With a declining birth rate and a push for multiculturalism, Korea is undergoing many changes to bring in and accommodate an ever growing foreign population. Several policies were made or updated to make it easier for foreigners to pursue careers, education, and residence in Korea. These fixes were designed with the hopes that immigrants would experience less barriers standing between them and Korea, but one barrier still remains: The Korean people themselves.
In the 2010 World Values Survey, Koreans demonstrated a high amount of racial discrimination compared to other developed nations with 34% of the population saying they felt negatively towards foreign neighbors. Why is there still such a significant portion of the populace who have qualms about letting foreigners into Korea? One reason could be that some Koreans feel their identity as Koreans is being compromised. The new influx of immigrants and the promotion of a multicultural Korea seem to encroach upon the homogeneity and Confucianism that make up the foundation of the Korean identity.
Korea is one of the most homogeneous countries in the world with 96% of its population being ethnically Korean. It’s not without precedent however. The nation underwent centuries of being oppressed and invaded by other countries including its two closest neighbors, Japan and China, and this seemingly never-ending barrage of turmoil created a strong belief in the Koreans: trust only themselves. Though those dark years have gone by, the belief still lingers. Korea never had experience with other cultures coming and staying inside their borders in a friendly manner, so for the country to accept nearly 2 million foreign residents seems like a challenge at best and a threat at worst. The one-race status quo is disappearing, and many are unsure of what would happen when that status quo disappears.
The other affected aspect is Confucian values. Though no one really declares themselves a true follower of Confucian values, no Korean can escape them. Life and success in Korea, for the longest time, are dictated by how well you can follow the values of rigorous education, social hierarchy, and family care. The Suneung, the Chaebol, and family traditions are all examples of how Korea still adheres to Confucian beliefs. But with the advent of the foreign population in Korea, the system was challenged. The flaws in the system became much more visible, and today more Koreans are becoming more aware and critical of the Confucian ways. In addition, with the new policies and immigration, social changes will most likely be made to accommodate the new populace who have never lived with these Confucian beliefs. Some Koreans will argue that “when in Rome do as the Romans do” while others may accept them. Nevertheless, changes are bound to come.
The Korean identity has definitely been encroached in this new age of multiculturalism. The incredible homogeneity that defined the Korean identity is crumbling and the Confucian hierarchies and beliefs that defined a nation for centuries are being challenged and picked apart. There’s no stopping it; foreigners see Korea as a country of opportunity and exploration. It may seem tragic to some that Korea is losing a part of its uniqueness to the world, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s hard to say how Korea will change in the upcoming years; perhaps Korea can become a multicultural nation or perhaps it will stay a homogeneous fortress. But the influence of the outside world has spread and the Koreans have reacted, and all we can do is wait.