The Ongoing Fight Against Racism in Korea

The latest scandal involving Korean xenophobia has stirred up more controversy this week with a bar in Itaewon - probably the most popular area in Seoul for foreigners - refusing entry to anyone who did not have a Korean face.  This was all filmed and posted on youtube for the foreigner community to become enraged about, something that seems to be happening with increasing regularity these days.  But maybe I am just surfing the internet more at work at the moment.

It occurs to me that people should be outraged by such things.  I feel like I am in a minority that try to understand such actions by Koreans, and because of my family ties am a little more tolerant and realise that not all Koreans are this way inclined.  I also understand that because of their history, this sort of thing is what one would expect.  I will even grant them this; I understand that they feel like Westerners can behave poorly in Korea when drunk and American soldiers have not given the best impression to them in this regard especially, and that this could be the reason they refused entry to them.  I will accept all of this, yet still I am offended and we still need to draw their attention to these events when they occur.

The legitimacy of their reasons for refusing entry to foreigners may be partly warranted if they have experienced bad behaviour from these people in the area.  But the essence of racism is that you cannot make judgments on everyone else just because a few bad eggs share common skin colour/s.  The fact is they would have refused anyone with a white or black face regardless of their background; they could even have been Korean citizens for all they knew with Korean family. In another case of refusal of entry, I was also told of a nightclub in my town, Suncheon that did not allow foreigners.  The reason – which I was told of by a Korean friend – is that Westerners drew too much attention to themselves, and especially drew too much attention from Korean women, which Korean men did not enjoy.

I happen to be very lucky in that I am a fair-haired white man, pretty much what they expect of a foreigner in Korea.  I receive some forms of prejudice when I am with my wife but rarely when I am on my own.  If I do experience any discrimination it is in a positive way, with comments about how handsome I am, or just general friendly greetings that single me out in a crowd.  Sometimes, though, I wish I could spend a week of my life in a different skin colour, maybe black or South East Asian looking and feel what it is like to be them in Korea.  I have the suspicion that I would have to grow a pretty thick skin and never learn Korean to a good standard; I do not think I would want to know what they are saying about me.

My students - who I really do love most of the time - give me an insight into just what they think by frequently saying racist remarks about black people.  But the thing is that these kids are fantastic the rest of the time, they are great and I cannot hate them for saying any of these things.  Perhaps then, we should use this as an example in the best way to react, with anger at the culture of racism and at each situation when it occurs but not at the individuals.  These students are not bad, they have merely been brought up in a culture suspicious of foreigners.  Their dislike of black people must have come from somewhere, and I can only think it must have come from us in the West.  We have carried our own bigotry over with us when we first started having relations with Koreans and may continue it with subtle prejudice in movies and music.  The thing is we have moved on a little because of our more multi-cultural societies, we have seen the bad times and learned from them, Koreans have not.

It is easy for us to judge, but Koreans simply do not have the experience of dealing with these situations.  Over the past 20-30 years they have had more exposure to these issues, but it will clearly take a lot longer for them to be resolved, so expect another scandal involving discrimination to be coming sometime soon.  We sure deserve to be angry about them when they come about but we must be careful not to judge Koreans too harshly when these incidents occur.  After all, what they are not doing is lynching foreigners, shooting them, or shouting foul mouthed abuse at them (at least I have not experienced this), all situations that our own countries experienced in the past (and less frequently in the present).

With all our experience in the West we sit atop an exulted position on the moral high-ground on many issues regarding discrimination, human rights, and general fairness.  We also are regularly insulted by the lack of good manners in many Korean people.  What we must realise is that Korea as a civilised society is still relatively young.  It is not they are less intelligent than us or do not have access to current knowledge, they simply have not experienced what the societies we have been brought up in have experienced. 

To illustrate this point I will use a sporting analogy; I have been a reasonably good squash player for many years and with this ability it tends to give me a natural awareness of other sports that are hand-eye related, all of which I pick up technique quite quickly.  I usually can therefore watch a Tennis player, like Roger Federer, and copy his technique for a top-spin backhand and when I come to play Tennis I can play the shot fairly decently.  The more I practice, however, the better this shot becomes (obviously).  The same premise operates with Korean society with issues of prejudice and fairness.  They know the arguments, many know how they should ideally behave but they simply have not had enough practice yet.  They have had more dealings with white people and markedly less with black people and this shows in the less prejudiced view of white people.  I wonder what proportion of the population have even seen a black person, let alone had any interaction with them, which could amend some of their prejudice.

