While there is definitely discrimination against non-Koreans in Korea,* especially if you have dark skin, sometimes what looks like racism is actually discrimination based upon socioeconomic status or the fact that someone is simply not part of one’s “in group.” This is demonstrated by the way that North Koreans are looked down upon by their southern brethren, despite the fact that they share a language, history, culture, and genetics. North Korean kids have both academic and social difficulties at school, where they can be ostracized by their class mates. You might recall my previous post about Choi Hyun-mi, the World Boxing Association women’s featherweight champion. It’s estimated that 1,700 teenage North Koreans have fled to South Korea since the mid-1990s. Here’s more, from the Joongang Daily.
Ji-eun pictured a wonderful life in South Korea when she was on the plane. But after she arrived, she found that things were quite different than what she had imagined, recalled Ji-eun, who turned 15 this year.
“Why did you come to Korea, you beggar?” one person asked her. “Were you hungry?”
“Go back to your country because there’s nothing we can give you,” said another.
These were the first words Ji-eun heard when she transferred to a South Korean elementary school as a third-year student. The first thing she learned in the South Korean school was bullying by classmates.
Ji-eun tried hard to eliminate her North Korean accent because her classmates avoided playing with her after they realized she was an outsider. Even after trying hard, though, she found obtaining a South Korean accent to be very difficult. She sometimes had to simply stay silent for fear of embarrassing herself.
When she became a senior, the bullying became more complex.
There’s no one who verbally insulted her to her face. But she could hear her classmates whispering, “Isn’t she a bit North Korean in style?”
No one asked her to have lunch. Because she didn’t want to eat alone, she skipped lunch frequently.
“I regret coming to South Korea so much,” Ji-eun said. “I even thought about suicide.”
Below is an excerpt from a similar New York Times article (via One Free Korea).
One October evening, when the students had gone camping and stayed up late, Moon Sung-il, a 14-year-old North Korean, brought tears to the South Koreans’ eyes when he recounted his two-and-a-half-year flight with other defectors that took him through China, Myanmar and a refugee camp in Bangkok. But he stunned them when he said that none of this was as daunting as a South Korean classroom.
“I could hardly understand anything the teacher said,” he said. “My classmates, who were all a year or two younger than I was, taunted me as a ‘poor soup-eater from the North.’ I fought them with my fists.”
Their difficulties are also academic.
When they are placed in South Korean schools, these Northerners start nearly from scratch. In the North, they had spent as much time learning about the family of their leader, Kim Jong-il, as they did the rest of Korean history. Few learned English, a requirement in South Korean schools. Dropout rates among defectors are five times the South Korean average, according to the Education Ministry.
A group called the Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights has North and South Korean teenagers doing extracurricular activities and making friends, which is all fine and good, but it should be kept in mind that making a scarecrow out of straw together is a start, not a solution.
Given the enormous potential cost of reunification, we are not likely to see a unified Korea for a while, and thus can expect North Korean refugees to be coming for years to come. Hopefully, it will be a manageable trickle, and not a flood caused by the straw that broke the camel’s back.
* One example is the fact that the entrance fee for NB (Noise Basement), a dance club in Hongdae, is (or at least used to be) double for foreigners. By the way, NB is owned by the CEO of YG Entertainment, Yang Hyun-suk. I like 2NE1, but their boss is a douche.