Monday, November 29, 2010

"Pure" north, "impure" south: Cause for conflict in Korea?

One very notable difference between North Korea and South Korea, quite apart from their broadly different demographic profiles, lies in the ethnic and national composition of the populations of the two Koreas. These differences might even explain part of North Korea's hostility towards the South.

North Korea's population is exceptionally homogeneous. Although North Korea's ties with Communist Vietnam did see some Vietnamese students migrate, thei North Korean women, and despite the settlement of some ethnic Koreans from Japan with their wives in the decades after the Second World War, North Korea is ethnically homogeneous. The only exception to this lies with North Korean female migrants, for whom survival sex is a frequent feature of life. The luckier women marry Chinese farmers and are integrated into local communities; the unlucky ones are deported back to North Korea, where they are stigmatized for having contaminated the Korean race by consorting with ethnic Chinese men and are subject to forced abortions (at least some of the time, more sophisticated than having prison guards repeatedly kick pregnant women), and infanticide if the pregnancy is advanced (their mothers frequently being forced to watch, so as to encourage them not to err in the future).

Why such an inhuman insistence on homogeneity? Brian Myers' The Cleanest Race, partially serialized here in the New York Times, the basis of a short article in the March/April 2010 issue of Foreign Policy, argues that North Korean identity is founded on the basis of extreme xenophobia and outright racism towards non-Koreans.

North Korea's race-centric ideology was inspired by that of the fascist Japanese who ruled the peninsula from 1910 until the end of World War II. Having been taught by their colonizers to regard themselves as part of a superior Yamato race, the North Koreans in 1945 simply carried on the same mythmaking in a Koreanized form. This can be summarized in a single sentence: The Korean people are too pure-blooded, and so too virtuous, to survive in this evil world without a great parental leader. This paranoid nationalism might sound crude and puerile, but it is only in this ideological context that the country's distinguishing characteristics, which the outside world has long found so baffling, make perfect sense. Up close, North Korea is not Stalinist -- it's simply racist.

The celebration of racial purity and homogeneity is everywhere in North Korea. The citizens pictured on the country's new currency, for example, could pass for members of the same family, which in a sense they are. A worker in one painting appears much like a farmer or soldier in another, while the children pictured in schoolbooks are downright identical. White is the dominant color in Pyongyang: White concrete plazas, white or at least blond-stoned buildings, and white statues of virginal maidens in long gowns abound. Pyongyang is often photographed or depicted under snow, a favored symbol of purity itself. "Our nation has always considered its pure lineage to be of great importance," a North Korean general told his South Korean counterpart during a 2006 meeting to discuss realignment of the maritime border between the two states. "Since ancient times our lands have been one of abundant natural beauty," he said. "Not even one drop of ink must be allowed."


And what about South Korea? There's a large and growing number of immigrants in South Korea, roughly divisible between economic migrants and marriage migrants. South Korea's future is as likely faces a as an immigration country.

As Young-bum Park observed in 2004, South Korea in the 1990s was caught up in the same consistent dynamic as other high-income economies.

Due to its low unemployment rate, by the early 1990s South Korea realized it needed temporary labor to fill unskilled jobs that natives were becoming less and less willing to do. In fact, without foreign labor, it would have been nearly impossible to keep the "tiger" economy growing.

As a country that places a high value on its homogeneity, this also marked the beginning of a tension that continues today: the need for foreign labor versus the desire to remain a purely Korean nation with strict immigration policies.


One early source of immigration to South Korea was the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, an autonomous district in eastern Jilin province historically with a Korean majority. This became a minority owing to various factors including low birth rates, assimilation proceeded and emigration to Chinese cities and South Korea, the claims that Yanbian constituted a "Third Korea" aside. Perhaps ironically, Jeanyoung Lee reports that these immmigrants are somewhat unpopular, especially in the work environment.

Other nationalities began to feature in the country's statistics. The number of Mongolian immigrants began to grow sharply--a 2008 press report commented on a Mongolian-born Korean citizen who was now herself an immigration official. Other large groups included Vietnamese and Filipinos, often workers or as women recruited to marry local men. This latter in particular may as radically alter South Korea's ethnic composition, at least as it is perceived to be homogeneous. Many smaller nationalities are also present, such as Iranians. All of these migrants could be far outnumbered by North Korean migrants/refugees if/when that country collapses.

Perhaps the most notable form of immigration, insofar as South Korea's future is concerned, is that of non-native women. For decades, selective abortions resulted in the local sex ratio being strongly biased towards men. In later years, this led to shortages of marriageable women, especially in rural areas of South Korea. How did South Korean men respond? South Korea, like Taiwan, responded to the gender imbalance by "importing" women of non-local background. Some of the effects of this are summarized in Yonhap News's English-language edition by Ben Jackson.

Until recently, any introduction to South Korea included the mention of its ethnic homogeneity without fail. Once known as a "Hermit Kingdom," the country was where blood and nationhood were one and the same, and mixing with foreign blood was considered undesirable.

These days, however, South Korea's rapid economic, cultural and demographic changes are unleashing new trends and currents that flow far beyond the country's borders. International marriage, once regarded as an anomaly by many Koreans, has become a significant social phenomenon.

[. . .]

Mixed-nationality unions in South Korea are often regarded as being confined largely to the countryside, where many young men struggle to attract Korean spouses to a life perceived as less comfortable than the city, but statistics show that the practice is now far from uncommon in Seoul and other metropolitan areas.