These may be seen as excuses by some people but they are not, they are explanations.  Explanations do not excuse, they just give some insight so that it may be possible to understand.

Because of the above, Western society is 50 to 60, maybe even 100 years ahead on issues of racial equality compared to Korea.  My grandfather was undoubtedly a racist by today’s Western standards; did that make him a bad person?  No, he was just a product of his time.  In another example - one of the most admired men in American history - Abraham Lincoln's comments on black people can be deemed incredibly offensive by modern people:

I have never had the least apprehension that I or my friends would marry negroes if there was no law to keep them from it, but as Judge Douglas and his friends seem to be in great apprehension that they might, if there were no law to keep them from it, I give him the most solemn pledge that I will to the very last stand by the law of this State, which forbids the marrying of white people with negroes.” – Abraham Lincoln in the fourth debate with Stephen Douglas.

This was just one example of plenty I could have used.  This does not take away from any of his achievements and we cannot really tarnish his reputation with this.  The fact is that most white people in America (indeed the world) were racist back then.

While the treatment of black people has significantly improved in the West, be rest assured that we still hold prejudices by race ourselves.  Not in law, and licensed establishments cannot have them but they regularly show up in our societies nonetheless.  As a white man I thought that they had almost disappeared.  But as I walked down the street on a Saturday night in my country with an Asian girl on my arm, I could see and hear that they were still very much alive.  And not only that, I myself had stirrings of suspicion going on in my mind when an acquaintance I knew from an opposing squash team turned up with his fiancé of the same age who he met in Thailand.  If he was 60 and she was 20 perhaps I would be right to be suspicious but surely they should be given the benefit of the doubt as they were the same age.  It is my reckoning that this doesn’t happen for them an awful lot.  

We also still experience many race hate crimes and these tend to be more severe than in Korea.  So when we jump too much on our high-horse, Korean people can quite rightly point out these problems in our own societies.

With all this in mind the reaction to past, present, and future stories of racism in Korea should be one of almost equal outrage and understanding, we are right to be angry but we could temper this with the realisation that own culture has traveled a long way and still has further to go.  Korean racism exists and their prejudice probably occurs in a greater percentage of the population than in the West, but it is possibly in a less destructive form.  This perspective could hold the key to better relations between us and rid ourselves of the ridiculous notion that the colour of people's skins can determine their character and behaviour, something that deep-down is an idea that more of us indulge in than we would care to admit.


Re: The Ongoing Fight Against Racism in Korea

Nice post.  Things have indeed progressed markedly in the west regarding white/black relations.  But there are many many whites in the USA who are extremely upset to have a black president.

As for Korea, at least they aren't lynching people like the whites did in the US South in the last century. Things aren't so extreme, but they are behaving badly.

Re: The Ongoing Fight Against Racism in Korea

The same is happening in Busan. A friend and I wanted to have a beer together. We entered the bar, and the bar lady just shook her head no and made a huge x with her hands. Not like we were a group of guys, just a man and a female-both foreigners. The same happened in Seomyeon, club Fix. Went there with three Koreans. Me and my male friend were both burnt to a crisp-day on the beach. They had no complaint regarding him. I was singled out because I was a foreigner and my friend had to explain that I had not been drinking and kind of beg to let me in. Both our faces were equally red. I think we should make a list of these places that are too good for our 'foreign' money and avoid them.

Re: The Ongoing Fight Against Racism in Korea

I don't know why koreabridge is always posting things about racism in Korea. This site itself is turing into a huge anti-Korean haven. 

The more you post about this the more it exacerbates things.

You should not try to change every small nook and cranny of everything. 

If there is one place that a Korean man can go without having to see a black guys face then let it be, it is his right it is the businesses right to provide that service.

Freedom of business means freedom to do business however they want, including not letting in a few minorities. 

Take your camera to the government offices and expose them, not to some business that is going after a niche.

Re: The Ongoing Fight Against Racism in Korea

Christopher, you seem to understand the rationale of the club in Itaewon that bans entry to foreigners. You have even stated their case for them. I know why they do it. What I don't understand is why they chose to do it in Itaewon. There are establishments in Incheon that ban foreigners. They post signs at the door that say "Koreans Only". I don't have a problem with people who wish to associate with their own kind on a exclusive basis. Businesses that embrace this policy do so at their own peril. But the operators of the club in Itaewon have the whole of the rest of Korea to practice their brand of exclusion-ism. Why have they chosen the primary place in Korea where people from other countries have lived and played since the early 1900's. Can you answer that question?

