Ethnonationalism is a strong force in Korean society, and the South Korean state has pursued an active diasporic engagement policy based on this principle. Nevertheless, co-ethnic return migrants from less-developed countries, such as Joseonjok from China and Goryeo saram from the former Soviet Union have faced discrimination in South Korea due to co-ethnic hierarchization and racism. While ethnonationalism may appear strong among Koreans, this discrimination against co-ethnics from poorer countries reveals its shallowness. Ethnonational policies fail to bring fairness among co-ethnics and aggravate inequality among migrant workers who contribute to the country’s economy. Moreover, these policies are not in line with universal values of anti-discrimination. This paper suggests that South Korea should move towards a more civic form of national identity to create a democratic and sustainable immigration policy.
Contemporary ethnic Koreans in China (Joseonjok) and the new republics of the former Soviet Union (Goryeo saram) are descendants of Koreans who migrated to Manchuria and the Russian Far East between 1860 and 1945 in search of cultivatable land. Those who settled in Manchuria became known as the Joseonjok following the establishment of the new China in 1949, while those who settled in the Russian Far East were forcibly relocated to Central Asia in 1937 and became known as the Goryeo saram.
Their ethnic return migration back to South Korea became possible after the end of the Cold War. At this time, China was undergoing early economic growth after the country’s economic opening, and as the Soviet Union declined, ethnic Koreans in Central Asia were facing the rise of local nationalism. Meanwhile, the South Korean manufacturing sector, pinched by labor shortages, was eager to attract new workers. In this time of rapid political, economic, and social change, South Korea successfully hosted the 1988 Summer Olympics, impressing the Korean diaspora worldwide. This was particularly true for Joseonjok and Goryeo saram, who were long-disconnected from their ethnic homeland, possessed a strong ethnic affinity, and had high expectations for employment opportunities in South Korea.
The establishment of formal diplomatic relations between China and South Korea in 1992 ushered many Joseonjok migrant workers to South Korea, and their number proliferated in the following decades. Today, most of the 700,000 Joseonjok and 90,000 Goryeo saram ethnic return migrants are employed as unskilled manual workers in the so-called “3D” sectors of South Korea, which their co-ethnics generally shun due to low wages, cultural stigma, and the identification of these jobs as “dirty, difficult, and dangerous.”
Co-Ethnic Hierarchization and Co-Ethnic Racism
Based on the ethnonationalist belief that the “Korean race” shares the same “blood” and culture, South Koreans initially welcomed their “overseas brothers” in the early years of their arrival. The Joseonjok and Goryeo saram shared a similar sense of ethnic affinity, and in the early 1990s the Joseonjoks often said “Blood is thicker than water.”
However, such eager acceptance dissipated rather quickly. As the number of co-ethnic migrant workers grew, South Koreans realized they had significant linguistic, cultural, and ideological differences with their co-ethnics from the “poor communist countries.” Most South Koreans believe that understanding Korean culture and language are essential qualities for any Koreans. They did not understand that due to the harsh diasporic experiences of Goryeo saram and the long-standing influence of their Central Asian and/or Russian neighbors, many of the newer generation Goryeo saram could not speak Korean well.
In addition, as Joseonjok and Goryeo saram are mostly low-wage manual workers, South Koreans tend to discriminate against them compared to their other co-ethnics from wealthier Western countries in North America, Western Europe, and Oceania. In doing so, they created a co-ethnic hierarchy among all Koreans based on the politico-economic status of their natal homelands: South Koreans resided on the top with their co-ethnics from wealthy Western countries while co-ethnics from less developed countries remained at the bottom. In such a co-ethnic hierarchy, Joseonjok and Goryeo saram are subject to co-ethnic racism. They are socially alienated, culturally disregarded, and economically assigned to lower-wage jobs. In the face of such discrimination and their own lack of Korean language and culture, many Goryeo saram feel they cannot be Koreans. In this regard, they have become a “reverse diaspora” alienated in their own ancestral homeland.
