education Ministry spokesperson told Voice in a statement.

“To help these students, Dasom Schools opened in Seoul and North Chungcheong Province in March 2012. The Dasom School is a public school for students from different ethnic backgrounds and provides language, cultural and technical education. Its diploma is recognized as a high school diploma. Next year, another Dasom school will open in Incheon. As such, the government of Korea is assisting multicultural students to grow into healthy citizens. It is also providing various support to help them become global talents by nourishing bilingual potential and enhancing multicultural sensitivity.”

But some fear that such schools could do more to entrench divisions than mend them. Popular blogger Robert Koehler, a 15-year resident married to a Mongolian woman here, shares such concerns.

“I’d be concerned that they’re putting themselves at a disadvantage in Korea by not attending normal schools and that by associating only with students of mixed racial backgrounds, it would impede their development as members of Korean society. As a taxpayer, I’d also ask why the government was spending money so that Korean nationals can learn pride in being non-Korean. If individual families want to instill pride in a certain foreign cultural heritage, fine ― I imagine my family (which is) German/Irish-American and Mongolian will. But that’s not something the state should be doing,” he said.

The government has opened a number of schools for multi-ethnic children such as those pictured above at an event at the Korea Food Research Institute at Sookmyung University in Seoul. (Yonhap News)

Koehler, who has no kids “yet,” also wonders whether grouping multiethnic children together could engender racial resentment.

“Put multicultural kids all together, add a few ideologically sympathetic teachers, and dollars to donuts you’ll turn the classroom into a cesspool of identity and grievance politics. And Korean-Korean parents and their kids will nurse grievances because the ‘foreign’ kids are being treated ‘special.’”

Park Kyung-tae, a sociology professor at Seoul’s Sungkonghoe University who specializes in multiculturalism, also has doubts.

“Although the facility is good, it has only symbolic meaning that Korean society is doing a good job to include those multicultural kids. But that is a very, very small number and special cases only,” he said.

He believes all schools should be multicultural in so far as having diverse student bodies and educational support for students struggling to fit in.

Skeptical voices have even arisen within the government itself.

Last year, in a statement to The Korea Herald, the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, which also deals with multicultural matters, expressed its opposition to so-called multicultural schools.

“The establishment of a separate school, class and after school activities for children with multicultural backgrounds is not viewed as an appropriate measure for the children of multicultural families,” it said.

At the time, the Education Ministry insisted the school policy had been pursued with the endorsement of the Gender Minister, something expressly denied by the latter.

A spokeswoman for the Gender Ministry reiterated its earlier position on Thursday, saying it was against separate schools because “(students) have to adjust to this society because their nationality is Korean.”

She expressed surprise that the Education Ministry had claimed to have pursued the school policy with her ministry’s agreement, saying she would “check with the Ministry of Education.”

The Education Ministry declined last week to answer questions about the number of such schools it ultimately intended to establish, but stressed that the schools were for only a small proportion of students.

“The government of Korea seeks an ‘integrated education,’ in which students from different ethnic backgrounds are allowed to choose which elementary, middle, or high school to go to. Accordingly, most ‘multicultural students’ are enrolled in general schools,” it said.

In addition to the specialized schools, the ministry has also introduced a number of six-month preparatory programs in the Korean language and culture to ready students for entry into regular classes. It plans to have 26 of these programs in place within the year.

Seong Sang-hwan, of the Education Ministry-funded National Center for Multicultural Education, appreciates the concerns regarding division. But he believes such schools are a necessary, if temporary, measure.

“These kids, they have trouble in regular Korean schools because regular schools, they are not ready to accept these kids. These schools should be regarded as some kind of stepping stone to transfer to regular schools …We have to watch these schools closely but at the moment I think this move is OK. I think it is acceptable,” Seong said.

Seong believes that the success of immigrants greatly depends on their own efforts to integrate into their new community, a view informed by his own experience as an immigrant first to the U.S. and then to Germany.

“I think the incoming immigrants, they have to participate in the school life, or school activities, social activities and so on. In this way you are accepted more and more … if you stay aloof from the mainstream then you are very unhappy and you don’t get to know people there. And you don’t get to know the friends of your kids and so. I think that’s very tragic,” he said.

He relates the story of a Chinese immigrant he met as part of field research for his center. Her mother-in-law had forbidden her from attending Korean classes, preferring her to stay at home.

“This Chinese woman could not speak Korean that well. As soon as she was allowed to attend regular official Korean classes offered by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family … she was exposed to this new environment and she started picking up excellent Korean very quickly. And then she was offered a Chinese teaching position as well,” Seong said.

Kangwon University professor Han Geon-soo, who supports temporary “segregation” classes before integration, said other countries’ experiences of immigration provide little insight for Korea, owning to its distinct characteristics.

“Basically, it should be ‘salad bowl’ but what is important is the contents and quality of ‘salad bowl,’” he said.


[The Korea Herald] Single nation: What women want

By John Power

Attractive, assertive and financially secure, Park Min-kyoung seems like the kind of woman many men would want for a wife. But marriage isn’t a priority for the 41-year-old singleton. She is single by choice and has no plans to get married any time soon.

“If I can find someone who really loves me, I can. If not, I don’t need to get married. I don’t want to get married for money or because I’m lonely,” she said.