According to 2009 research, the rising ratio of men to women of "marriage age" would reach a peak by 2014. This means that in terms of pure numbers, two out of every 10 men will be unable to marry because of a lack of women.

Women also appear to be putting off marriage: While in 1975 only 11.8 percent of women aged 25-29 were unmarried, the figure had risen to 59.1 percent by 2005.

[. . .]

"A lot fewer Joseon-jok (ethnic Koreans living in China) are marrying Korean men, while the number of brides from places like the Philippines and Vietnam is increasing," she said.

"The recent decrease may be because Koreans and foreigners are becoming more aware of the potential difficulties of international marriage, and because many men that were looking for international marriages have now tied the knot."

Jang also points out that in terms of sheer numbers, many more international marriages take place in Seoul, its metropolitan region and other big cities because of the overall concentration of population in these areas.

In terms of percentage, more international marriages still occur in rural regions, she said.


Indeed, fertility rates among immigrant women in at least some parts of South Korea are significantly higher than among native Korean women, although fertility in the former population is well below replacement. These children of mixed nationality often face significant discrimination. Still, there are signs that the Korean government is trying to change this.

A recent study by the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs projected that immigrants and their descendants will account for more than 5 percent of the Korean population by 2050. That’s more than 2 million people, a sevenfold increase from the 309,841 this year.

According to the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, international marriages now make up 10 percent of all marriages in Korea. The ministry said the number of interracial children rose from 44,258 in 2007 to 121,935 in 2010.

[. . .]

To help absorb these multiethnic families, the ministry four years ago established about 160 family-support centers across the nation that offer language education and vocational training because immigrants often suffer from language and cultural barriers.

“The number of mixed-race children will continue to grow and [the future of] the Korean population depends on the fate of the immigrants’ descendants,” said Lee Sam-sik, director of the low-fertility division at the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs.

Politicians are paying close attention to the surge in the number of multiethnic children, in part because they would have the right to vote when they turn 19.

The ruling Grand National Party has responded to such trends by supporting multiethnic centers in each district and devising assistance programs for families.

[. . .]

Foreigners in Korea have largely settled into low-incomes lives. Most foreign women marry older farmers or manual laborers, and 59.7 percent of mixed-race families live on less than 2 million won ($1,786) per month, according to statistics from the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family.


The migrants are themselves trying to organize, too.

The mixed-nationality children of South Korea are going to play a hugely important role in determining South Korea's future. If such a high proportion of South Korea's rising generation are of mixed ethnic origins, and if--as seems possible--their mothers retain links with their homelands, it's not impossible that South Korea could transition quickly enough into a society of mass immigration. Maybe South Korea will see a Spanish-style multiplication of its immigrant population; maybe it won't. Given current attitudes towards people of mixed and foreign background, I'd be inclined to expect relatively problematic integration, but then, things can change. Add to this the efforts of South Koreans to promote vulnerable Seoul as a world city, a cosmopolitan centre that plays a major role in the world's economic, political, and cultural circuits, one that will necessarily attract people from around the world. Whatever the outcome of these trends, the myth that South Korea is an ethnically homogeneous society is going to come to an end.

What does such a profoundly chauvinistic regime as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea think about what its leaders might consider the "adulteration" of "pure" Korean blood? I have my suspicions. Might this influence their policy-making? Possibly; would they see a government that did nothing to prevent the contamination of its supposedly pure gene pool, but actually encouraged it, as legitimate?

3 comments:

Matt Warren said...

My understanding of the Korean situation is negligible and the picture I get from the few snippets that find their way to me is fascinating, if also troubling. Thanks for sharing.

Colin Reid said...

I'd imagine such details of South Korean domestic policy are irrelevant to the North except for propaganda purposes - it's a bit like asking al-Qaida what they think of Turkey. The Southern government is seen as the enemy for any number of reasons.

Where the marriage issue gets interesting though is in the event of Korean reunification. For various reasons, many of the men who currently import brides from elsewhere may prefer to marry North Koreans, and at the same time many North Korean women will be desperate to move south. On top of this it may be that North Korean women find it easier to find work in the South than men, as has happened for instance with East Germany (which has significantly fewer young women than young men, Berlin and environs excepted, due entirely to migration). So the South may end up rectifying its gender imbalance at the expense of the North.

Randy said...

@ Colin: I can believe it's propaganda, but I can also believe that the North Korean government--and many North Koreans themselves--believe in it. The desire to reunify the peninsula (preferably under Pyongyang, to one extent or another) has been the driving force of North Korean policy since that polity's creation, and strong xenophobia and tendencies towards ethnic exclusivism common on both sides of the DMZ. If South Korea is moving away from the paradigm of an ethnically pure Korea, not only through a cosmopolitan diaspora with its own definitions of Koreanness (something I didn't mention) but by encouraging the integration of the many children born to non-Korean bothers--children and mothers who, in North Korea, would have been subject to brutal abortions--I can imagine a fair amount of anger on the North's part.

As for Korean reunification, who knows? The question of the extent and direction of migrant flows from North Korea is open to question--China's an established destination, too. Immigration into South Korea may come just as much form traditional source countries in Southeast Asia as from the North; post-reunification West Germany saw East German and non-East German immigration both on large scales.