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Are we not allowed to voice our anger at all now? Why would you choose to say such an ignorant thing. I think it is happening far more now. To all those that have had it happen, as have I; do what I am, count the days till you get to leave. Perhaps, when you see Koreans at home, treat them as they do us for a real sense of how terible and racist they are.

Re: The Ongoing Fight Against Racism in Korea

Racism in Korea?  

What a shocker. 

Grow up kids, this is their country.

You always have the option of going back to whatever cultrually diverse and equality based country you came here from. Stop trying to make others conform to your culture in their country, and take it or leave it. 

I guess sensationalized blog posts get more page visits.

Re: The Ongoing Fight Against Racism in Korea

And what makes you think Koreans and other Asians (and pretty much anyone not white) doesn't already get shat on in the West and since long before Koreans or any other minorities shat on Westerners in their countries? I bet you never once stood up against or even acknowledged the rampant racism in your home country but then, it didn't affect you, right?

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2 posts above-grow up kids, it is their country? Really. Racism, xenophobia, ignorance...are all okay. Wow, Korean hagwons are really hiring from the bottom of the barrel these days. Have a little integrity. In what world is racism ever okay? I guess yours but I am pretty sure that is about it. There is nothing more uglier than people disliking others based on nothing but a difference of where they where born-which is not a choice to begin with. Sad times.

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#8 here, what makes you think my post makes racism out to be okay? I am simply ponting out the ludicrous position of poster #4 who thinks a justified reaction to poor treatment in Korea is to then go back to your home country and treat Koreans there poorly.

As for sad times, it is indeed and those sad times are the result of stupidity from the West as much as stupidity from the East. 

Re: The Ongoing Fight Against Racism in Korea

Those above who want us to believe things are much, much better in the West are exaggerating. The fundamental difference is in the West we have 'thought police' laws and bans on free speech - which means people are now too smart or too fearful of losing their jobs to express how they really feel about race and other issues under the same free speech bans.

The fact we have such laws and the fact few people dare talk out, does not mean the problems have gone away. They are arguably worse, as people feel marginalised and the lack of honest debate is a ticking bomb. (We have seen great increases in the far right vote in Europe, for example, despite endless ridiculing of these parties by the media and authorities).

Korea does not suffer under such destined to fail nonsense attempts to stifle debate by banning thoughts (impossible) or certain words in public (possible, but futile).

Nothing can be worse than meeting someone in Europe or the US who makes you feel they are all liberal and tolerant - only to find out they are total hypocrites and actually they cannot stand you or your people/colour/sexuality.

At least here you know where you stand (and of course, not everyone here is racist at all).

Really...when you think about an adult, isn't that how things should be? Why muck around with those who are a waste of space and time? It has to be better to know the TRUTH, surely? Maybe you can then change their minds, maybe not - maybe they can educate you.

Pretending - as we do in the West, that all is just fine and dandy, is as outrageous as it is sad .




Re: The Ongoing Fight Against Racism in Korea

In my opinion, racism in Korea is, compared with the "politically-correct West", more easily observable in mundane situations, but in the overwhelming majority of cases it's pretty much harmless racism, such as by refusing entry to a bar. And in all honesty, since Korea has literally hundreds of thousands of bars, who friggin cares?

I would tend to agree pretty much wholeheatedly with the above poster. A majority of Westerners that proclaim they are not racist are in fact deep hypocrites. They have an ingrained sense of cultural superiority, and Westerners in general tend to naturally, if not instinctively, look down on anything Asian or African. I don't even blame them; their whole education and exposure to anything foreign has always been through controlled media (AKA Fox News, CNN, MSN, etc) designed at brainwashing its moronic audience, incessantly regurgitating the same old crap.

And as the above poster has mentioned as well, Europe has seen in recent years a resurgence of ultra-right nationalists (just check the amount of vote, recently, that the far-right party of Le Pen in France managed to gather, or in Greece), not to mention like-minded skinheads, facists, supremacists, mass killers (think Norway and Breivik), and so forth. In the US, it's the same situation, but on steroids. The number of hate crimes and shootings targeting minorities in recent months and years in the US is simply staggering. In Korea, on the other hand, ultra-right groups are, to put it simply, virtually nonexistent. Racism here can get on your nerves, and of course I am not excusing any racial acts or anything, but I am simply pointing out that at least it's harmless, and Koreans aren't hypocrites about it.

