Pyongyang’s Worrisome Problem with Multiculturalism

New National Assemblyperson Jasmine Lee

The recent National Assembly elections in South Korea produced two results that may be of interest to North Korea watchers. The first and more obvious is the election of Cho Myung Chul as a proportional representative. Cho, running for the GNP/NFP slate, is most likely the first North Korean to ever be elected through a genuine democratic process. (Although if I’m wrong please feel free to leave a comment correcting me) A long time North Korea watcher himself and founder of the North Korea blog at the Chosun Ilbo, Cho’s ascendance to the National Assembly signals a step in the right direction for the North Korean refugee community in the ROK. Having had a chance to meet and interpret for Cho at a conference in Ottawa many years back, I can attest that he’s a genuinely humble person and wish him the best of luck.

The other result is less obvious. Also elected as a proportional representative on the NFP slate is Jasmine Lee, a Filipino-Korean actress. Her election, a landmark event in what was once racially homogenous South Korea, has sparked quite the controversy: a substantial number of netizens have posted racially inflammatory remarks about Ms. Lee.

Although one could expect such backlash in a country that is still by and large ethnically Korean, such backlash is inexcusable. Whether it is ignorance, or fear, or simply old-fashioned racism, South Koreans must accept the fact that South Korean society, whether they like it or not, is becoming increasingly multicultural. The effects of globalization are hard to miss in dynamic South Korea: the expat community in the ROK is burgeoning, tens of thousands of foreign workers live in what can be described in slums around industrial cities like An’san, twenty-eight thousand or so USFK personnel continue to be stationed across the country, and even ten thousand Canadians live in the ROK at any given time, primarily as English teachers. One only needs to travel the Seoul subway system to see official signs posted in Korean, English, Chinese and Japanese.

Of course, as with most phenomena South Korean, the North Korean regime too has an opinion on this. In an recent editorial in the Rodong Shinmun, the North Korean regime referred to multiculturalism in the ROK as a “poison” and a “farce” that is “an unpardonable bid to negate the homogeneity of the nation.” This official position was reinforced in a conversation captured between North and South Korean military counterparts, where the lead negotiator for the North Koreans, Kim Young Chul, stated that “even one drop of ink” is too much in the Han river, alluding to what can only be a statement supporting racial purity. What the “one drop of ink” refers to is equally clear.

Apart from the fact that Pyongyang went out of its way to make this statement in the official state newspaper, the contents thereof are not surprising. After all, even the forementioned South Korean military negotiators used “other”-identifying metaphors as “a drop of ink” to describe minorities. And as demonstrated by some of the reaction to Ms. Lee’s election, not all attitudes in South Korea are open to changes in South Korean society. If the globalized ROK is like this, what more could we expect from the DPRK?

Indeed, if Pyongyang’s actions are taken at face value, the reaction to multiculturalism on the Korean peninsula is no surprise at all. You wouldn’t expect otherwise from a country whose official twitter handle is “Uriminzokkiri,” or “only between us” (us = ethnicity). Unfortunately, this stance goes beyond mere social media: for instance, pregnant North Korean refugees who are repatriated from China are commonly forced to go through abortions. Ominously, as refugees themselves attest, those carrying babies that were conceived with Chinese men are treated far more harshly.

Yet the homogeneity that the regime seems to strive for goes beyond simple ethnic lines. The intense stratification of North Korean society itself into spheres of loyalty and hostility gives further context to the type of homogeneity the regime wishes to promote, and who this “other” exactly is. This social engineering can be latent: for example, as seen in Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy, this social divide between two households leads to clandestine nocturnal meetings between members of the opposite sex. On the other hand, it can be extremely violent: refugees testify that forced abortions occur within the concentration camps .

In the case of Jasmine Lee, the case of “otherness” is compounded by the fact that not only is she that proverbial “drop of ink,” but she has also chosen to affiliate herself with the conservative NFP.

Again, what is surprising here is not the content of the statement, but the fact that Pyongyang felt threatened enough by the election of Ms. Lee to issue a thinly veiled editorial in the Rodong Shinmun about it. Even more surprising is the fact that it was re-translated into English, no doubt intended for an international audience.

Who exactly is Pyongyang trying to convince here? When I think of foes of multiculturalism arguing for racial purity, I conjure up the likes of David Duke, Jean Marie Le Pen, Slobodan Milosevic and more recently Anders Breivik, whose trial continues in Norway as I write. And those are only the more recent examples history has unfortunately given us.

Human rights advocates frequently come under fire for applying what they seem to believe are universal principles to peculiar and sovereign contextual instances. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard critics say “if you only knew North Koreans, and met people who worked for the government, and listened to what the government had to say, you’d have a different view of what kind of place the DPRK is.” That may be true. But on the other hand, this understanding needs to be mutual. By equating multiculturalism with “poison,” and advocating for such troubling concepts as racial purity, the regime demonstrates that it fails to understand an idea that is a fundamental principle to much of the world. With such overtly negative undertones that the concept of racial purity holds, how can one not be nervous of what that may actually mean if the North Korean regime is faced with racial impurity?

After all, even China, hardly a model of democratic plurality, at least pays lip service to multiculturalism.

Not only does this policy cause a basic problem with any attempts at human rights dialogue, it also sends warning signals to those who may want to see a unified Korea. If South Korea continues to welcome non-Korean elements into the societal fold, one has to wonder what kind of issues North Koreans may have integrating with what may be an increasingly diverse South Korean society. Unfortunately, such a xenophobic policy only adds to the myriad of issues that North Koreans will face if unification is ever going to happen.

6 Responses to “Pyongyang’s Worrisome Problem with Multiculturalism”

  1. aidanfc Says:

    Excellent article. One tiny point: In what sense is a 2006 Rodong Sinmun article “recent”?

  2. Jack Kim Says:

    D’oh! Thanks for the catch. I was sent the article a few days ago and assumed the April date made it recent. In my haste I overlooked the fact that it was dated in the FUTURE (McFly!).

    My apologies – I will make the appropriate change. However, in my meager defence, I would still argue that the general thesis of the article remains more or less intact.

  3. Paul White Says:

    Reading Jack Kim’s article, it struck me as yet another “Something bad about south Korea’s leaked out, scramble to put an anti-North Korean angle on it quick!” which is all too typical of the Western press. NK may be unicultural, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, if you don’t have any minorities and don’t throw your own people on the scrap heap in order to import cheap foreign labor, as the ROK does. (Incidentally, why is unemployment such a problem among NK defectors, while Seoul imports Filipinos, Vietnamese, etc?) People in NK know that the foreigners they see are guests of their government and haven’t come to take their jobs away from them, or dilute their pure racial water with their “ink.”
    Mr Kim cites the NK website Uriminjokkiri (roughly translated as “among our own people”) as an example of North Korean xenophobia. The Irish political party which has been fighting for Irish unity and independence since 1905 and is democratically represented in the Dublin and Stormont parliaments — and in Westminster if it agrees to take an oath of loyalty to the queen — is Sinn Fein, roughly translated as “ourselves alone” or in other words let us run our own affairs without interference from foreign powers — a very close counterpart to Uriminjokkiri.

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