South Korea’s Diasporic Engagement and Its Implications
Unlike their co-ethnics from Western countries, the Joseonjok and Goryeo saram face discriminatory residency and employment policies. This is true despite the South Korean state’s pursuit of an ethnonational diasporic engagement policy. The establishment of the Overseas Korean Foundation in 1997 and the Overseas Koreans Act in 1999 have been the most important policies in the country’s ethnonationalist diasporic engagement. Notably, the 1999 Overseas Koreans Act excluded Joseonjok and Goryeo saram from the benefits of entry visas and employment rights which the law allowed to all “overseas Koreans.” In 2004 the law was revised due to its unconstitutional discrimination, yet the South Korean government continued to control the entry visas and employment rights of Joseonjok and Goryeo saram.
This discrimination was partly motivated by concerns about possible labor market disruptions caused by Joseonjok and Goryeo saram. However, it was also driven by practical worries regarding international conflict, particularly regarding how China, a multiethnic country with ethnic Korean citizens, might react. When the Overseas Koreans Act was being revised to include the Joseonjok, China reminded South Korea that Joseonjok are Chinese citizens. China, a country with fifty-six ethnic groups, was particularly sensitive to policies that might favor Joseonjok, who live in the border regions adjacent to North Korea and Russia.
Despite being initially welcomed, the Joseonjok and Goryeo saram face discrimination in South Korea due to their cultural differences and the low economic status of their home countries. This highlights the inconsistency of Korean ethnonationalism. South Korea should instead promote a more civic form of nationalism that emphasizes inclusivity, diversity, and a national identity built upon shared beliefs and aspirations. Koreans should work to build a society where all members, including immigrants of any ethnicity or race, have equal rights. This approach will benefit both the discriminated co-ethnics and non-Korean migrant workers the country needs due to its aging and dwindling population.
Transitioning from deep-rooted and widespread ethnonationalism to civic nationalism is a challenging and long-term process that requires multifaceted efforts. Facing an increasing number of foreign settlers, South Korea declared its plan to build a multicultural society in 2006. Although a brave step, this declaration has not resulted in satisfactory achievements yet. More genuine efforts are needed to improve multiculturalism including reforms to school curricula, improvement of teacher training and lifelong learning opportunities, and government and media promotion of multiculturalism.
It is also important for Koreans to understand the difficult diasporic experiences of their co-ethnics. For example, Goryeo saram experienced multiple transnational mobilities under the Soviet regime and in the post-Soviet era. While these experiences made it difficult for many Goryeo saram to maintain the Korean language, it also gave them a unique cultural hybridity. South Korea’s educational system should include information about the Goryeo saram’s historical hardships and current contributions to cultural diversity.
Additionally, South Korea should temper its ethnonationalist diasporic engagement policy with more democratic and universal values. South Korea’s pursuit of these policies should be done in ways that do not threaten another country’s internal stability. While countries rightfully extend special treatment to their diaspora when they are threatened (such as the Goryeo saram in Ukraine), each country must retain sovereign rights over its own citizens. This includes ethnic Koreans who are citizens of other countries. In the long term, a more democratic immigration policy that treats people equally regardless of ethnicity, race, or nationality would better serve South Korea’s national interest by not deterring immigrants the country’s aging population and economy desperately need.
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Changzoo Song is a senior lecturer in Korean and Asian Studies at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. He holds a PhD in politics from the University of Hawai’i, where he was a recipient of the prestigious East-West Center Fellowship. He has worked in the United States, Latvia, and Ukraine. His research is centered on the Korean diaspora in China and the former Soviet Union, with a particular focus on ethnic return migrations, identity issues, and diaspora-homeland relations.
This work was supported by the Strategic Research Institute Program for Korean Studies of the Ministry of Education of the Republic of Korea and the Korean Studies Promotion Service at the Academy of Korean Studies (AKS-2022-SRI-2200001).
Image Credits: Wikimedia / Philippe Teuwen