Robert Koehler’s Korea

This article originally appeared in Groove Magazine. — John

When Robert Koehler reads the news from his home country these days, he is often left aghast. The longtime expat, magazine editor and author of one of Korea’s most popular English-language blogs sees the U.S. as in the process of “going in the toilet.”

“Our economy is in trouble, our politics — on both left and right — are a national disgrace, our pop culture more or less speaks for itself and our national discourse is, well, it just doesn’t seem serious,” the self-proclaimed “poli-sci guy” says.

In fact, he has returned to the U.S. mainland just once in nearly two decades. Koehler acknowledges that he is probably one of those rare expatriate breeds: a “lifer.”

“I have been here 17 years. This is my new normal now,” says the candid Long Island native. “Now I look at the United States, I look at an American newspaper and I’m like, ‘That’s really fucked up! I mean, how does anyone live there?’”

It wasn’t always so. In 1997, Koehler had little interest in Asia, let alone Korea. A yearlong stint with the Peace Corps in Tanzania had gotten him hooked on Africa. The corps, however, had other ideas. Rejecting his request to stay in Africa, the program instead offered him a chance to volunteer in Southeast Asia. Reasoning that being paid as a teacher somewhere that didn’t excite him was better than working for free, Koehler signed up to spend a year Korea before he’d presumably return to Africa. Nearly two decades later, the executive editor of SEOUL Magazine and man behind the Marmot’s Hole is still here, speaks Korean fluently, wears hanbok every day and has become one of the most influential voices in expat media. And he can’t imagine being anywhere else.

“I do feel like a lot of trends that are going to be shaping the future will be happening in this part of the world, whether it is not necessarily Korea, but it is Korea, Japan, China, somewhere,” he says, speaking in quick yet deliberate bursts. “In a way, this is where the future is, and it is an exciting place to be.”

Since 2003, Koehler’s outlet, the Marmot’s Hole (www.rjkoehler.com), has been an oasis of Korea-related news, polemics and gossip for foreigners whose information sources involve a toss up between the limited English-language media and impenetrable local press. His fluency in Korean allows him to translate stories from the local media that might otherwise pass by English speakers. The blog has also been the source of news tips for international journalists and a platform for other people with a public profile to respond to queries and controversies.

Photography is one of the major tools in his professional arsenal. It’s also a personal passion, a way for him to channel his fascination with his adopted home. Through his lens, Koehler often seeks out charm where obvious beauty is lacking, such as in a gritty, overlooked Seoul neighborhood or an aging bridge spanning the Han River.

“I love looking at the world. And Korea is a fascinating subject to photograph. The deeper you get into photography, the more you realize the world is a remarkably beautiful place. It’s easy to forget that sometimes, but picking up a camera helps me remember. It also helps me focus and it gives me a bit of discipline in life. And it’s not like I don’t need the discipline.”

Koehler is humble about the Marmot Hole’s influence. While his website may be a staple of many expats’ daily routine, this particularly irreverent expat finds the suggestion that they might rely on it for news “disconcerting” — especially when he usually prioritizes stories by whatever makes him “laugh most.”

In particular, he hopes his coverage of the Korean media’s stories about foreigner crime and other alleged deviancies doesn’t cause some foreigners to harbor skewed views about Korean society.

“But because I post a lot about that, some can come away with the assumption that the only time foreigners are talked about in the news is when they do something negative, which is not true,” he says. “There is plenty of positive news about foreigners out there. I just don’t find it amusing, so I don’t post it.”

The perception among some foreigners that Korea is far from welcoming is apparent in the site’s lively, often caustic, comments section — a highlight or hazard of the Marmot’s Hole experience, depending upon your preferences. Searing complaints from foreigners about their host country are rife, often matched by the defensive reactions of ethnic Koreans overseas. Ad hominem and withering scorn are routine.

Koehler, though, scoffs at “they gave me a fork” racism. In fact, he insists he has had no more than a handful of negative experiences as a foreigner in Korea. “We are dealing with a people who are proud of their identity, who are proud of their culture, who want to protect that and, yeah, sometimes they are not used to dealing with the ‘other.’ But there is also, ‘This is where you are, deal with it,’” he says. “I have been here 17 years and I can count the number of really, really unpleasant experiences on one hand. But for some people, it seems to happen all the time.”

He also argues that a lot of negativity about the country from foreign residents is inflated on the Internet. “How much of it is true, how much of it is true but they kind of deserved it, how much of it is literally, actually horror stories of woe befalling perfectly innocent individuals, I don’t know,” he says.  “I am just saying, I have had a good experience here. Most of the people I know who are socially well adjusted here made an effort to, if not fully assimilate, then certainly find a niche and kind of go with the flow.”

