Saturday, April 7, 2012

Reflections on the revolution in South Korea

Cartoon lampooning the traffic in mail-order brides (source). About 40% of married men in rural South Korea have wives of foreign origin.

Until recently, South Korea had no ethnic minorities. Nor did it have a history of being a colonial power. While slavery did exist, the slaves were not from elsewhere.

Today, however, the country is in the throes of demographic change. In the late 1980s, it began to open its borders to immigrants, initially diaspora Koreans from Manchuria, Uzbekistan, and other sources. Since the mid-1990s, the zone of recruitment has been extended to the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and even countries as far afield as Nigeria (Kim, 2004).

How much has immigration changed South Korea? In 2010, foreigners officially made up 2.6% of the population, and this proportion is set to reach 9.2% by 2050 (Park, 2011; Yoon et al., 2008). Like all statistics, these figures should be viewed with caution. For instance, a third of all foreigners may be diaspora Koreans, whose cultural impact is much less than that of other immigrants.

On the other hand, the official statistics greatly understate the impact of immigration in at least three ways. First, the term ‘foreigner’ doesn’t mean ‘foreign-born.’ It refers only to those residents who haven’t received South Korean citizenship yet. When a foreigner becomes a citizen, he or she disappears from the statistics and is deemed to be sociologically the same as any other Korean. No statistics are kept on ethnic origin.

Second, the official statistics exclude Korean-born children of foreigners. This group is far from negligible, especially in the case of mail-order brides from southeast Asia and elsewhere:

In 2010, 10 percent of married couples were interracial, an increase from four percent in 2000, according to Statistics Korea. The prevalence of interracial couples is dramatically higher in rural areas. About 40 percent of married couples in Korean rural areas are interracial couples; it is projected that biracial children will represent about 50 percent of rural children in 2020 (Park, 2011).

These children are most often born to mothers from countries with higher fertility, and such countries also differ more from Korea in terms of culture, religion, and ethnic makeup.

Third, the official statistics exclude illegal immigrants, who are estimated to make up half the total immigration intake (Moon, 2010).

So how much is immigration changing South Korea? There is no exact answer, but an exact one may be unnecessary. When American-style open borders combine with East Asian fertility (1.2 children per woman in 2010), the future is a foregone conclusion.

How will this future play out? Will South Korea avoid the problems of ethnic conflict and discrimination that other countries have experienced? There are already growing concerns. Lim (2010) deplores the high dropout rate among biracial children and suggests they “face a future as the country’s permanent, racialized underclass” (Lim, 2011).

Poor academic performance does seem to be a problem among Korean children with at least one foreign-born parent. The cause is widely said to be social exclusion.

Because their mothers have difficulty in speaking and writing Korean, these children may be making slow progress in language development in comparison to the Korean children. They then are also likely to be seen as having learning difficulties and as being less adapted to school life with friends due to such delayed development in language and cultural understanding in the home (Sul, G.-S. Han, and J.-R. Lee 2003; Oh 2005; Cho 2006). As a consequence, the children confront difficulties at school, often being viewed as learning-disabled. (Kang, 2010)

The kind of “learning-deficiency” treatment leads them to drop out of school and discourages their enrolment at higher levels of schooling. The drop-out rate among mixed-blood youths is estimated at 9.4% in elementary schools and 17.5% at the secondary level, compared with less than 3% among ordinary Korean youths (Docuinfor 2004). These youngsters may be alienated from mainstream society, feeling prejudice and discrimination, and frustration about the lack of positive future prospects. (Kang, 2010)

In short, it is argued that these children fare worse in school because they improperly learn the Korean language at home. This in turn leads to poor social skills and rejection by peers.

If the above explanation is correct, these children should do worse in subjects that demand much social interaction and language use. Conversely, they should do better in subjects that require abstract skills, like mathematics, or memorization of names and dates, like social studies. This is, in fact, the pattern we see among children of East Asian immigrants in North America.

But this is not really the pattern we see among children born in South Korea to non-Korean mothers:

Their favourite subjects are music/painting/physical education (42.6%), while they dislike math (38.1%), social studies (19.2%) and Korean (12.7%) (Kang, 2010).

The learning deficit seems to be strongest in those subjects that require the most abstraction and memorization. These learning skills, however, are the pillars of Korean education.

It will thus not be enough to mandate social inclusion. The educational system itself will have to change:

Traditional forms of education which reflect little more than “cramming” knowledge or fact are inadequate and counterproductive for children with different cultural needs (Kang, 2010).

Should “cramming” be abandoned in the new Korea? It depends on the kind of new Korea one wants. Keep in mind that the country has few natural resources. Its most important resource is its people, specifically a workforce that can “cram” knowledge. To the extent that it loses this resource, it will become poorer—and probably less interesting for immigrants.


Kang, S.W. (2010). Multicultural education and the rights to education of migrant children in South Korea, Educational Review, 62(3), 287-300

Kim, W-B. (2004). Migration of foreign workers into South Korea: from periphery to semi-periphery in the global labor market, Asian Survey, 44, 316-335.

