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A Changing South Korea Tackles Discrimination

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Download A single cultural identity is a source of pride for many South Koreans. 

But their nation is going through big changes. 

For over a decade, hundreds of thousands of Koreans – mostly men – have married partners from Southeast Asia, China and other Asian countries. 

The number of children born to these couples is on the rise.

But many of these children face discrimination at school – with almost a third skipping their education, and missing out on the chance of a good future.

Will they find their place in Korean society – and will South Korea accept them?

From Seoul, reporter Jason Strother has more.



Enkhjagal Khishigbaatar  just got home from work and her two young sons are ready to play.

She’s from Mongolia, but her boys, aged 3 and 5, were born here. They all live with her Korean in-laws.

Her kids have Korean names and don’t really speak Mongolian, but she says she hopes they won’t forget their roots.

“I always remind my sons that they are also Mongolian, that I am from there, and they should be proud to be Mongolian.”

Families like hers, with mixed cultural heritage, are becoming more common in South Korea – they’re described as ‘multicultural families’ here.

Korea has one of the world’s lowest birthrates, which is a big challenge for its future development.

Dr. Hong Inpyo heads the Seoul Multicultural Family Clinic

According to him, the number of children with at least one parent born overseas, is increasing at a faster rate than children with two Korean-born parents.

“Multicultural families are really helping-out the birthrate. By 2050 they will make up 10-percent of the population.  These children will be the next generation of the nation.”

This means enormous changes in Korean society – and the government has to respond.

The Multicultural Family Clinic is one sign of this. It provides medical care and interpreters, so that families can get treatment no matter what language they speak.

That’s not all. As part of its new policies, the government is also changing school textbooks, describing Korean society as ‘multi-ethnic and multi-cultural’.

And earlier this month authorities opened the first publicly-funded school for multicultural children in Seoul. 

Right now children at the school are learning Korean as a second language, and take turns introducing themselves. 

Some wear blue vests that have the name of their school, Dasom, an old Korean word for love, embroidered on the back.

18-year old Liang Man Ni is a senior student here. 

She moved to Seoul in 2009 from China, with her Korean mother and Chinese father.

“I like the school a lot and I’m happy that I’ve made friends with students from Japan, Hong Kong and Vietnam. “

So far, Dasom has 48 students like Liang, who were raised abroad.  

But soon, school administrators say they expect to enroll children who’ve grown up entirely in Korea. 

This is an urgent need - because many kids from multicultural families aren’t attending school at all. 

A recent survey found that up to 31 percent of Korean children with a foreign-born  parent stay home - which means they don’t learn to speak Korean proficiently.

And that has the South Korean government worried, says Chung Chin-sung, a sociologist, who was a part of a presidential panel that recommended the creation of Dasom school. 

Chung says she doesn’t want to see these kids fall through the cracks, even if it means educating them separately.

“In principle, those children from different backgrounds should be integrated with other normal students, but there are children who cannot well adjust to normal school. Without any help they cannot be prepared to get into normal society. I think this school can be a last chance for those children.”

Chung says discrimination makes life difficult for multicultural children in Korean schools and society.

Many young Koreans bully classmates from different backgrounds, says Kim Heekyung, from the Non-Government Organisation Save The Children.

She says they’re teased about the way they look or speak. 

And Kim says Korean kids pick on children with a Southeast Asian parent the most, because of racist stereotypes they learn from their parents.  

She lists a few.

“Children from Southeast Asia are less smart than them. Or they are just poor, that’s the biggest reason. Because Southeast Asian countries are less economically developed than Korea. So that's why they assume they are inferior to them.”

Kim says even the word “multicultural” now carries a negative connotation. 

Segregating these kids into their own school might help improve their education, but it isn’t going to reduce prejudice.

She says Korean students need to learn that discrimination is not okay.

Last year Save The Children launched an anti-discrimination pilot program in a few Seoul elementary schools. 

Students acted out role-plays where they pretended to be kids from multicultural families. 

9-year old Cha Eun-seo tells what she learned.

“I shouldn’t tease kids with parents from other countries.”

Cha and some of her classmates say they’ve already made friends with a boy from a multicultural family. 

And they’re helping him out by teaching him Korean. 

Enkhjagal Khishigbaatar, the Mongolian-born woman with two young sons, says her friends have warned her about the prejudice that some multicultural children face as they get older. 

But she says her boys so far haven’t experienced any problems and she’s not worried about discrimination here.  

“I’m more concerned that since my sons are growing up here and going to school with Koreans, they will have a culture shock if they visit Mongolia and be treated as foreigners there.” 

She says she hopes her sons will grow up to feel just as Mongolian as they do Korean.
Last Updated ( Monday, 19 March 2012 10:58 )  

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