In Homogeneous South Korea, A Multicultural Village Hints At Change | KERA News

In Homogeneous South Korea, A Multicultural Village Hints At Change

May 15, 2016
Originally published on May 15, 2016 6:06 pm

Populations are shrinking so fast in East Asia that some Japanese and Koreans actually talk about the eventual extinction of their civilizations. To tackle demographic declines driven by low birthrates, the historically homogeneous South Korea is opening itself to more immigrants than ever before.

It's happening most notably in a place called Wongok Village outside the city of Ansan, an hour's drive south of Seoul. At Ansan West Elementary School, the students represent dozens of countries — China, Vietnam, Sri Lanka and several more. Most of them have managed to pick up the Korean language quickly, but for those who don't, the school is one of few public schools in the country to offer remedial Korean classes.

The elementary school is in the heart of Wongok, which is billed as a "borderless village" in which two-thirds of the 17,000 residents are non-Korean. Industrial work requiring cheaper migrant labor and Ansan city's efforts to provide services for non-Koreans led to a fourfold jump in Wongok's immigrant population from 2002 to 2010.

Most of the immigrants are from China, living here as residents on work visas. But under Korea's latest immigration policies, migrants who seek citizenship are allowed to hold dual citizenship.

"[In] places with multicultural kids, the kids can interact with each another and get into conflicts with one another and break prejudices," says Kim Young-sook, a teacher and multicultural coordinator at the school.

She plays an increasingly vital role here, as Wongok — unique in its concentration of non-Koreans — offers a lesson in fast adaptation to immigrant communities.

"There is real immigration going on that is supported, facilitated, advocated by the South Korean government," says Katharine Moon, the SK Korea Chair at the Brookings Institution. Her research focuses on the impact of a changing Korean population.

Immigration is a fairly new concept in South Korea, where foreigners make up only about 3 percent of the population. Bars and restaurants can ban non-Koreans from entry because no anti-discrimination laws exist. Foreign workers in Korea are subjected to mandatory HIV testing.

"It has been a homogeneous society linguistically, culturally, for so long. It has prided itself on the purity of the bloodline, the so-called bloodline," Moon says. But because the birthrate has fallen to such low levels — South Korea has the lowest fertility rate among developed nations — immigration policies are changing. Government figures show the number of foreign residents living in South Korea climbed by about 50 percent between 2009 and 2014. Moon says attitudes will take a little longer to adjust.

"Right now, [integration] is about fitting into the Korean context, learning Korean language and not teaching your kids Vietnamese or Tagalog or some other foreign language," Moon says. "True multiculturalism would involve mixing and blending and fusing of different languages, cultures, customs. We don't see much of that — except in places like Wongok Village."

Outside, on what's known as "Multicultural Street," people from different backgrounds mix. In front of the banks, there are signs in four or five different languages. Food stalls sell a lot of Chinese food, and there are Chinese markets and Chinese karaoke joints. You can hear Vietnamese as you walk up and down the streets.

"[There are] job opportunities here because there's a lot of factories. And you know, in every place where there's electricity, there's work opportunity," says Eugene Okoye, who came to Wongok four years ago from Nigeria to run a clothing export business.

As more people like Okoye seek opportunities in Wongok, their kids fill the classrooms of teachers like Kim. She says the children have taught her about dropping prejudices.

"Multicultural people are people that Koreans have to work together with to make Korea into a better country," she says. "Wongok Village is what Korea will look like in the future."

The kids offer a key lesson, she says: They relate to one another as peers — not as different peoples.

Haeryun Kang contributed to this story.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

South Korea is opening its borders to more immigrants ever before. That's because the number of working-age people is expected to drop dramatically by the year 2040. NPR's Elise Hu reports from one village that's been proactive about welcoming foreigners into its homogeneous society.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN YELLING)

ELISE HU, BYLINE: After class, it's chaos in the halls Ansan West Elementary School. A handful of kids eventually find their way into an after-school music class.

(SOUNDBITE OF STRING INSTRUMENT)

KIM YOUNG-SOOK: Speaking Korean.

HU: "We've only just started teaching them," the instructor Kim Young-sook says. On the back wall is a bulletin board with flags and quick facts about various nations - China, Vietnam, Sri Lanka and several more.

Are these the countries that the kids come from?

Kim is also the multicultural coordinator at the school, an increasingly vital role here. The elementary school is in the heart of Wongok, a village in which two thirds of its residents are non-Korean. Factory work with lower wages fueled an influx of migrant labor. The non-ethnic Korean population here has jumped fourfold from 2002 to 2010. For educators, it means teaching a much more diverse student body than they're used to. The kids are mostly from China, but also...

KIM: (Speaking Korean).

HU: The Philippines.

KIM: (Speaking Korean).

HU: Vietnam.

KIM: (Speaking Korean).

HU: Uzbekistan.

KIM: (Speaking Korean).

HU: Kyrgyzstan.

KIM: (Speaking Korean).

HU: Places with multicultural kids, people can interact with each other and, you know, get into conflicts and break the prejudices.

Wongok is small - it's population, about 17,000. But it's offering the rest of the country a lesson in adapting to immigrant communities.

KATHARINE MOON: There is real immigration going on in South Korea that is supported, facilitated, advocated by the South Korean government.

HU: That's Katharine Moon, the SK Korea chair at the Brookings Institution. Her research focuses on changing Korean demographics. Immigration is a pretty new thing here. Only 3 percent of Korean residents are not ethnically Korean. Bars and restaurant in Seoul can ban non-Koreans from entry, and they do.

MOON: It has been a homogeneous society linguistically, historically, culturally for so long. It has prided itself on the purity of the bloodline, the so-called bloodline.

HU: But because the birth rate has fallen to such low levels, policies are changing. Moon says changing attitudes will take a little longer.

MOON: Right now, it's about fitting into the Korean context, learning Korean language, not teaching your kids Vietnamese or Tagalog or some other foreign language. True multiculturalism, of course, would involve mixing and blending and fusing of these different languages, cultures, customs. And we don't see as much of that, except in places like Wongok Village.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOTOR BIKE)

HU: We're on Multicultural Street in Wongok Village, where people from all sorts of different background mix. In front of the banks, you can see four or five different languages with instructions about remittances. Food stalls sell a lot of Chinese food. There are Chinese karaoke joints. You can hear Vietnamese as you walk up and down the street - a lot of Mandarin Chinese. This is very unusual for Korea.

Right there on the street, we found Nigerian Eugene Okoye. He moved to Korea four years ago as part of his clothing export business. He says in Korea, communication has been the toughest part.

EUGENE OKOYE: With the language barrier, when you tell somebody hi. How are you? Maybe he doesn't know how to reply in English. He or she will shy away.

HU: But the jobs keep people coming.

OKOYE: There's a lot of factories. And you know, in every place where there is electricity, there's work opportunity.

HU: As more people like Okoye seek the opportunities here, their kids fill the classrooms of teachers like Kim. She says the children have taught her about dropping prejudices.

KIM: (Speaking Korean).

HU: "Multicultural people are people that Koreans have to work together with to make Korea into a better country. So yes, Wongok Village is what Korea will look like in the future." The kids offer a key lesson. They relate to one another as peers and not different peoples. Elise Hu, NPR News, Wongok Village, South Korea. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.