The Road to Multiculturalism in South Korea

Is South Korea becoming a multicultural society, a society in which cultural differences and racial diversity are not merely grudgingly tolerated, but, instead, embraced by both the society and the state? More formally, is there both official and societal recognition that ethnic and racial minority groups have both a right to become members of Korean society (as citizens or permanent residents), and a right to maintain their specific ethnocultural identities? The latter question underscores the core elements of multiculturalism, as some scholars have defined it, in the context of liberal democracy. By that definition, however, many observers have expressed deep skepticism about the fate of multiculturalism in South Korea. They argue that, despite a lot of talk about its importance, that (liberal) multiculturalism in South Korea is, at best, a façade. Moreover, while there has ostensibly been movement toward “multicultural policy,” skeptics argue that it is nothing more than a state-dominated effort to efficiently control and manage the reality of increasing ethnic and racial diversity.  

The skeptics have a point, but they are also shortsighted. They are shortsighted, in large part, because they fail to recognize that the transition to a multicultural society is almost always a very long, gradual, and intensely contested process. Even more, the skeptics fail to understand that, in South Korea, the most crucial obstacle on the road to multiculturalism has already been surmounted, namely, the once unquestioned belief that only those with pure “Korean blood” can belong to Korea.

Why has multiculturalism become an issue for South Korea in the first place? The answer boils down to two demographic trends: First, after decades of rapid industrialization, a dramatic rise in general living standards, and a steady shrinking of the working-age population (due to declining birthrates), South Korea has had to increasingly rely on foreign immigrant labor in certain segments of the economy. Second, and perhaps more importantly, South Korean society has also had to rely on women from outside the country to help rectify a persistent imbalance in the gender ratio between marriage-ready South Korean men and women. In 2011, for example, for every 100 Korean women between the ages of 26 and 30, there were 111 Korean men of similar marriageable age. Socioeconomic changes have exacerbated this imbalance, as many Korean women not only delay marriage, but also eschew marrying men from rural areas.

Taken together, these two trends have resulted in a gradual, but inexorable increase in racial and ethnic diversity within South Korean society. A quick look at some statistics bears this out. As late as 1995, the foreign resident population (which includes both temporary and permanent residents) in South Korea was only about 0.24 percent of the country’s total population—the lowest among all OECD countries. By 2016, however, the proportion of foreign residents had increased to 3.6 percent of South Korea’s total population, or about 1.9 million people. By all accounts, the figure will continue to grow: the South Korean government projects that the number of foreign residents will exceed three million in 2030, or about 6.1 percent of Korea’s population.

The heaviest concentration of new foreign residents is from China, who make up about 50 percent of the total (although the majority are ethnic Koreans, known as Joseonjok, rather than Han Chinese). There are also large numbers of immigrants from Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines, Uzbekistan, Cambodia, Indonesia, Mongolia, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and India. The vast majority of these new immigrants are unskilled foreign workers. The number of marriage migrants—primarily women who come from Vietnam, China, Japan, and the Philippines—is relatively small, but far from insignificant. According to the Korean Statistical Information Service (KOSIS), in 2005, a peak year, there were 42,356 “multicultural marriages” (i.e., a marriage involving a Korean and non-Korean citizen) in South Korea, which constituted about 13 percent of all marriages that year. Since then, the numbers have declined, but between 2000 and 2016, the total number of international marriages stood at 472,390. In addition to multicultural marriages are the children that come from these unions: in 2015, there were 19,729 “multicultural children” born (out of 438,420 total live births).

Faced with increasing racial and ethnic diversity, the South Korean government has pursued a two-pronged strategy. For foreign immigrant workers, the government institutionalized a guest worker program in 2005 (the Employment Permit System), which provides basic labor rights, but which was also expressly designed to prevent long-term or permanent settlement. For the most part, this program has achieved that goal, but many foreign immigrant workers overstay their visas and live in South Korea on a semi-permanent basis. A handful of these (male) workers, moreover, marry Korean women, allowing them to permanently settle in South Korea. In 2016, there were at least 2,200 marriages between foreign men from developing countries and Korean women. The second prong focuses on migrant brides. For these immigrants, government policy has been primarily based on assimilation, rather than on recognition of their ethnocultural identities. Thus, foreign women are not only expected to become conversant in the Korean language, but also in Korean customs and traditions; they are expected, simply put, to become “good Korean wives.”

It bears repeating, that large-scale immigration to South Korea is a fairly recent phenomenon, especially compared to most western societies. Importantly, the West is generally used as the standard, if only tacitly, by which to evaluate progress towards multiculturalism everywhere. It is according to this standard that multiculturalism in South Korea appears weak to non-existent. Yet, western societies have struggled mightily with the idea and practice of multiculturalism, despite, in many cases, a vastly longer experience with immigration and with racial and ethnic diversity. Keep in mind, on this point, that it was not until the mid-1960s that the United States and Canada finally did away with their overtly discriminatory, if not blatantly racist, immigration policies, and turned toward an embrace of multiculturalism. In addition, it is important to note that multiculturalism has, more recently, come under attack throughout the West, which tells us that progress toward multiculturalism is often contested.

With this tiny bit of historical and comparative perspective, it is easier to see why it is unreasonable to use the status of multiculturalism in the West today as a basis for declaring the failure of multiculturalism in South Korea, both now and in the future. So, while concrete political and social change remains limited in South Korea, there are signs that a multicultural society is emerging. One of the most prominent signs of this was the 2012 appointment of Jasmine Lee (née Bacurnay y Villanueva) to South Korea’s National Assembly.[1] Lee was born and raised in the Philippines, married a Korean national, and became a naturalized Korean citizen.

While a single case is hardly definitive, Lee’s appointment symbolized and reinforced a sea change in South Korea: the redefining of Korean identity from one based largely on blood (jus sanguinis), to one that is now open to those without even a single drop of Korean blood. Thus, while it was true that Lee quickly became the target of racist vitriol,[2] it is fair to say that only a few decades earlier, her appointment to the National Assembly would have been, almost literally, unimaginable. In this regard, South Korea has experienced a profound discursive or cultural shift with respect to the conception of national identity. And while it is easy to dismiss the significance of such a shift, consider this: if people (i.e., state leaders and members of the dominant ethnie) unswervingly and unthinkingly believe in the absolute sanctity of racial and ethnic purity, then there can be no prospect of including those without “shared blood” as full or partial members of the same society. Multiculturalism, in short, is only possible once an alternative understanding of national identity is accepted, even if that acceptance is incomplete and subject to dispute. From this perspective, one can argue that South Korea is on the road to multiculturalism, although the journey has only just begun.


[1] Lee did not win her seat in a direct election; instead, she was part of a proportional representative slate submitted by the Saenuri Party (or New World Party) for the 2012 national election. In the April election, the Saenuri Party won 42.8% of party votes, which gave the party 25 proportional representatives; since Lee was 15th on its candidate slate, she won a spot in the National Assembly.

[2] Also discussed in personal interview with Lee in August 2015.

Timothy Lim is a professor of Political Science at California State University, Los Angeles. His research covers topics in comparative political economy, labor migration, human trafficking, and more recently issues of multiculturalism in homogeneous societies.