Since Jasmine Lee, a Philippine-born naturalized Korean citizen, was elected to the South Korean National Assembly, she has been facing a racial backlash from bloggers and tweeters.
“Dear foreigners. Please come and visit South Korea. Korea gives foreigners benefits which it doesn’t even give to its nationals,” reads a message on the social network Twitter posted by someone who used her name on April 12, the day after the national assembly election.
“Come to Korea, you can become lawmakers. Jasmine Lee.”
It is one of many online and social networking service attacks on Lee, who won a seat as a proportional representation candidate of the ruling Saenuri Party on April 11.
Jasmine Bacurnay, now 35, married a South Korean national and became a naturalized citizen in 1998. She has been active in supporting foreign wives who came to live with their South Korean husbands.
The Saenuri Party placed Lee 17th on its slate of candidates, aware of the sharp increase in the number of marriages between Korean men and women from China, Taiwan, Mongolia and Southeast Asian countries.
After Lee won a seat, however, she and foreign residents in the country became targets of attacks on the Internet and on Twitter.
“The money and benefits Jasmine Lee will get are 600 million won (40.4 million yen, or $511,600) in salary during the four years of her term, seven paid staff, and …,” another posting read.
“I wonder how many more illegal migrants and mail-order brides will flood in …,” wrote another.
Lee told the country’s media on April 17: “Some people may want to say such (nasty) things. I do not think all the Koreans are like them.
“Indeed, there have been unfavorable postings, but many others have encouraged me to do my best. I haven’t given up hope,” Lee said.
However, Lee hadn't spoken to the media since her April 17 news conference until early June.
A Saenuri Party member said, “She might be avoiding contact, worried that her comments could make the problem spread further or become more complicated.”
The South Korean media ran stories on the racial backlash, with most of them criticizing South Korean society’s xenophobia.
A Dong-A Ilbo editorial called the attacks on Lee shameful and featured comments by foreigners living in the country.
“I have always thought Ms. Lee is living the Korean dream, (but she is not),” a student from Uzbekistan wrote, “and even those who came here to marry South Korean men are hurt due to prejudice. I, too, have thought about returning home and taking a leave of absence from school.”
A man from Sri Lanka said, “Even if there is a vacant seat on a bus or in the subway in front of me, nobody tries to take the seat. I have acquired citizenship, but I don’t feel like I'm a naturalized citizen.”
A Korean newspaper reporter pointed to other possible reasons for the xenophobia.
“Shortly before the election day, an ethnic Korean from China was arrested on suspicion of murdering a South Korean woman. In addition, suspicion over Lee’s educational background arose. Such incidents may have helped the racial backlash to increase in the wake of Ms. Lee’s winning a national assembly seat.”
At the bottom of racial attacks lies “some sort of xenophobia,” said Oh Yoon-ja, a professor of child and family studies at Kyung Hee University, and well-versed in foreign residents’ problem in the country. “Take a murder case committed by an ethnic Korean man from China, for example. The media try to analyze the issue from the viewpoint of the assailant’s ethnic identity, not seeing it as a murder committed by an individual. This apparently reflects xenophobia, doesn’t it?”
Oh said foreigners have increased their presence in Korean society because of a sharp increase in international marriages since around 2000 and due to few children and an aging population.
“(Under such circumstances,) Koreans need to regard foreigners as indispensable members of society who are responsible for the future; not just hate them, but give mature consideration to them,” Oh said.
Hwang Ui Sun, who lives in Guri in a Seoul suburb, has been actively working to eliminate prejudice against foreigners in South Korea.
Hwang, now 34, moved to South Korea from Taiwan in 1997 to study Hangul and eventually entered a South Korean university.
In 2002 she married a South Korean man whom she met at her university. They have three boys, aged from 5 to 10.
In March 2008, she formed a group to promote international understanding with women studying Hangul together in Guri.
The women, including Filipinos, Vietnamese and Thai, started activities to help South Koreans better understand their cultures, as well as exchange information and help each other.
In 2009, they began giving lectures on their home countries’ cultures at elementary schools in Seoul and Guri.
“Through such activities, our children and South Korean children will become interested in each other,” Hwang said.
Hwang conceded that she had fallen victim to “netizins” who oppose international marriage.
“The South Korean society’s attitude toward foreigners has changed to a positive direction,” Hwang said. “Still, there are people who do not feel like welcoming Asians. I sometimes feel there is discrepancy in their attitude toward Westerners and Asians.”
Jasmine Lee won a parliament seat under such circumstances.
Commenting on Lee’s success, Hwang, who obtained her South Korean citizenship last year, said, “I have high hopes (for Jasmine Lee). If she really has a problem with her educational background, she can apologize.”
Hwang also said she wants to support Lee’s effort for multicultural understanding.
The number of women who come to live in South Korea from other countries has been increasing. As of 2011, about 190,000 such women live in the country. Most of them are from China, Vietnam, the Philippines and other East or Southeast Asian countries.
How should Korean society cope with the influx of the people and their cultures?
How can it realize a multicultural society?
Japan shares the same problems in various aspects.
For its part, Japan needs to consider common problems when it looks at its own reflection in the mirror.
Editor's note: Being a foreign correspondent is not all it's cracked up to be. As Asahi Shimbun journalists--assigned to 34 offices around the world--can attest to, the challenges of getting the story in a foreign land are much greater than on the homefront. In the Correspondent's Notebook series, Asahi Shimbun journalists will write about their experiences on the road, including the difficulties, the frustrations, the long hours, the roadblocks, etc. They will take readers along with them and give them a glimpse into their lives.
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