In over a decade at the coalface of expatriate chatter online, Koehler’s views about Korean society, and the place of foreigners in it, have evolved considerably. A look back at the Marmot’s Hole circa 2003 gives the impression of an entirely different author at the keyboard. Posts from the era — many of them attacking the newly inaugurated Roh Moo-hyun administration from a conservative slant — were angrier, cutting and more opinionated.

“When I started the blog, I thought I knew everything. Everybody’s like that, right? I was younger, you know. I knew enough about Korean politics to be dangerous, but not enough. So I thought I knew everything, and I would just be posting and posting and ranting and ranting,” he says.

But his interactions in those early years with a fellow blogger, Peter Schroepfer (a.k.a. Orankay), pushed him to change his mindset. Schroepfer, a Korean literature major who now works as a journalist for a Korean-language newspaper in the U.S., was fluent in Korean. “Not in an arrogant way, or saying, ‘you’ve got you believe this, you’ve got to believe this,’ but he’d help me out and point out that things may not necessarily be what I thought they were. Between that, and just doing it over a long time, and learning and learning and learning — and, you know how it is: The more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know shit. I am actually kind of embarrassed about some of the stuff I wrote earlier, these long right-wing screeds.”

Now, Koehler is a lot more sympathetic toward Korean attitudes that he might have previously lambasted. “I have become a lot more understanding, if you will, or sympathetic, to what some people would consider nationalist Korean ideology. Partly because I sympathize with those line(s) of thinking back at home. Some of the stuff I previously thought was kind of stupid or irrational, I am now … (of the opinion that) maybe it is not so irrational.”

Despite being an immigrant himself, Koehler is skeptical about Korea’s move toward multiculturalism, which has been embraced enthusiastically by officialdom if not necessarily the overall public. He points to recent ethnic tensions in Singapore and periodic race riots in France as examples of what can go wrong when experimenting with mass immigration.

“The multiculturalism (in Korea), for instance, is very regional. The big cities, ironically enough, are largely Korean. The countryside is where you see a lot of the mixed marriages. That concerns me because the gulf between the urban and the rural in Korea is already large enough; now you are adding a friggin’ ethnic component to it,” he says.

“The nature of the multiculturalism worries me. It is a lot of imported brides. I don’t want to say it is all mail order brides, I don’t want to perpetuate stereotypes, but at the same time, I don’t see that as a healthy phenomenon. I don’t see the phenomenon that made that necessary as healthy, and I don’t see the phenomenon as healthy.”

But Koehler believes that, if approached carefully, immigration could bring about great changes to Korea. “I am a foreigner living here. My wife is a foreigner living here. I just think countries need to be careful about how they do these things,” he says. “I think immigration can help countries. It has helped the United States, for the most part. It brings in talent and whatnot, it brings in fresh blood and it can be an invigorating and productive phenomenon.”

Koehler himself seems to come closer to being assimilated than most Westerners here. As well as speaking Korean, he wears the traditional hanbok daily, both because he likes the way it looks and feels, and because he wants to support local traditional industries. While writing about travel and culture for Seoul Selection, he often seeks out less-traveled parts of the country and more traditional ways of living.

Despite more than 17 years of continuously living in the country, Koehler, whose wife is from Mongolia, still doesn’t have permanent residency, instead having to renew his visa every two years. To rectify this, he is currently undertaking the government-run Korean Immigration and Integration Program, which significantly eases the process of getting a permanent residency visa. It’s an arduous process that’s taken years for him to finally get around to, but he appreciates the premium that Korea places on citizenship.

“Korea is not like Canada. Canada gives out citizenship like it is fucking candy because, for them, it doesn’t really mean anything,” he says. “But Korea is different: Not only does citizenship mean something, (but) the culture, the society means something. So if you want to be accepted, you’ve got to work for it. They are not going to just give it out like candy — you’ve got to work.”

But can a non-Korean ever truly integrate into such a historically homogenous country? Can a foreigner ever really be Korean?

“Is it possible? I don’t really know. I know people (who) if they haven’t done it completely, they’ve definitely come close,” he says.

Whatever the answer, one thing is certain: the peninsula is changing.

“Korean society is changing. They are becoming more open to that sort of thing. Now you actually have a lot of people in the Korean press debating, ‘What does that mean to be Korean?’”

 

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[The Korea Herald] Does the media portray foreigners fairly?

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.

Symbolic stigma

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.

Rising crime

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.

Assimilation

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.”

[The Korea Herald] Should foreign athletes get special naturalization?

By John Power

Never has it been more difficult to define what it means to be Korean. Unprecedented immigration to the country in recent years, and the demographic and cultural change brought with it, has challenged the assumption that Korean citizenship and ethnicity are synonymous. Inevitably, this blurring of identity has crossed into the realm of sport.

