Reactions were decidedly mixed when Megan Stuckey, a 24-year-old U.S. citizen living in South Korea, told a local newspaper that she was denied entry to a bar simply because she was a foreigner. Some shared her frustration while others sided with the establishment.
The Korea Herald reported in February that the bar Stuckey had tried to go into, Green Light, even has a sign at the door laying out its policy: “Only Koreans are allowed because our employees are not able to communicate in English,” it reads. “It’s not a [sic] racist. Sorry. Please be generous about it.” Yet Stuckey, who teaches English in Korea, said she still wasn’t allowed in after speaking Korean to the staff.
"You don't just get to say, ‘It's not a racist’ and make it true. It is racist, by definition,” one commenter wrote on the newspaper’s Facebook page. But he also added, “That said, their bar, their country, their rules.”
Korea has a small handful of businesses that implement these kinds of bans: Last June, The Korean Observer reported on a sauna in the tourist district of Busan that refused entry to those who “clearly look like foreigners” in order to appease their Korean customers. “They cause too much trouble,” a staff member told the paper. And in 2014, a pub popular among expats made international headlines when it banned Africans over the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Yet despite outcry from the expat community, such policies are not illegal.
While the existence of “Korean-only” businesses might seem harmless to some—after all, there are thousands other places that foreigners can visit—they point to a larger problem. South Korea, unlike the U.S. and most other developed countries, has no anti-discrimination laws in place, even as its population becomes increasingly multicultural. Even the United Nations has taken notice. In 2014, U.N. human rights expert Mutuma Ruteere urged Korea to enact comprehensive laws to address “racism, xenophobia, and discrimination” after his first official visit to the country. He recalled seeing naturalized Korean women being refused entry to public baths, taxi drivers turning foreign-looking passengers in to the police, and shop attendants with derogatory attitudes toward foreigners.
Between expats, migrant workers, military personnel, and foreign brides, 1.5 million people—or 3 percent of Korea’s population—are foreign-born. That’s expected to grow to 10 percent by 2030, which is on par with European societies today, says Katharine Moon, the chair of Korean studies at the Brookings Institution. On top of that, government data show that there are now more than 200,000 multicultural children in the country—eight times the number in 2006.
“This is a huge social change for a society that has been homogeneous in so many ways for hundreds and hundreds of years,” says Moon, who also teaches East Asian politics at Wellesley College. As she wrote last year in a policy paper for Brookings, Korean society has long been steeped in the belief that Koreans come from a “thousand years of ‘pure’ ancestral bloodlines, common language, customs, and history.” Korea’s national identity also comes, in part, from its struggle to reclaim sovereignty following four decades of Japanese colonialism prior to World War II. During this time, the Japanese attempted to replace Korea’s language and identity with those of Japan.
In more recent history, the country faced two major events that helped shape the country’s modern attitude toward foreigners. The first was the Asian financial crisis of 1997, during which Korea was forced to take a bailout from the International Monetary Fund. That led to closings of banks and companies, and to soaring unemployment. “And they took it personally that the foreign West was intent on basically putting down this country that had become an economic miracle in such a short period of time,” Moon says.
At the same time, the country’s citizens were growing visibly resentful of the presence of the U.S. military in the country. “It had to do with complaints about U.S. troops and their conduct off-base where Koreans live. During that time, even in Seoul, there were signs, that said, 'Americans not welcome,'” Moon tells CityLab. “So there was this very outward demonstration of this political discontent.”
“I think for restaurants to put up signs that say, ‘No foreigners,' etcetera,” she adds, “there is a precedent for that from these other time periods.
But that’s not to say the government hasn’t changed anything as the country opens it borders to more immigrants for economic and societal reasons. In 2008, the Multicultural Families Support Act was enacted to provide immigrants and their children with necessary social services. Anti-discrimination laws have been attempted in 2007, 2010, and 2012, though the bills often fail due to fierce opposition from right-wing Christian groups.
But keep in mind, Moon 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 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 says.
After all, it took U.S. almost 200 years after declaring its independence to enact the Civil Rights Act of 1964.