The 2018 Winter Olympics Opening Ceremony has come and gone, and one of the biggest moments from the ceremony was North and South Korea walking into the arena together, united under one flag made specially for the Winter Olympics. But, apart from that historic sight, there was one other moment that caught my eye, a moment I still haven’t gotten over, and no, it’s not the appearance of Tongan flag bearer Pita Taufatofua. The moment that warmed my heart was when the Rainbow Chorus of the Center for Multicultural Korea (CMCK) sang the South Korean anthem.
If you were like me and wondered who these precious kids were, they are members of the Rainbow Chorus of the Center for Multicultural Korea. The chorus is, according to a 2012 article from Korea Magazine, reposted to Korea.net, “the first-ever multicultural children’s chorus in South Korea and comprises children from families with ten different nationalities including Japanese, Filipino, Russian, Iraqi, and Thai.” Professional musicians train the kids for free, and the chorus is often invited to perform for dignitaries, like the world leaders at the 2010 G-20 Seoul Summit, and at other special occasions.
These kids aren’t just fantastic singers; they are also ambassadors for South Korea’s growing multiculturalism. “The chorus is vitally important to its members—such innocent children who freely mix with one another regardless of nationality and physical features—and provides valuable opportunities for its audiences to better understand what a multicultural society is like,” states the magazine.
Clutching at multiculturalism
Getting a grasp on multiculturalism is one of South Korea’s biggest policy projects. The country is steadily becoming a nation of immigrants; as Korea Magazine wrote in 2012:
“More than 45 million people left and entered South Korea in 2011 alone, and the number of foreigners staying in Korea topped 1.4 million. Yes, Korean society is rapidly going multicultural. Of these 1.4 million, 1.1 million are long-term immigrants, representing 2.2 percent of the Korean population. Nearly 49 percent of them are Korean Chinese who moved back to their ancestral fatherland, followed by Americans at 9.5 percent, Vietnamese at 8.3 percent, and Japanese at 4.2 percent. This surge in foreign settlers in Korea can be attributed to increases in the numbers of migrant workers, marriage immigrants, children born to multicultural families, Korean nationals returning from abroad, and North Korean defectors to South Korea. As South Korea becomes racially and culturally more diverse, the national, local, and municipal governments have been devising new policies to embrace them as members of Korean society.”
The chorus is just one part of South Korea’s arts and culture strategy for welcoming in immigrant families. The Sejong Cultural Center created the Sejong Youth Harmony Orchestra in 2011, offering children from multicultural and low-income families the chance to gain orchestral experience.
South Korea is among a group of Asian countries that are seeing a dramatic decrease in their population; fewer and fewer people are marrying and having children for a host of reasons. However, unlike its neighbors, South Korea is actively welcoming immigrants to help fix their population problem.
“There is real immigration going on that is supported, facilitated, advocated by the South Korean government,” Katharine Moon, chair of Korean Studies at the Brookings Institution, said to NPR’s Elise Hu. As such, South Korea is working overtime to bring the country together on multiculturalism.
Honestly, many Asian nations are coming to terms with the realities of multiculturalism in their populations whether they endorse multiculturalism or not. There have been mixed results, to put it mildly; China, for instance, is becoming more insular and nativist, with racist agendas launched against its African immigrants. South Korea has its share of racism to contend with, too–because South Korea has no anti-discrimination laws in place (measures to pass laws have failed three different times due to outcries from far-right Christian groups, who cite sexual differences as reasons for discrimination), there is no recourse a foreigner can take if they are discriminated against. Indeed, several bars and other recreational spots have denied foreigners entry based on a host of xenophobic and/or racial reasons.
Also, diversity in the political sphere has been met with animosity. Jasmine Lee, an actress from the Philippines who found success in South Korea in entertainment, launched a successful political career and was elected into the Korean National Assembly in 2012. As the first naturalized South Korean and first non-ethnic Korean to be elected, she served until 2016, and throughout her tenure, she received tons of racist comments, despite the swell of support from citizens propelling her to her assembly seat. Even with the hardships she’s faced, she is certain South Korea will have to understand its place in a multicultural future.
“There’s a chance that they won’t reconsider me for my congressional post. But in 10 to 20 years, as long as the borders are not shut, Korea will definitely have become a multicultural society. However, there’s no law or regulation which addresses the imminent multiculturalism,” she told Huffington Post Korea’s Dohoon Kim in 2015. So my goal is to establish within the next 10 years a sort of congressional department that can oversee such a development from a legal and policy standpoint.”