But you know, the real drama is the unending vicious circle of Western self-centredness and ingrained sense of superiority; no matter how it sucks back home, Westerners will always find something to whine and complain about somewhere else. Anything just to make others look worse.

All in all, I've been enjoying life in Korea, and when I see a bunch of (Korean) idiots who discriminate me and/or other foreigners--and I know they are a small, harmless minority--I tend to smile and not make too much a big deal out of it. But when I see, everyday and day after day, retarded, uneducated, puerile and immature foreigners whine and complain about how Korea is the most unadvanced out of all advanced countries out there, I just swallow the crap they blatter all day and think, deep inside, that I can't help but understand some of those racist Koreans who refuse entry to certain groups of people...

Re: The Ongoing Fight Against Racism in Korea


After living in Korea for 3 years I would have to say that their 'racism' is actually less about race and more about looking the part.  Especially when it comes to entry into a drinking establishment.  You have to realize that Korea gets a lot of its concepts of foreigners from pop culture, the media, as well as personal experiences.  If you dress and act like a gang or mafia member that they saw in a movie one time, then of course your going to be denied entry.  Unfortunately, the media has always been biased to negativity, so if you look and act the part of someone they saw on the news, then you will get the same results.  You will also find that if you look and act just as someone they have had a bad experience with before, then you will definitely be denied service.  I would say if you want to avoid the racism, then it’s very easy.  Just don’t look and act the part of a douchebag.  If you go to a club with security dressed in suits, then it’s probably a bad idea to try to walk in dressed in a t-shirt, baggy pants, and a gold chain around your neck.  Someone mentioned Club Fix in Seomyeon:  I personally have been there several times and I have never gotten even the slightest hint towards racism.  The guy at the front does a quick look over to make sure each person is dressed appropriately and lets them in if they pass.  I had the reverse situation happen where it was my Korean friend that was having trouble getting in, but after she mentioned she was with me, they let her through.  As far as some of the other situations I read about…. If you show no interest, respect, or knowledge of their culture then it’s obvious that you’re not going to get in.  In any situation where you get denied service straight off the bat, realize that it’s a Confucius culture where the older generation cannot be argued with.  I usually say a quick “미안해요” with a slight bow and turn around.... before I get 2 feet they seem to always change their mind and allow us to stay.  If you argue or get upset then you are going against their culture, and are essentially cementing their feeling that created the situation in the first place.  To sum it up, if you act like a stupid foreigner, then you will get treated like a stupid foreigner.  I do think it’s quite funny that someone who had a semingly racist experience comes to a forum and preaches about it in a racist manner.  It’s not about Koreans vs. Foreigners, people are people, and the people in this country just think in a different manner than those of your own.  You can choose to acknowledge, understand and respect that, or choose to offend them with every word you speak as you haven’t learned the correct way to say something nicely in Korean culture.

Re: The Ongoing Fight Against Racism in Korea

This is actually in reply to 11, 12, and 13.  While i think there is actually a lot of truth in what you say about the hypocritical West - in that we talk a good game but inside there are deep-seated feelings of superiority and racism still there - i think you have gone slightly too far in favour of Korea.

Firstly, although refusal to entry into a bar is fairly harmless it is a symptom of a greater disease.  If you think a mixed race child is better being brought up in Korea than in the West, for example, you may be gravely mistaken.  Bullying is rife in schools because of their 'tainted' bloodline.  Mistreatment is also common of non-white foreigners in workplaces in Korea.  Their form of racism is certainly not harmless and mixed race children will be able to improve their situation very little by just trying to, 'fit in', as their skin colour doesn't allow this.

Your reasons for stating the existence of far-right groups in the West is surely correct, there is much frustration with political correctness but it is also because we are multi-cultural.  There is no need of such parties in Korea, because Korea is not a multi-cultural society and does not pretend to be so.  With Korean nationalism and the pure Korean blood obsession they are already more right-wing than the most right-wing of political parties in the UK (my country), the BNP (British National Party).  So most people are quite right-wing anyway, they don't need a specific party or group for it.