The Korean Olympic Committee last month rejected a bid by Brazilian footballer Eninho for special naturalization that would have allowed the K-League star to play for the national side. Despite the Korea Football Association and national side coach Choi Kang-Hee supporting his naturalization, the KOC ruled against the Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors midfielder on the grounds that the player failed to demonstrate a basic understanding of Korean language and culture. The Ministry for Justice, which has the final say on cases of naturalization, is expected to follow the KOC’s recommendation.

Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors’ Eninho recently had the KOC recommend against his application for special naturalization. (Yonhap News)

Since the introduction of dual nationality in certain cases in January 2011, the KOC has made recommendations for special naturalization on behalf of four athletes, three in basketball and one in speed skating, all of which were successful.

Despite its brief as a sporting organization, the KOC takes into account cultural familiarity when making recommendations on naturalization. When asked why by The Korea Herald, considering that the decision ultimately rests with the Justice Ministry, a spokesman for the KOC referred to the current law.

“According to the Nationality Act article 7, one must have good conduct, have Korean language abilities and an understanding of Korea customs as basic requirements even in the case of naturalization, as written in the Nationality Act article 5,” said the spokesman who did not wish to be named.

“The opinions of the Korea Football Association and national team coach are taken into account in regard to sporting ability, but as this is a question of double nationality, other factors have been considered also.”

A spokesman at the KFA said the football association fully respected the KOC’s decision, saying it “was the end of the story” as far as appealing the decision.

The spokesman, who did not wish to be named, went on to say that the benefits of naturalization made it a sensitive issue.

“If you acquire Korean citizenship it means you can play in Asian Football Confederation countries as a non-foreign player so a huge benefit can be given by acquiring Korean citizenship,” he said.

Public acceptance

Regardless of legal decisions made at the governmental level, there remains the question of how accepting the general public is of visible minorities representing the nation.

“It seems that Koreans do not mind having ― or even like to have ― foreign athletes in certain professional sports such as baseball, basketball, etc. as long as they play well. I think that the demands for good foreign players in professional/commercial sports will continue and foreign athletes can play an important role there,” said Park Jung-sun, a professor of Asian Pacific Studies at California State University with an interest in South Korean identity and citizenship.

Park believes, however, that the Korean notion of “one blood” may mean the general public is not yet ready to embrace athletes with an outwardly foreign appearance. The public might be more welcoming toward athletes of Korean ancestry seen as “returning home” and “representing the homeland,” however.

“The Korean public may show a sense of disapproval, reluctance or even bewilderment if those foreign athletes are included in a ‘national team’ that represents Korea in the Olympics or similar international events. Although Koreans’ exposure to and understanding of multiculturalism have increased over the years, Koreans’ notions of ‘us’ and the nation are still, by and large, grounded on their shared blood.”

This view was echoed by the spokesman for the KFA.

“Cultural familiarity is quite significant for many conservative Korean people to allow foreign-born, foreign blood (people to play), obviously having a different appearance from the general Korean public. Still, Korean society is not fully open … we are in the process of (dealing with) that.”

Time needed

Stressing that it was his personal opinion rather than that of his organization, he said that Korea was still not ready for foreign-born players donning the national colors.

“It needs time to have a foreign player as a national player wearing the red shirt as a Korean representative, it needs time. It is not the right time or place, I think.”

Ko Seong-kyeong, a professor at the Department of Physical Education at Daegu University, believes that a public consensus is vital in any approach to the issue, whatever the opinion of sporting and governmental institutions.

“We must consider several factors for granting some foreign athletes special citizenship. Although some foreign players satisfied the legal guideline for citizenship and were permitted citizenship, we need public agreement. Especially, we have many native players in football, baseball and basketball. Therefore, before honoring national team players, we must try to make a public agreement.”

Koh emphasized, however, that foreign athletes have already made a major contribution to professional sport here.

Valuable contribution

“The foreign athletes playing in Korean leagues are very important to developing Korean professional sports. They are influencing the performance of native athletes to develop sports skill, manage and maintain fitness, and communicate with mass media. The native players have known about all this, but have not applied it in their sports fields. Therefore, Korean players have emulated them and have improved their sports ability.”

Another consideration is the risk of special consideration for athletes causing resentment ― both among Koreans and other immigrants.

“In the case of male athletes, the mandatory military service is a crucial issue,” said Park. “Hence, if a young foreign male athlete of military service age were granted citizenship without the obligation, it would generate much resentment and controversy.

“(Also), individuals who wish to gain Korean citizenship have to meet certain criteria. The criteria have been an obstacle to many foreigners including those with Korean heritage such as Korean Chinese. Thus, unless the same yardsticks are used for both athletes and non-athletes, it may generate resentment.”

KOC’s spokesman acknowledged this concern.

“We are aware that special naturalization is a privilege as compared to normal naturalization in which one must discard their original nationality. When considering the purpose of such a system, we believe that special naturalization cases should be constrained to thorough evaluation.”

[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.