Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Expat Living: "Multiculturalism in Korea?"

Multiculturalism in South Korea?
Hanbok Parade at Hi Seoul Festival
(Image from Wikipedia)

My most recent language column for the Korea Herald has posted online but not yet appeared on my doorstoop.

I had to make a few last-minute changes yesterday afternoon to clarify what I meant about Muslims in Europe with respect to my point about radical multiculturalism. I explained to one editor that I was speaking about a form of multiculturalism that had left itself without the intellectual grounds for criticizing even something as problematic as Islamism, which was the term that I was using and which refers to the political use of a radical form of Islam, e.g., the sort promoted by Sayyid Qutb.

The editor suggested that I add another example of radical multiculturalism, so I included a reference to the genital mutilation of young girls, a practice imposed by some cultural groups now present in Europe, and I considered including a reference to the honor killings that also take place among some cultural groups in Europe these days.

Neither genital mutilation nor honor killings are specific to Muslim communities in Europe, for one finds these things also among some Christian groups, as well as among groups that are neither Christian nor Muslim.

That editor was satisfied with my changes, though I see that the editors have attached a note emphasizing that the views expressed are my own. Apparently, I've sailed into treacherous waters. We'll see:
Multiculturalism in Korea?
Back in a youthful decade of innocent wandering about the intellectual landscape of Europe from 1986 to 1995, I reveled in the multicultural world that I believed was being constructed there in that postmodern paradise.

What eventually came to be called the European Union was already a community of nations and therefore of cultures, which seemed like a perfectly good thing since the results for me personally were the enjoyment of delicious, ethnic foods, the challenge of new languages, the nurturing of international friendships, and, of course, the possibility of romantic intrigues across cultures.

What I only came to see clearly over time was that the multiculturalism that I had enjoyed was a moderate sort founded upon Western values and largely characterized by European cultures, a European multiculturalism, albeit with a few scattered communities of non-European cultures. This was largely a multiculturalism of human rights, individual freedoms, democratic values, and enlightened judgment. In short: moderate, constructive multiculturalism.

I have since become aware of another sort of multiculturalism, one founded upon the assumptions of a radical cultural relativism, probably borrowed from cultural anthropology, that takes as indisputable the belief that all cultures are equal and that no culture can legitimately pass judgment upon another since the values that one appeals to in passing judgment are derived from one's own culture rather than from some universal standard that is not culturally bound.

This radical multiculturalism, despite its intrinsic inconsistency -- is cultural relativism absolutely true for every culture? -- has come to exert such a powerful influence upon European thinking that Europeans often find themselves without the intellectual resources to repudiate such a practice as the female genital mutilation imposed by some cultural groups or to vigorously criticize Islamists who would wish to impose a stringent form of Islamic law upon Muslims now living in Europe. Some prominent Europeans actually capitulate to the Islamists. Such a public intellectual as Rowan Williams, the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, has openly spoken in favor of allowing Islamic courts to be established and given some degree of authority over Europe's Muslims. Such a move would constitute not a moderate, constructive multiculturalism but a step toward a deconstructive, radical multiculturalism instead.

But what does all this have to do with Korea? Not terribly much -- not yet, anyway. Multiculturalism exists in Korea only as a word, not as a clear and distinct concept, for it is usually conflated with multiethnicity, as though the two terms meant the same thing. Admittedly, an ethnic group usually does carry its own culture, but no necessary connection binds ethnicity to culture, so an expat living here might wonder if the Korean language makes no distinction between multiculturalism and multiethnicity.

Not being a Korean-language columnist, I checked with my wife for the Korean terms, and she explained to me that the Korean for multiculturalism is "damunhwajui" (다문화주의), whereas the Korean for multiethnicity is "dainjong" (다인종). After making this distinction, she added that the latter term rarely gets used in Korea because the word sounds too negative. Multiethnicity can hardly be a positive thing in a country that still celebrates the purity of its Korean blood. Koreans therefore prefer to use the term "multiculturalism" even when they are talking about "multiethnicity."

This misuse leads to misunderstanding even in Korea's English-language newspapers. Articles on international marriages -- or "gukjaegyulhon" (국제결혼) -- refer to the children as multicultural children even when the children are growing up in Korea, attending Korean schools, and becoming culturally Korean. Such children are not multicultural, but could more accurately be called multiethnic, in the limiting sense of mixed ethnicity.