Park is not alone she is just one of an increasing number of South Korean women who are shunning marriage in favor of their career and the single life.

According to Statistics Korea, last year there were about 310,000 marriages in Korea, down 18,000 from 2008. More significantly, 2009 recorded Korea’s lowest marriage rate since records began in 1970, with 6.2 marriages per 1,000 people. This figure is a reflection of a continuing trend: In 2000, the marriage rate was 7.0; in 1990 it was 9.3.

Although both sexes are getting married in fewer numbers, it is women especially who have an unfavorable view of the institution. According to recent stats, just six out of 10 women believe marriage is a must, compared with eight out of 10 men.

In a statement after the release of the data, Statistics Korea put the decline in marriages down to the economy, saying, “With the adverse economic conditions, more people are postponing marriage or cannot afford to marry.”

Park agrees that financial barriers are a problem, citing the high cost of rent and mortgages in particular. But, for her, the reasons for avoiding marriage go much deeper, and are cultural as much as economic. She says that many Korean men don’t see women as being equal.

“Korean men are so dominating. They don’t know how to treat women. And in Korea many things are really different from other countries,” she said.

Professor Lee Jae-kyung, director of the Korean Women’s Institute at Ewha Womans University, sees Korea’s patriarchal structures as dissuading more and more women from marriage.

“Because of gender division of labor and inequality in the patriarchal family, many Korean young women feel marriage is unfavorable to women,” she said.


Park also points the finger at the huge influence extended family has here. According to her, a man’s extended family can sometimes be the driving force behind a union rather than genuine love.

Lee So-ra, a 24-year-old college graduate, is another woman who thinks traditional Korean cultural norms are turning women off marriage. She says that it is the woman who is usually expected to make all the sacrifices in a marriage.

“I would have to sacrifice everything if I’m married. First of all, I cannot get my career. I would have to take care of his family and him and his child. So here it is quite hard if I give birth to a baby because I would have to care for the baby and I would have to do my job. If I come home, my future husband would just be lying down on the sofa, I guess, because that’s what my father did.”

Unsurprisingly, Korea’s declining marriage rate has corresponded with a large drop in births in recent years. Korea’s fertility rate the average number of children born to a woman over her lifetime is one of the lowest in the world at 1.15. As a result, the nation’s population is aging rapidly, spelling major problems ahead for pensions and the welfare system.

As in the case of marriage, both economic and cultural factors have contributed to the decline in births. Korean households spend almost three times more money on education as a percentage of income than in the U.S., making the cost of raising a child prohibitively expensive for many.

Inflexible work practices further discourage child rearing. Although it is illegal to fire an employee for getting pregnant, Lee So-ra says that, in smaller companies in particular, it is still a risk for women.

“If I go to a small company and I get pregnant; if I take a rest from my work, maybe they will take away my desk,” she said.

Despite big increases in government spending in recent years, both Park and Lee think that Korea’s child care facilities aren’t up to scratch.

“The system for taking care of children is not good,” said Lee. “The kindergartens are full. There are child care systems in companies in Western countries, but here no; except in major companies.”

Professor Lee Jae-kyung agrees: “Because neither government nor corporations offer proper policy options for working women with children, it’s difficult for women to have a career and … family obligations without conflict.”

Currently, female employees who give birth are entitled to three months paid maternity leave two months at their full rate of salary, with the last month capped at 1.35 million won.

In a statement, the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family said that, as part of its work toward a “corporate family-friendly environment and gender equal society,” it promoted “flexible working hours and family-friendly corporations.”


In a bid to raise the birth rate, the government recently announced a five-year plan focusing on improved maternity leave for working mothers. Under the plan, female workers with children aged under six will be able to take leave additional to the standard 3-month period for up to one year and receive 40 percent of their monthly salary or between 500,000 won and 1 million won ($442- $884). Currently, the subsidies are set at 500,000 won regardless of income.

But whether the proposals will make a significant impact on births remains to be seen. Over past five years the government has already nearly tripled its child care budget seemingly to little avail.

For now, both Lee and Park say that if they walk down the aisle, it will be to a foreigner. Park has dated many western men and argues they are less controlling than some of their Korean counterparts.

“Western men learn from their parents to treat women well,” she said.

Although Lee currently has a Korean boyfriend whom she is very happy with, when it comes to her career and marriage, she is determined to work and marry in the U.S.

“The first time when I said my thinking, my father was angry but my mother was, ‘Ok, whatever you want to do,’” she said.

But Lee isn’t all negative when it comes to Korean men. She believes things are changing for the better.

“With my father, I didn’t see him give flowers or presents for my mom’s birthday or wedding anniversary. But my boyfriend … would give something to me to make me happy.”

For 24-year-old Nam Da-hyun the problem isn’t that there are no nice men but that they have to be found while a woman is still very young.

“We just have to find the right guy when we are young, because if we wait to find the one in our late twenties, it’s too late, the right guys are all gone, married to younger women. That is why many say ‘once you miss the right age for marriage, you never know whether you will even get to marry or not.’”

This is the first in a two-part series on the declining marriage rate in Korea. The second part appears tomorrow. ­ Ed.

Moon Yebin also contributed to this report.