Lim, F.J. (2011). Korea’s multicultural future? New Leaders Forum

Moon, S. (2010). Multicultural and Global Citizenship in the Transnational Age: The Case of South Korea, International Journal of Multicultural Education, 12, 1-15.

Park, S. (2011). Korean Multiculturalism and the Marriage Squeeze, Contexts, 10, 64-65.

Yoon, I-J.,Y-H. Song, & Y-J. Bae. (2008). South Koreans' Attitudes toward Foreigners, Minorities and Multiculturalism, Paper prepared for presentation at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, Boston, MA from August 1-4, 2008.


Kiwiguy said...

***Their favourite subjects are music/painting/physical education (42.6%), while they dislike math (38.1%), social studies (19.2%) and Korean (12.7%) (Kang, 2010).***

I wouldn't be surprised if it was the same with polynesian migrants to NZ.

Kiwiguy said...

***The educational system itself will have to change:***

Just further to my earlier comment, from today's Sunday News:

"Schools blind to bright Maori

Gifted Maori children are being overlooked in the classroom because teachers are failing to recognise their unique genius, says a researcher.

Massey University education associate professor Jill Bevan-Brown said schools tend to focus on academic subjects but giftedness in Maori students is broader.

"Not all teachers are aware of Maori concepts of giftedness – and because they are not aware of those concepts they won't see them."

A Maori child may also feel uncomfortable or undervalued in the class so they purposely hide their abilities, she said.

Ministry of Education figures show Maori students lag behind the rest of the population when it comes to school success.

Dr Bevan-Brown said it is time for schools to take a Maori perspective.

Often a quiet, well-liked Maori pupil will bring out the best in other children in the class or playground, she said.

Although a confident leader, the child doesn't seek recognition and may be overlooked if they fail to shine in maths and English.

"Generally we focus on the academic areas. There is a hierarchy of subjects and other areas of giftedness suffer," Bevan-Brown said.

"Social giftedness is just as important. Being outstanding in manaakitanga [hospitality] for example, is just as important as being gifted in maths."

Around 15% of the population are estimated to be gifted but 15% of the Maori population are not in special programmes, she said...

Stephen said...

Wow what a bunch of broad imprecise and unverifiable claims Dr Bevan Brown makes. So he wants Teachers to find gifted Moari who are doing an amazing job of hiding there abilities, sounds like "affirmative action".

Anonymous said...

Being outstanding in hospitality is just as important as being outstanding in math? WTF?

Anonymous said...

When they say 'biracial', do they mean half-Korean no matter where the other parent is from, or do they mean half non-East Asian? It is really hard for me to think about a half-Vietnamese half-Korean person as 'biracial'.

UncleTomRuckusInGoodWhiteWorld said...

Anon: race in Asia typically is synonymous with "ethnicity" so a Korean will say a Japanese person is a different race. So when they say "biracial" they are talking about Korean farmers marrying Southeast Asian mail order brides, probably from the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam (and also Mainland China).

In general:

"In short, it is argued that these children fare worse in school because they improperly learn the Korean language at home. This in turn leads to poor social skills and rejection by peers.

If the above explanation is correct, these children should do worse in subjects that demand much social interaction and language use. Conversely, they should do better in subjects that require abstract skills, like mathematics, or memorization of names and dates, like social studies. This is, in fact, the pattern we see among children of East Asian immigrants in North America." you think kids in America who are, say, half Asian and half white American have problems speaking English because they might grow up bilingual or with one parent who does not speak the language natively? I have not seen or heard this, and I grew up with a lot of such children, coming from a military family.

I wonder is it because the fathers never really spend time with their children because they are working or hanging out with their friends/coworkers after work (which is also common in Japan) so the children don't actually hear their father's native Korean very much in a given weak?

Still, it seems to me that children don't speak like their parents, if they did every child from an immigrant family would have an accent. Kids speak like their friends in the neighborhood.

Anonymous said...

I keep hoping that large scale western expatriation to an East Asian country will Eurasianize it, but I just don't think the numbers will be high enough -- most immigrants to rich Asian countries will be from poor Asian countries.

I think the previous commenter is correct that children learn language from their peers, not from their parents, but I haven't seen any research regarding how that applies to written language. Anecdotally, neither of my parents taught me how to write.

Baloo said...

Very nice post. I was aware Japan had a underpopulation problem, but Korea surprises me. I've linked to this and commented on it here:
Overpopulation and Underpopulation

S. Brady said...

Mr Frost has the correct perspective on this situation. Outbreeding with other racial groups will diminish the prevalence of key mental characteristics that have made South Korea an industrial powerhouse. For instance a German Shepherd is susceptible to a number of diseases due its being inbred. If bred with another breed, it may be healthier (e.g due to have a more diverse antibody repertoire) but it will no longer be as effective at it's intended function. Alon Ziv wrote a book about the benefits of interracial breeding 'Breeding between the lines' and he ignored this important point. A population of interbred Koreans will not have the same degree of executive function or intellectual ability that made South Korea an industrial powerhouse in the first place.