Taking multiculturalism seriously
South Korea has a long way to go with their project of creating a country welcoming and hospitable to all of its citizens, both native and immigrant. But the country has put itself on the fast track towards a unified South Korea, and multiculturalism is something the government sees as one of the top priorities.
“Few countries take multiculturalism as seriously as Korea does. While most countries have vague and ambiguous multicultural policies consisting of either forcing immigrants to assimilate to the local culture or allowing immigrants to integrate while keeping their traditions, Korea has come up with a new concept: tamunhwa,” wrote The Diplomat in 2014. “Tamunhwa means multiculturalism in Korean, and the basic idea is for Koreans to learn as much as they can about immigrants’ original culture while setting up as many cultural immersion programs as possible for immigrants. With foreign residents now accounting for nearly 3 percent of the population of a country that long defined itself as homogeneous, Koreans are taking multiculturalism seriously.”
Along with 2008’s passing of the Multicultural Families Support Act and the creation of centers for multicultural families and global centers that cater to foreign spouses, tourists, migrant workers, and foreign investors, citizens are holding meetings at these centers, asking foreign residents how they feel about their lives in Korea and what could be done to make their time more beneficial. “Meetings are held at global centers where foreigners are asked their opinions on what should change in Korea. Korean language and culture classes are offered free of charge,” wrote the site. “Many Koreans are volunteering to teach Korean or to help migrants. Speech contests are organized where foreigners are encouraged to voice their concerns about Korea.”
However, while meetings and centers are increasing multicultural interest, coupled with more and more non-Koreans appearing on popular television shows, Korea still faces an uphill battle towards being equally and consistently hospitable to its immigrant and multicultural populations.
The increase in foreign workers, particularly foreign English teachers, plus pressure from the U.N. and the National Human Rights Commission of Korea, forced South Korea to end a decade-long practice of requiring mandatory HIV tests for teachers in 2017. The test, initially advertised in 2007 as a way to “ease the anxiety of citizens” and “assure the parents” of children taught by foreign English teachers, was, obviously, a sly way to create a catch-all situation for any and all types of discrimination. The test’s popularity was bolstered by the arrest of an English teacher in Thailand for sexually abusing his young students. The teacher in question didn’t have HIV and his crimes weren’t committed in Korea, but because the teacher worked in Seoul before leaving for Thailand, the test was able to garner support.
Teachers, in fact, are one of the biggest drivers of the multiculturalism conversation in Korea. “In a bid to respond to globalization, Korea decided to increase its emphasis on English in curriculums, importing 30,000 teachers in the process. Such teachers often teach less than 30 hours a week and have free weekends, are often young and single, meaning they have a lot of time to spend on the internet,” wrote The Diplomat. “They were the first to draw attention to the issue of multiculturalism and to urge Korea to do something to promote a multicultural society, and they were not always polite about it. Still, they can claim credit to be the first to bring the multiculturalism debate to Korea.”
Some headway is being made with regard to establishments who refuse to serve foreigners. In 2017, Indian student Kislay Kumar received a letter of apology from the owner of The Fountain, a bar in Seoul after video of Kumar being turned away went viral. The letter came after Kumar partnered with the Indian Embassy, who raised Kumar’s case to a department of the South Korean government, and the National Human Rights Commission.
“The letter, from The Fountain’s owner Yoo Seung-woo, reads, ‘First I’d like to apologize for what happened last June. I know nothing I can say can address the hardship you experienced, but nevertheless I’d like to convey my regrets.'” wrote Korea Exposé. “Yoo’s letter goes on to apologize for the ‘immature’ handling of Kumar’s case; Yoo also writes that he has learned a lot from the incident and reflected on how to handle misunderstandings between Koreans and foreigners.”
Kumar, who has since found a job in Seoul in overseas sales and marketing for a laser company, said that while the apology encourages him, there’s still a matter of changing people’s hearts. He hopes his case can be a step towards the Korean government finally passing an anti-discrimination law.
“This one incident can make people cautious about their actions, but it can’t change their mentality,” he said. “It has to come in the textbooks. The mind has to be opened and that has to come through education.”
Spurts of multicultural acceptance amid shortcomings
In some ways to the outside eye (like mine), Korea seems like it’s taking one step forward and two steps back with their acceptance of multiculturalism. But Moon told Linda Poon of CityLab that the country is actually making fast strides to cram tons of multicultural knowledge into a society that has been culturally homogeneous for centuries.
