New "Citizens" and Multiculturalism in Korea

By Kim, Youngok | Women in Action, December 2007 | Go to article overview
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New "Citizens" and Multiculturalism in Korea


Kim, Youngok, Women in Action


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How do we begin to co-exist with "the Others"

Nowadays, we can see tremendous growth of multinational capital, developments in information and transportation, and intense mobility of people on the global level. In the transnational and translocational context that this global mobility has brought about, we can also see the weakening of the state as a community in which political concerns decrease, and the welfare systems dwindle. At the same time, demands for the recognition of national, ethnic, and religious identities are growing more than ever. This contradicting and conflicting structure, which revealed its worst aspects in the 9/11 tragedy, has has questioned the existing liberal arguments on the justice of redistribution, and invoked new concerns on the politics of difference as well as the politics of recognition. Korean society, which too has been experiencing, albeit reluctantly, a rapid change into a multi-ethnic and multinational society, is also struggling around the issues of difference and redistribution.

Since a few years ago, foreign migrants have attracted a great deal of attention. They started to come en masse to Korea as 'industry trainees' in 1991, and then as foreign immigrant brides, mostly from Southeast Asia in 2000. According to the statistics from the Ministry of Justice, the number of foreign migrants living in Korea is more than 910,000 as of 2006. As employment markets, marriage markets, and even areas of intimacy and caretaking are being restructured on the global level (Constable, 2005; Parrenas, 2001; Ehrenreich & Hochschild, 2002; Kim, 2006), Korean society is also going through some of the typical phenomena of globalisation.

The growth of feminist consciousness in Korea, which has been actively promoted not only as a knowledge production but also as a social movement for the last three decades, has resulted in the growth of women's desire for employment. Moreover, the neo-liberal notion of agency, which implies self-improvement and self-governance (Ong, 2007), and the changes in the labour market, including the growing competitiveness of the knowledge-based society, make people regard marriage and childrearing as a "project." This makes it hard for unprivileged men to find marital partners. Under these circumstances, since 1995, the number of Korean men who married foreign women has outrun that of Korean women who married foreign men. (1) This means that, in a demographic sense, Korean society has been rapidly changing into a multicultural society, but with little cultural preparations. However, the Korean government did not pay serious attention to its im/migration policies until the issues of aging and declining birth rates emerged as major political agendas.

To clarify theoretical contexts of the recent discourse on multiculturalism, this paper first explores the existing politico-philosophical theories on multiculturalism, and then analyses the policies regarding marriage migrant women, which have been implemented by the government as a policy response to the "multicultural society" under way.

Multiculturalism and Citizenship

Understanding of Culture and Discussions on Multiculturalism

There are different approaches to multiculturalism depending on whether one uses it for political philosophy, government policies, or social movements. It also has different implications depending on the subjects, the understanding of culture, or the ranges and methods of its application. The notion of multiculturalism, which first emerged during the civil rights movements in the late '60s and '70s, especially in multi-ethnic societies such as the US, Canada, and Sweden, is closely related to the notion of the liberal democratic state with its emphasis on democracy and human rights. This is why the debates on multiculturalism consist mainly of challenges against the entire constitution of the modern society, and may imply post-modern subversions of modern society.

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