Korea may therefore be developing into a multiethnic society if we mean by this the ethnically mixed children who are becoming ever more numerous as international marriages come to account for over 10 percent of the weddings taking place annually in Korea.

Such a process, however, will not lead to Korean multiculturalism, whether moderate or radical. For a multicultural Korea to develop, large-scale immigration of entire communities settling into self-isolating enclaves and maintaining their own cultural values would have to take place, and that does not seem to be happening.

Nor would that be a good thing for Korea if it were to happen, for the result would likely be an unworkable radical multiculturalism of the sort that currently looms in Europe.

Jeffery is a professor at Kyung Hee University and can be reached through his blog Gypsy Scholar at The views expressed here are his own. -- Ed.
Well, there it is. It seems pretty innocuous to me, but I'm probably not the best judge of that since I think that everything that I think is innocuous.

I suppose that I'll soon find out what others think.

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At 6:31 AM, Blogger Conservative in Virginia said...

Hey, perfesser, you've got an extra "h" on your photo link. (That is, hhttp rather than http.)

At 6:36 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, CIV. I had not noticed that little controversy...

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read your article in the Korea Herald today. Are you saying that you are against multiculturalism in Korea becaue it inevitably has to be of the "radical" European kind? I can't really interpret this. Is that you are saying if multiculturalism happens in Korea, Koreans will become radical multiculturalists of the 'anything goes' cuz it's your culture and I have no right to criticize, just accept? I can't see this happening at all. Actually, I can't see any kind of multiculturalism happening in Korea.

At 8:29 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Anonymous, that's a good question, and I think that you've focused on a weakness in my argument.

A moderate multiculturalism could emerge in Korea with sufficient immigration so long as the immigrant groups were not to settle in self-isolating enclaves.

The danger is that immigrants would not be integrated because Korea tends to resist integrating non-Koreans. In that case, immigrants might isolate themselves and insist on their own culture, moving toward a radical multiculturalism.

But perhaps not.

Thanks for helping me see this.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:49 PM, Blogger John B said...

I have the feeling that everyone over 30 starts seeing multiculturalism as something dodgy and suspicious . . .

It's true self-isolated enclaves can "stir up trouble" but the danger is probably more from the majority population persisting in the view of them as outsiders. Assimilation makes you a harder target.

But it seems like everything I've seen about the "dangers" of multiculturalism seem to come from older, established academics. I think the topic merits investigation, but I think the investigators need to watch themselves to avoid being overly influenced by a gut reaction against change.

Been reading the UNESCO Korea Journal Vol. 47 No. 4, which is focused on issues of multiculturalism in Korea. Was that one of your sources?

At 1:06 PM, Blogger John B said...

Vaguely connected ideas freely floating:

The courts of Islamic law: Doesn't the Mormon church also wield a bit of influence over it's members? I don't know much, but I know excommunication is threatened and performed against members who are perceived as acting out -- a few of the historians and women's issue activists in the church were kicked out. Are there other punishments ever issued? This could be a model of Islamic courts of justice, operating independent of but within the bounds of the rest of the host society. Whether it's desirable is something else entirely.

Also, isn't the current "unworkable radical multiculturalism" in Europe stemming in a large part from economic inequalities and the legacies of Europe's imperial period? For example, the French riots were touched off by the perception of police brutality in the ghetto, at least by the accounts that filtered to me.

At 1:10 PM, Blogger John B said...

Incidentally, my source on pretty much all of my understanding of Mormonism was the PBS Frontline documentary on the history of the Mormon church, which can be viewed for free on their website.

At 2:59 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

John B, I wasn't aware of the UNESCO report. Was it interesting? I've based my remarks on other sources on Korea that I've read over the years.

Moderate multiculturalism doesn't bother me. In fact, I rather like it. The radical sort is problematic, for the reasons that I've noted.

Enclaves could develop for either of two reasons, self-isolation or imposed isolation. I think that you've implicitly noted these, and either of them results in problems.

You may be correct about Morman control over its members. Orthodox Judaism might also be something to look at for examples. In any case, the state has an overriding interest in ensuring that state laws are not violated. This is a thorny issue, and I'm no legal scholar, so I'd better stay clear of details.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:51 PM, Blogger John B said...

