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South Korean society still struggles to embrace multiculturalism

SEOUL-- An American English teacher recently led her class in a ball game to help them learn.

Whoever had the ball had to throw it and exchange seats with the classmate who caught it. They all enjoyed themselves, except for one — a Japanese-Korean child, whom the other students called “dirty.”

“If we passed a ball around in a circle, it would stop with him, (and) no one wanted to touch the ball after him. They'd run and get paper towels so that the ball he touched wouldn't touch them directly,” the 23-year-old teacher at a school in Nowon-gu, northern Seoul, told The Korea Herald.

She was dumbfounded when her Korean co-teachers said that no intervention was necessary.

“They just said there's always kids who are 'slower' or 'less clean' and the students decided to single him out,” she said.

Despite the efforts of the government, teachers and civil society to protect multicultural children from discrimination, they still face bullying and ostracization in class.

About 42 percent of students from multicultural families said they were taunted by classmates in a 2010 survey conducted by the National Human Rights Commission.

Another survey by Seoul City showed that four out of five foreign teenagers were not in school, largely because of discrimination and bullying.

In May, a 17-year-old Russian-Korean was apprehended by the police for a series of arson attacks on houses and a school.

The boy said he had been ridiculed by his friends since his elementary school days due to his appearance. His father and grandmother had died when he was young and his mother refused to raise him.

From 2008 to 2011, the number of foreigners married to Koreans increased by almost 50 percent to 211,458 and the number of children from multicultural backgrounds aged 6 to 18 more than tripled to 151,154.

The multicultural population has expanded its role in Korean society. The 19th National Assembly has the first naturalized Korean legislator. The Army is set to see its first two non-commissioned officers from multicultural backgrounds in July.

“Despite multicultural families being on a steep rise in Korean society, the perception of Koreans toward them has not caught up yet. Koreans do not accept them as real Koreans,” said Yoon Pyung-joong, philosophy professor at Kangwon National University.

“We should face reality and change the standard of who is Korean. The social conflicts in France and the United Kingdom caused by ethnic problems are not a fire on the other side of the river.”

Experts say that Korea's sense of racial and cultural homogeneity, a deep-rooted source of pride among Koreans, is the main cause of their bias against people with different appearances.

“People have emphasized for many years that Korea is a homogeneous country. So multiculturalism, which has been on the rise in recent years, is considered a threat to homogeneity,” said Koh Seon-ju, chairman of the Central Office for Multicultural Family Support Centers.

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