I am also not really sure that freedom of speech is so much better in Korea, I don't know where your proof is for such a claim.  On race, possibly yes, but on many other things like being unpatriotic to Korea, I might be tempted to make a counter-claim.  On the press freedoms index South Korea is about level with the US and below many other Western nations.  Are we really banning thoughts in the West?  Not really.  I hate the PC brigade too but it is not the thought police just yet, that would be exaggerating.

As I said in the article, Korea's form of racism is possibly more harmless (but not that harmless) and I believe there is still a big problem in the West for sure, which I have experience of with my Korean wife.  However, it does no good to defend the situation over here, there is nothing wrong with a bit of intolerance to racism.


Re: The Ongoing Fight Against Racism in Korea


Seomyeon - The Spot (which,when it opened, was highly populated by foreigners) now does not allow foreigners in. 

Fixx club - on occassion, when I am guessing some high roller group comes in with a request not to see foreigners.

Haeundae - SEVERAL bars.





All of these do not allow foreigners, Rabbit and M2 are new, but 24/7 and Seven have been around for awhile and do not allow foreigners. 

I went to hongdae about a month back and there were several bars that were not allowing ANY foreigners in, with other bars not allowing military in.

A clarification to be made - I doubt these places are stopping Japanese or Chinese people from walking in. They aren't checking for Korean passports. 

They are stopping anyone "non asian" looking. I've gone through my rage and anger about this already. I just avoid those places now.

Citing fights and drunken displays from foreigners is not an apt excuse. Koreans love to get drunk, and get wasted. One word - Soju. Tastes like shit, its cheap, and it gets you drunk quick. I don't think i've met a "soju" taste expert who appreciates the difference between C1 and 좋은대이.. 

BUT --- I love it. I don't judge. I see Koreans drunk, and I see foreigners drunk. I've seen Koreans fight, and I've seen foreigners fight. 

The reasons for foreigner bans is simple - comfortability.

A certain class/group of Korean people don't want to be around foreigners. And you might not like the comment, and as arrogant as it may seem, flame me for it, some Korean men don't want to go to their "hunting ground" and compete against a foreign predator for prey. (hah, love this metaphor)


Re: The Ongoing Fight Against Racism in Korea

The commenter above lists the bars/clubs that have been known to deny entrance to foreigners and the thing that strikes me is this:

They're all places that I would NEVER WANT TO GO anyway.  Loud, awful music (read: super shitty hiphop and terrible derivitive K-pop garbage), overpriced drinks, lame, blue lighting everywhere....  In short, they fucking well suck, so let the Koreans have 'em.  

It still is a national shame that they're allowed to be so openly racist here.  Back home such a thing simply would not fly and we all know it.  But when we take inventory, as Westerners, the racism in Korea benefits us far more than harms us.  Koreans are coming along, bit by bit, but it would also behoove us to realize that we are generally on the good end of the deal, as far as racism is concerened.  This doesn't make it right, but a fact is a fact.

In 8 years of hardy drinking in Korea I have only been turned away from one bar because of my skin color, but again, I don't do loud hiphop clubs or terrible "Korean-style" bars with no character and probably the worst music on the planet.

Re: The Ongoing Fight Against Racism in Korea

This is pretty funny. If you want to complain about racism, complain about a situation where you are denied basic rights.

But Clubs and Bars?

They are discriminatory in every country against non-attractive people, poorly dressed people, and poor people.

In that video a group of guys try to get into a club. I've been at bars and clubs in Chicago where groups of guys aren't allowed in.  In fact my friend was a bouncer and he told me the policy was they generally only let in guys who are with girls, and I saw a study of clubs by a DJ from Toronto where he said almost every club in Toronto had a 40% male to 60% female policy.

Listen, not saying there isn't prejudice, but treat clubs here like you would treat them in Chicago, London, or New York. Look sharp and cool when you try to get in. Korean clubs want those kinds of foreigners in there, but they don't want overweight poorly dressed drunkards. 

Maybe that is wrong, but it really isn't any different than clubs around the world.

As a side-note I was a DJ in a club in Korea that had a no-foreigner stigma to it, and yet everyone who worked there was polite to me, and I saw plenty of Koreans not get in, while well dressed foreigners were generally ok.  But guys show up in baggy cargo shorts and ill-fitting t-shirts and are denied and call it racism! HA!