We in the West should be worried, as we have, or are gradually losing the industrial capacity to build new technologies. We are/ will be depending on countries like Japan and South Korea to create technologically sophisticated products. If such countries lose the human capital that enable them do this in the first place, what other countries can we rely on?

Ben10 said...

Brady, don't worry as the salaries in the US will soon become competitive with those in China.
Are we going toward a society of castes in America?
A french economic analyst said the numbers for unemployement are manipulated in the US because they don't use the general population. If they were, the unemployement rate should reach 18%.
I tend to believe it since like many, i am jobless, but not counted in the statistics since I havn't received any money for a long time.
My most recent jobs was a substitute with no benefits, no retirement, nothing. The sreets and shops center are crowded with healthy white males, in their 40's during the time when you expect to see none, walking and jogging after too much time spent on blogging. You can see it as well in elementary school with the huge number of dads coming to pick up their kids after school at 3PM.
So I believe the 18% figure.
Internet and the population 'diversity' in the US are probably the safest guard to maintain the status quo without going to flames like in Greece or Spain.

Peter Frost said...


Jill Bevan-Brown is right, up to a point. Different social contexts require different sets of mental skills. The problem, though, is that an advanced industrial society requires a particular set of skills, such as mathematics.

Anon and UncleTom,

In South Korea, the top three source countries for mail-order brides are China, Vietnam, and the Philippines, in that order.

This order seems to be reversed, however, when we look at the children born to mail-order brides.

I too am suspicious of the claim that these children are language-deficient. Here in Quebec City I know children who are fluent in French even though their parents speak that language with much difficulty. Normally, children pick up languages easily.


Good post! All of East Asia has very low fertility. The situation is similar to that of southern Europe. The closest countries with above-replacement fertility are the Philippines and Cambodia.

S. Brady,

At some point, there will be a conscious effort to push fertility rates back up to the replacement level. We're seeing this already in Israel and, more recently, in Russia, Ukraine, and Georgia.

Both North and South Korea have also recently adopted pro-natalist policies, as has Japan.

But I'm pessimistic with regard to South Korea. There is simply too much pressure from the business community to "go global." The business elite gets its way not only by buying politicians but also by buying ideological dominance via the media and academia.


Why don't you teach French in a private school or as a tutor? Translation also pays well.

Ben10 said...

My feelings have gone sour with the academic system and I try to set my own business now. But for a while I believed in it. I was into the classical research/postdoc pattern and when it ended, I had to face real life, that is, unfairness of it. Logically, i tried to go into the US education system. But at the time, you should have seen the disaster that resulted form the baylout crisis. When you had one teaching position available in one school, the lines at the jobfairs were unbelievable. Laid off engineers, technicians, teachers (what's the likelyhood that a laidoff teacher is going to be re-hired when brand new ones are also pouring in the lines?), and lots of 'retirees' with a miserable retirement pensions, or no pension at all after they had to pay their debts...I do not exagerate when I say the demand vs offer was in a 40:1 ratio. Obviously and logically, the few jobs went to the young new teachers.
It's funny but at the end, i knew perfectly well i would not be hired in these jobfairs, but i still went because my wife would not undestand if i didn't go. I made sour jokes in the lines...
Still, I was with the luckyest since I got a proposal for a substitute job at $75 a day. That gave me a chance to explore and appreciate the american public school system. Like the french system, it produces the most illiterate student with the best grades in the world.
OK, I follow a couple of french blogs and things are getting worse. Young men, but not so young anymore, in their late 20's or early 30's, graduates, who never got a job in the academic or the industry, also never got involved in a relationship. That's the result, I believe, not just of their own behavior, as everything is made to make them believe that to culpabilise them, but more a result of the demographics that are so well explained in your own blog.
In France, they receive the wealfare 'RSA', that's enough for food, beer, Internet and TV. Some of these unfortunate people blog that they have more and more trouble to motivate themselve to do anything. Why would you even brush your teeth if you know that nobody cares or even knows of your bad breath?
These situations, extremely toxic for men, are better tolerated for women, but where can you say that beside in a private blog?. Because on top of all of that, you have the now famous french CENSURE, probably the best in the world to repress anybody who'd dare to question on any social relevant issue. Well, in fairness, the US mainstream media PC/censure is not far behind. Some people tackle badly the system however. Nigel Farage in the UK and In France, you have Alain Soral. Soral is extremely corrosive in his analysis. He exposes raw these social problems. There are no equivalent of these guys in the US except maybe Ron Paul.

Anonymous said...

Ultimately South Korea suffers from the same problem as Western Europe. Namely being under the American imperial fold. It discourages independence and genuine nationalism, and instead cultivates local elites that defect to global interests - economically, politically, ideologically, culturally, etc.

Anonymous said...

Just out of curiosity, Peter. Do you think this trend in S. Korea as well as Europe of increasing miscegenation will ineluctably happen to the rest world as well?