Seoul likes to project itself as a place where foreigners are welcome, but the reality can be different. Photo: AFP / Ed Jones

Welcome, First Time in Korea? is a popular South Korean reality TV show featuring foreigners living in Seoul who invite friends from their homelands to visit the country. Viewers can see how foreigners enjoy their visit, learning traditional cultures and the history of the country.

On the TV show, some foreign visitors are impressed with the kindness of locals. Some may think that Koreans are kind to all foreigners. But a recent report from the National Human Rights Commission suggests that in fact many Koreans are racially abusive to foreigners, rather than treating them kindly.

The commission issued the report last week after investigating racism issues in South Korean society based on interviews of migrants living in the country. A total of 68.4% of respondents said racism is pervasive in Korea. Many reported having been verbally or physically abused.

Some reported that some Koreans looked at them contemptuously, simply because they are foreigners. Many believed they have been discriminated against because of their inability to speak Korean well.

This research confirms that racism is prevalent in Korea.

With the outbreak of Covid-19, Sinophobia spread across Korea. Online trolls claimed that South Korea should boycott China to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Half a million people signed a petition urging the government to impose an entry ban on Chinese, assuming that all Chinese can spread the virus.

But anti-Chinese attitudes in Korea existed long before the outbreak of Covid-19, with many calling Chinese people “Jjanggae,” a pejorative term.

In 2017, a Korean film called Midnight Runners sparked controversy for spreading anti-Chinese sentiment. The film tells the story of two police trainees who fight against a Chinese criminal gang that kidnaps teenage girls for organ trafficking. The movie denigrates Chinese people as heinous criminals. Incensed, dozens of ethnic Chinese in Daerim district, Seoul, held a demonstration calling for the film’s director to offer an apology.

Chinese people, however, are not alone in facing hostility in South Korea. Koreans’ response to an influx of Yemeni refugees in 2018 was a case in point. When hundreds of Yemenis entered Jeju island to seek asylum, Koreans urged the government to expel them all. They demonized Yemenis for absurd reasons: that they allegedly took advantage of visa-free entry to Jeju in order to make more money than they could in their war-torn homeland; most of them were adult men who entered Korea by air, not riding in a leaky boat, thus they must be fake refugees.

Hundreds of people organized demonstrations demanding that these displaced people be forced to leave. Some feminists accused Yemenis of carrying out sex crimes in Korea. They also spread a rumor that a woman in Jeju was the victim of a crime committed by a Yemeni refugee.

Meanwhile Islamophobes claimed that as Yemenis are Muslims, some of whom have been responsible for terrorist attacks across the world, radicalized Muslims would also attack Korea. They also said that Yemenis would kidnap young girls, as some Muslims practice early marriage.

A survey conducted by Hankook Research, a public opinion agency in Seoul, found that only 26% of Koreans were aware of the war in Yemen. The survey also suggested that young people are more hostile to Yemenis, assuming that all refugees are illegal migrant workers. After some Koreans distributed groundless rumors to justify anti-Yemeni sentiment, more than 700,000 people signed a petition on the Blue House website calling for their expulsion.

Korean media often report violence against migrant workers, mainly from developing countries. In many cases, the perpetrators are the victims’ employers or managers, an indication that often migrant workers are put at the mercy of exploitative Korean employers.

Yet despite such evidence that racism is common among Koreans, they do not hesitate to express anger when they themselves are racially bullied. During the 2018 soccer World Cup tournament in Russia, South Koreans denounced Diego Maradona for making an offensive slant-eyed gesture at Korean fans. Amid the spike in Covid-19 in European countries, some Koreans complain that some angry Europeans are racially bullying them.

Anyone who faces racism must be frustrated. But, ironically, Koreans criticize racism, while they are hostile to foreigners. Koreans should do some soul-searching before slamming racists.

Da-Sol Goh is a translator in Seoul. She is a graduate of Myongji University in Seoul, where she studied law and English literature. As a translator, she mainly handles foreign articles from anglophone countries dealing with politics and international issues.