Rep. Jun Byung-hun of the main opposition Democratic Party on Sunday posted the draft of his racial discrimination bill on his online blog [which of course isn't linked to!], which has led to heated debate among the online community.
Although the Justice Ministry had previously submitted an anti-discrimination bill, including clauses on racial issues, the bill was never passed before the National Assembly ended its term last April. Jun's bill, if legislated, would be the first law to officially ban racial discrimination in Korea.
At present, the prohibition of discrimination based on race is referenced only vaguely as a basic guiding principle in education or labor union law. The National Human Rights Commission forbids racial discrimination but its recommendation has no legal or binding authority.
In other words, it's morally wrong, but there's no law against it and no punishment for doing it - yet. If anyone can find and link to this particular blog, I'd love to have a look (even through Google Translate).
Since the blog posting, hundreds of citizens have left replies on the blog or made phone calls to the lawmaker's office - some in support of the plan and some against it - according to Jun's aides.
Those who are opposed are mostly concerned that the promotion of foreign workers' rights may offer privileges to foreigners to the detriment of Korean workers.
"I admit that it is high time that Korea introduced some legal restrictions about the abundant racial discrimination, especially as the number of foreign workers and immigrant wives is soaring," said Kim Han-hee, a 28-year-old graduate student majoring in international law.
"However, such anti-racial discrimination legislation should be followed by another law that could regulate crimes by foreigners."
What crimes by foreigners? There's barely been any mention of foreigner crimes in the news since this Korea Beat report came out months ago, yet this meme continues even to the younger generation I had placed such high hopes in?
This graduate student does have one possible point, however. Reverse discrimination fears, while almost wholly premature, are plausible. That foreigners might be given some sort of special treatment is nothing new, however. Also, foreigners don't generally compete with Koreans for jobs - the quantity of jobs is essentially chosen by the number of employers willing - or needing - to hire them. There's no 'quota' system at work here, and no Korean government will ever approach a Korean company and say you have to hire foreigners or face a fine. That's the case in the U.S. at times, where companies have been fined or told to hire X number of people of colors other than white or genders other than male - whether or not they're the most qualified candidate.
What 'privileges' might we foreigners be gaining, for the record? A presumption of innocence? Calling any person we don't like a racist whether it's true or not? In any argument that comes down to a 'he-said, she-said' sort of battle, will reverse discrimination lead a police officer to presume the Korean party as guilty? I doubt it.
Amid such controversy, Jun still plans to put forth the bill by the end of this month, according to his aides.
Jun's posting followed a recent case in which prosecutors indicted a man for allegedly calling an Indian professor "dirty and smelly." He was charged with contempt because the present criminal law system does not include provision to deal with discrimination based on race.
The cynical part of me thinks it smells like an opportunistic politician seeking media attention by rehashing something that's already been attempted. The optimistic part of me wants to encourage a foreign politician to pass a bill that might actually give foreigners a fairer shake.
To be brutally honest, my doubts - and hopes - are high. I want this country to become less racist. I want to be treated the same as any other person. I want to have a say and encourage this guy in his efforts. I even kind of want to see Korea on the world stage with the other major players. In the end, creating the law is only the start of the process. Looking at racial discrimination in the U.S., having the law is one step; having people enforce the law, prosecute the accused, and punish those found guilty with something more than a slap on the wrist are also big steps on the road to equality.
© Chris Backe - 2009