“Multiculturalism Explosion” in South Korea


A review of Immigration Challenges and “Multicultural” Responses: The State, the Dominant Ethnie and Immigrants in South Korea, by HUI-JUNG KIM.

This dissertation broadly explores South Korea’s “multiculturalism explosion” in recent years, an unusual phenomenon given the country’s ethnically near-homogeneous population until the 1980s, and its long history of ethnic nationalism. Because of the country’s racial/ethnic diversification from labor and marriage migration, South Koreans have had to address the rapidly changing populace and the future of the nation’s identity, cultural mores, and politics. This dissertation focuses on the reasons behind the promotion of a particular brand of multiculturalism by institutional actors (the state, NGOs) and why the minority migrants themselves have not shared the same enthusiasm for it. In broad terms, Kim finds that multiculturalism is a new name for the traditional goal of nation-building, as it is more concerned with accommodating ethnic diversity than with reproducing an ethnically homogeneous state. More specifically, Kim finds that the state and NGOs employ multiculturalism as a practical strategy to address an aging society with dramatically low birth rates, and as a discourse to demonstrate moral progress to more advanced countries, especially by way of its female marriage migrants. For the non-institutional actors (the minority migrants), however, such multiculturalism elicits indifference or resistance, as they are not given the chance for full inclusion in the country, are depicted as victims rather than equals, and are hierarchically ordered: female marriage migrants are socially positioned above labor migrants with offers of Korean citizenship and facilitated naturalization. The ethnic Chinese themselves, who have the most to gain from the multicultural explosion, refuse to engage in this discourse because they choose to distance themselves socially from other immigrants who might mean downward mobility.

Chapter 1 summarizes the literature on how migration transforms the nation-state and the responses to it, both by multicultural scholars and critics of multiculturalism. Organizing the discussion around Will Kymlicka’s notable conceptualization, Kim disagrees with claims of the irrelevancy of multiculturalism in general, and of South Korea’s illegitimacy as a multicultural state in particular, by affirming that these very debates show multiculturalism to be constructed in and through political contestation. Indeed, such contestation is the analytical focus of the dissertation. Drawing on segmented assimilation theory, Kim introduces and develops in Chapter 2 the theoretical framework of segmented incorporation to account for the state’s selective and gendered nation-building in the name of multiculturalism. Kim’s segmented framework emphasizes the role of the state over that of immigrants themselves.

Chapter 3 provides an overview of the literature on multiculturalisms and, based on content analysis of countless newspaper articles, finds two distinctive features of the South Korean case: the absence of any claim of multiculturalism-as-diversity and an emphasis on praxis –  that is, on sociopolitical policies and programs to assimilate female marriage migrants and their children. Chapter 4 is an analysis of the Korean state’s multicultural policies applied to the four different racial/ethnic groups, and the segmented outcomes amongst them. Kim concludes that, because of globalization, pressure from domestic actors, an aging population with low birth rates, and persistent myths of ethnic homogeneity, state-sponsored multiculturalism is contradictory and ambivalent. The state “maintains the existing cultural authenticity by assimilating marriage migrants and their children and, at the same time, [re-draws] the boundaries of the Korean nation-state to reflect the changing racial and ethnic composition of the Korean nation” (p. 61). 

Chapter 5 examines Korean citizens’ political activism on behalf of minority immigrants, finding that they are motivated by the goal of garnering South Korea more recognition and respect from powerful (Western) nation-states. Kim concludes that activists’ discourse is sympathetic but, at bottom, remains nationalistic and exclusive. In Chapter 6 Kim explores why the ethnic minority migrants themselves do not make diversity claims, finding that they see institutional multiculturalism as perpetuating the negative classification of them as less than full members of Korea, despite the benefits they would accrue. Kim argues that scholarly institutionalist approaches cannot explain such a paradox, while classification approaches can.

In Chapter 7 Kim shows that ethnically Chinese Koreans see the multicultural explosion as part of the changing incentives for exercising their own ethnic options. As social distancing from the newer minority migrants is their ethnic option of choice, Chinese Koreans dismiss institutionalized multiculturalism as only relevant for those whose ethnicity is mainly a burden. This attitude holds true despite the fact that they might be the only group on the peninsula who could claim multicultural rights. The ethnic Chinese therefore reaffirm, rather than contest, Korean institutional actors’ definition of multiculturalism.

Chapter 8 describes how the South Korean state’s basis for multiculturalism – the use of female marriage migrants to ensure the cultural and biological reproduction of the nation – problematizes scholars’ claims about the tensions between feminism and multiculturalism. Kim argues that Western feminists often “falsely assume a neutral and liberal state and urge the state to intervene and protect migrant women from violence at the hands of their husbands” (p. 139). However, the state also oppresses groups like the female migrants, Kim argues. In light of this claim, Kim ends with a call to take Will Kymlicka’s defense of multiculturalism more seriously and to recognize how it is aligned with feminism, such as in the form of multicultural policies that are beneficial to female immigrants.

In light of the focus of most South Korean multicultural scholarship on either labor migrants, ethnically Chinese Koreans, or the female marriage migrants, this dissertation makes a signal contribution in its analysis of, and theory-development regarding, all three minority groups. It further expands the scope of work on South Korean multiculturalism by interviewing the Korean activists who organize on behalf of the migrants and through its in-depth analysis of state praxis (rather than state discourse alone). Finally, it analyzes, as well as responds to, research on the gendered dimensions of the state, an underappreciated area of inquiry. Finally, these empirical and conceptual developments are possible by dint of Kim’s multiple methodologies (content analysis, interviews, and ethnographic observation) that allow for the triangulation of sources – hence, the richness and greater accuracy of the findings and Kim’s broader contributions.

Nadia Y. Kim
Loyola Marymount University
Department of Sociology
Loyola Marymount University
One LMU Drive, Ste. 4315
Los Angeles, CA 90045

Primary Sources

Government policy documents, statements, newspapers
Interviews with key state informants, Korean activists
Ethnographic participant observation (migrant advocacy organizations)

Dissertation Information

University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2009. 162 pp. Primary Advisor: Pamela Oliver.

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