“This is a huge social change for a society that has been homogeneous in so many ways for hundreds and hundreds of years,” said Moon, adding that the Korean national identity is partially founded on the belief that Koreans stem from a “thousand years of ‘pure’ ancestral bloodlines, common language, customs, and history,” and has more recently been founded on reclaiming sovereignty after 40 years of Japanese colonialism before World War II.
Moon wants people to remember Korea’s short history as a democracy. Moon, Poon wrote, “says Korea is still a very young democracy. And Korea’s immigration issues are complex, given its various categories of immigrants. They’re further complicated by an inflow [of] North Korean defectors, who face discrimination in South Korea, as well. And compared to its older and equally homogeneous neighbor, Japan, which also lacks broad anti-discrimination laws and whose prime minister has publicly rejected immigration despite a shrinking population, ‘South Korea is actually on an accelerated route,’ she said. After all, it took U.S. almost 200 years after declaring its independence to enact the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”
In short, Moon is asking us to be patient with South Korea as it figures out its place in a multicultural society. As a nation grappling with a changing social and national identity due to globalization, it shouldn’t be a surprise South Korea is going through what can generously be called a challenging growing phase. But for some, I’m sure, patience is wearing thin. However, with organizations like the Rainbow Chorus, Korea is determined to show itself and the world it’s determined to move in the right direction, regardless of how many mistakes are made along the way. One place where multiculturalism is succeeding is in the “borderless village” of Wongok, which is home to 17,000 residents, two-thirds of which are non-Korean.
While much of Korean multiculturalism is built upon complete assimilation into Korean culture, Moon told Hu that Wongok is actually employing “true multiculturalism…mixing and blending and fusing of different languages, cultures, customs.”
Kim Young-sook, a teacher and multicultural coordinator at Ansan West Elementary School, told Hu the school acts as a place where kids can learn more about each other and their respective cultures. “[In] places with multicultural kids, the kids can interact with each another and get into conflicts with one another and break prejudices.”
Kim also said her interactions with the kids have helped her break some of her own prejudices. “Multicultural people are people that Koreans have to work together with to make Korea into a better country,” she said. “Wongok Village is what Korea will look like in the future.” The lesson the children have taught her, Hu wrote, is that “they relate to one another as peers–not as different peoples.”
It’s this principle that Korea hopes the Rainbow Chorus represents to the world. The country still has tons of challenges to surmount in order to achieve true multiculturalism; even the entity of the Rainbow Chorus itself has been critiqued. In her Seoul Journal of Korean Studies paper “The Rainbow Chorus: Performing Cultural Identity in South Korea,” researcher (and mother of a Rainbow Chorus member) Hilary Finchum-Sung asserts the use of the chorus as proof of South Korea’s multiculturalism is part of the country’s mixed-messaging when it comes to multiculturalism; on the one hand, multiculturalism is becoming more and more discussed in South Korea’s popular media. However, stereotypes about multicultural children and families–that they’re poor and inferior to “real” Korean children–still remain. The Rainbow Chorus could be seen as a genuine outlet for growth and understanding; according to Finchum-Sung, the CMCK was founded by former broadcasting radio announcer Yi Hyonjong and her colleagues after realizing few programs in South Korea catered to children’s emotional and social welfare. But the chorus can also be seen as performative, a PR stunt to showcase a quick and easily digestible version of multiculturalism that plays on genuine empathy as much as it does existing harmful tropes.
However, regardless of South Korea’s failings when it comes to grappling with multiculturalism, a positive message can be taken from seeing a bunch of kids singing in harmony–that actual harmony can be achieved. Choruses have often been used as a way to show an idealized version of humanity; Sister Act 2, for instance, is a film based entirely on the idealistic notion of a group of kids coming together to change their lives and the lives of their community. Like most groups, the chorus is often used to prove people can learn from one another, forget prejudices, and work together to create something beautiful. As a novice to the Rainbow Choir, that’s the message I took from them as I watched them sing their country’s national anthem. After all of the research I’ve done while writing this article, that’s the message I still take away; I am an optimist at heart, after all. In their own way, these children are helping Korea get one step closer towards realizing a more equitable society for all who live within its borders. The message South Korea wanted to send has been heard loud and clear; now it’s on the country to fulfill their promises, especially to the kids who helped them achieve their Olympics goals.♦
Further reading: A snapshot of multiculturalism in South Korea | The Korea Herald