For mixed-race children in Korea, happiness is too far away
By Shim Sun-ah
SEOUL, Feb. 12 (Yonhap) -- In 2000, a government human rights body recommended that three domestic crayon manufacturers change the standardized name of a crayon labelled "skin color," saying it discriminates against people from different racial backgrounds.
The manufacturers later pledged to change the name to "light orange," but the case made Koreans reflect on how unaware they were of the issue of racial discrimination.
In such a homogeneous society, where pure-blood ties are emphasized, life has been harsh for Park Il-joon, a singer with an Afro-American and Korean heritage.
"When I was little, I drank a lot milk in the belief that this would help whiten my skin color," the 52-year-old Park said.
Park was constantly bullied, harassed and discriminated against by fellow students and teachers because of his different skin color.
He said he was touched with emotion as he watched U.S. football star Hines Ward's touchdown catch as Ward's team, the Pittsburgh Steelers, won 21-10 over the Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl.
Ward, a Korean American, suddenly rose to stardom in South Korea after he was voted the Super Bowl MVP.
"I hope the attention to Ward will provide an opportunity to change society's treatment of children from interracial marriages," Park said.
When Park debuted as a singer in 1977, he could not appear on TV shows without thick, yellow makeup because most viewers disliked what they derogatorily called "tuigi," children from mixed marriages.
Another signer, Lee James, was also the child of an African-American solider stationed in South Korea and a Korean woman.
The 46-year-old has been singing on nightclub stages since he quit high school about 20 years ago. "I have lived in constant stress over somebody jeering at me just because I'm mixed blood. I couldn't break away from a sense of inferiority," he recalled.
He sent resumes to about 10 factories to work at manual jobs, only to be rejected on "unknown" accounts each time.
There are about 5,000 "Amerasians" -- people with mixed American and Asian heritage -- such as Park and Lee in the country, according to an estimate by the Korean office of Pearl S. Buck International, a U.S.-based nongovernmental group that works to support mixed-heritage youth.
When combined with some 30,000 "Kosians" -- children of mixed Korean and Asian descent -- the mixed-race population in the country reaches 35,000, according to the group.
However, there is no official government tally on the population.
Many Amerasian children have been born since 1945, when U.S. troops began to be stationed on the Korean Peninsula during the chaos of Korea's liberation from decades-long Japanese colonial rule.
They are South Korean nationals, but have long been treated as aliens or the offspring of American soldiers and prostitutes. Born out of the marriage system, they were left in the care of single mothers or abandoned by their parents.
For decades after the 1950-53 Korean War, the number of mixed-race children gradually increased as red-light districts around U.S. army bases thrived.
The figure once reached 40,000 in the 1960s when the sex business with American soldiers was at its peak, according to a local daily's report cited by the National Human Rights Commission of Korea, but has decreased to the current level after many emigrated to the U.S. and others died.
Today, the majority of the mixed-race residents in the country are Kosians, children of international marriages, mostly between Korean men and women from such Asian countries as Vietnam, the Philippines, Thailand and Pakistan. The Kosian population is on the rise with the increase in such marriages and migrant manual workers coming into the country.
Despite the increasingly diverse environment, the children of interracial marriages still suffer harsh discrimination by fellow students, said Lee Ji-young, a spokesman for Pearl S. Buck International.
Kim Ju-yeon, aged 10, the daughter of a Korean father and Philippine mother, said, "My classmates often bother me, saying 'You should go to the Philippines because you're mother is Filipino.'"
Kim said such words hurt her a lot and often made her return home crying.
The rate of such children who do not enter or finish primary schools is 9.4 percent, and the middle-school dropout rate is 17.5 percent, according to 2002 figures by the nongovernmental group.
As for first-generation Amerasians, 83 percent were raised by single mothers who were sex workers or worked in low-paying, part-time jobs.
The organization also found that less than 30 percent of adults with mixed racial backgrounds have jobs, mostly temporary ones.
"The low educational background leads to a low-income job when such children are grown up. Generation after generation, mixed-race people get poorer, locked in a vicious circle of poverty," Lee said.
In a landmark measure to eliminate discrimination against mixed-race youth, new regulations of a military service law went into effect earlier this year allowing them to serve in the military. So far, however, the military has banned those who clearly appear to have a mixed-race background from performing mandatory military service out of concern that they might be unable to fit in.
In South Korea, where the legacy of past military governments remains, whether or not a man fulfills his military duty is considered important when entering the job market.
So, many mixed-race people stay in jobs that can be found easily in red light areas near U.S. army bases, such as entertainers, sex workers, waiters and waitresses. They also become athletes and do other part-time jobs.
Discrimination against mixed-race people does not finish here.
A 2003 study by the state human rights body on the life of Amerasians shows that such people experience difficulty in getting married and in married life because of discrimination and mental stress.
It showed that more than 71 percent of such people are single or divorced.
Lee said such people are victims of the country's painful history, as well as the shortage of manufacturing workers and brides for rural youth in the country.
Nonetheless, there have been almost no government efforts to remove the invisible wall blocking children of mixed marriages or to help them be part of society, she said.
"I think things will never change unless the government takes measures to correct discrimination," said Park Geun-sik, a 55-year-old with a father from America. Park leads a private association of mixed-race residents in South Korea.
Lee said the government should prepare an affirmative action program for such people, starting with a special job-training program, since they are entitled to such treatment as Korean nationals.
"School education is also important. Revising a school text to teach students to recognize racial differences and take their mixed-race classmates as neighbors in the global community would be helpful," she added.