The recent rape and murder of a Korean woman by a Korean-Chinese (referred to as joseonjok in Korean) man in Suwon has elicited a variety of strong reactions. There was utter outrage at the laxity of law enforcement; the police had actually received a phone call from the victim right before she was killed, only to arrive hours later at the scene. The irresponsibility of the police was not limited to their failure to save the victim but also their attempts to keep the unflattering details under wraps. The Chief of Police was quick to offer his resignation, and the problem largely seems to have blown over.
More controversially, this incident seems to have sparked an ongoing wave of xenophobic sentiment in wider society. The connection was made with another murder in Seoul – arising from a scuffle between a Korean-Chinese worker and his Korean employer - which rapidly expanded into general vitriol against the Korean-Chinese community. This has in turn led to antagonism against foreign workers in general.
Any seasoned observer will note that chauvinism against outsiders in Korean society is nothing new. Korea’s history has been rife with invasions and incursions by neighbors from all directions, acting to produce a culture extremely averse to foreign influence. This still holds true in modern times. The New York Times even released an article three years ago discussing the case of an Indian expatriate in Seoul who was verbally insulted by passersby for being in the company of his Korean girlfriend. A cursory glance through internet forums reveals widespread disregard for, and even hatred towards foreign cultures.
However, the current surge in aggressive attitudes is very different from the passive and relatively inconsequential criticism of foreigners. While past xenophobia has not led to any concerted or organized efforts within society to contain foreigners within, this reporter has recently come across relatively well-articulated polemics against Korea’s perceived “leniency,” particularly towards illegal migrant workers. These often include the mention of rising crime rates among foreigners in Korea, accounts of particular crimes by foreign workers and arguments that South Korean wealth must be reserved for “those who duly earned it,” i.e. Koreans. Most often, the authors call for the government to enact more restrictions on the entry of foreign workers and to deny them “privileges."
On closer inspection, however, the arguments put forth seem positively ludicrous. The rising crime rates, for example, can be attributed to a simple increase in the numbers of migrant workers. Regarding the “privileges” that foreign workers are so generously offered, Amnesty International claims migrant workers in Korea “are required to work long hours, night shifts, many without overtime pay, and often have their wages withheld, are paid less than South Korean workers in similar jobs and are at greater risk of industrial accidents, with inadequate medical treatment or compensation.” The illegality of many of these workers prevents the government from intervening properly to prevent such maltreatment, even if it made any efforts to do so.
Nevertheless, for the time being perceptions of the joseonjok in Korea seem to be at an all-time low. Yet one must remember that violent incidents do not warrant violence against entire communities; on the contrary, they highlight how delicately relations between groups must be handled in a multicultural country. The cowardice of xenophobes lies with the fact that they are singling out the least protected elements of society on which to unleash their insecurity. Considering popular indignation at the maltreatment of Korean immigrants abroad, this sentiment seems highly ironic.