1.8 million: the number of residents of foreign descent in South Korea today. South Korea has stayed as a culturally homogenous country for over half a century. As closed a nation as it has been throughout most of its history, Korea is today practicing an open-door policy of letting migrant workers stay here and find permanent jobs. The dilemma is that, coupled with its citizens’ fear of cultural assimilation, Korea faces a different demon of its own. Korea struggles with far-reaching political and economic problems that stem from a diminishing labor force. On more practical terms, the country is falling behind on national birthrate. As industrious and untiring as Koreans are, the country still needs a few more working hands, in order to keep its economy on par with that of the US, western Europe and Japan. So how does the government fight the looming population downward spiral? The solution seems simple. Bring in workers from other lands to live and work amidst Koreans and to inevitably integrate.
The current Korean government plans to see through with this strategy and the policies are starting to strike some chords mostly with the younger generations. However, some argue that this strategy comes with a cost – the Korean society at large might face the risk of diluting its national identity as different cultures accumulate in the nation. Perhaps some fear that Korea will devolve into a nation rife with contradicting ideologies and social backlashes, a la Germany and France today. (incomplete sentence) Many nations suffer backlash amidst efforts to assimilate a foreign population in their societies. If the cultural backlash that has erupted recently in European countries such as Germany and Sweden which harbored migrants from Syria and such is telling of anything, it’s that when you place multiple radically different cultures in a singular social sphere, there’s high chance that they will brush against one another at their rough ends. But that is not a fair analogy. Refugees of war driven en mass into a new continent and a new way of life are bound to challenge the status quo of the land. Korea, on the other hand, keeps one of the lowest population influxes in the world.
Abject fear and hatred of foreigners and their way of life bubbles into a pretense of thinking that Korean culture is righteous in all aspects. Needless to say, that is not true for any culture in any part of the world. By preventing neighboring cultures from integrating into its society, Korea derails itself of a chance to test the benevolent as well as negative sides of its culture – the chance to learn and mingle with virtuous facets of global cultures while filtering out the negatives.
In Korea, it has always been the case that the majority of foreign residents in the land come from and around Southeast Asia. In fact, more than a half a million foreign residents are ethnically Chinese or Vietnamese, nations that ascended from Confucian principles. Therefore, it is “anomalous”, to say the least, that this pretext of crumbling ethics and values still gets pushed around. One cannot but question the rhetoric of “threatened values” when other people with those same values will always be considered to be outsiders.
The angst of embracing not just a culture but also a people that is dissimilar to its own just magnifies how fragile and easily shaken the Korean identity is once that foundational pillar of ethnocentrism has been threatened. What becomes of the Korean identity when that rationale is challenged?
Opening doors to foreigners does not ultimately doom the public’s sense of identity. On the contrary, it brings new value to whatever the Korean people hold as their Korean identity. It is imperative that one steps outside his cooped up space and understand how other cultures work, to gauge his way of life against that of others – to learn new things about one’s own culture - to keep the good and do away with the bad. A culture that is closed, more often than not, fails to thread along globally accepted socio-political standards. Rather, it degenerates into a stagnant, albeit temporarily stable, cesspool of values devoid of progress. National identity evolves through time. No nation in this day and age strictly adheres to the ideals of national identity inherited from its bygone days.