Its pretty obvious, but age and background make a big part of someone's approach to multiculturalism. I attended culturally diverse schools in a culturally diverse city (Seattle Public), so the principles of moderate multiculturalism seem entirely natural to me.

Which is what gives me trouble with the issue. I'm pretty weak on the philosophical underpinnings, but I had always thought that cultural relativism was a natural extension of the acceptance of multiculturalism. The "radical multiculturalism" is a class of problems that come from poor decisions in a multicultural society, i.e. the idea of a parallel court system is what you get when religious scholars with no background in law or poli sci try to get involved.

Essentially, you can't accept one without the other. To accept the conditions that enable moderate multiculturalism, radical multiculturalism is inevitable and requires good sense and flexibility from all parties involved.

No sources here, these are the principles I was raised with and I'm not sure of their academic pedigree.

The UNESCO journal is full of English language articles from Korean academics. I suspect that it's the same ideas, and probably the same people, that you've already read, but there are some pretty good points. Particularly,

Eun Mee Kim and Jean S. Kang, both of Ewha University, "Seoul as a Global City with Ethnic Villages", on ethnic enclaves within Seoul (which I've so far only skimmed but not read)

Kim Sung Gum, of Seowon University, "Korean Protestant Christianity in the Midst of Globalization: Neoliberalism and the Pentecostalization of Korean Churches"

Jimoondang Publishing seems to be responsible for publishing it in Korea, but the journal is for the Korea National Commission for UNESCO.

At 5:46 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

John B, I've been living with various forms of multiculturalism since my twenties, and I liked multiculturalism from my first encounter.

What led me to the distinction between two forms of multiculturalism was my increasing dislike for a multiculturalism that precluded any negative judgements about any aspect of another culture.

Because radical multiculturalism is based on a strong view of cultural relativism, then one cannot even criticize female genital mutilation without being accused of cultural insensitivity, at best, or cultural imperialism, at worst.

Now, if one makes an exception for human rights, insisting that these stand above cultures, then one is not a strong cultural relativist.

If by "cultural relativism," one means simply the empirical fact that different cultures have different values, then that's unproblematic. If one, however, argues that all of the different cultural values are equally acceptable, then that's problematic, but it's what radical multiculturalism would entail.

I think that radical multiculturalism, like strong cultural relativity, leads to paradoxes and dilemmas. Is the belief in strong cultural relativity relative to one's culture, or is it universally true? Is radical multiculturalim's emphasis upon "tolerance" of each and every culture merely a value held by some cultures, and if so, should this "tolerance" be imposed upon other cultures in the multicultural society?

These are some of my problems with radical multiculturalism.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:13 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I learned two new words, 다문화주의 and 다인종. Twelve years of speaking and reading in Korean, and I'd never heard or seen those words used. I believe they exist, yet I wonder if they were coined as translations for the English terms "multiculturalism" and "multiethnic" rather than evolving independently. Could your lovely wife please comment on that? Words using 국제 as in 국제결혼 are much more common and more accurately reflect the status of non-ethnic Koreans in Korea, as most are not native-born citizens.

"I have the feeling that everyone over 30 starts seeing multiculturalism as something dodgy and suspicious . . ."

That may or may not be true, but your comment sounds like an ad hominem. One's background, including one's age, does influence one's views, but one's age does not make one's views on multiculturalism more or less valid. "Trust no one over thirty" died with the 60s. Your comments are solid ground when you address Jeffery's ideas, rather than his background.


At 9:00 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Sonagi, my wife says that 국제 결혼 was more in use earlier, when Koreans married foreigners and usually moved away from Korea, but recently, since foreign Asian women have begun to come as brides for Korean men and have established families, the words 다문화 가정 and 다문화주의 have come to be used more, not only by ordinary citizens but also, officially, by the government.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:07 PM, Blogger carlo said...

Hi there prof.!

Your article is of great help to me. I am facilitating a middle-school discussion on muticultural families. I hope you would permit me to quote your views on the difference of multiculturalism and multiethnicity... THANKS.

At 6:11 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Carlo, thanks for visiting. Of course, you can quote me. I'm happy to be quoted, and such might lead more readers to my blog . . . a vain hope, probably.

Jeffery Hodges

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