Jasmine Lee, the First Non-Ethnic Assembly Member (Part I)

Dear Korean, 

I was wondering what the Korean thinks about the election of the first naturalized Korean citizen to the National Assembly as part of the Saenuri Party's proportional list. The views expressed in this article appear to represent a radical fringe. The views in this editorial seem like a reasonable response. Clearly there is a range. However, I am curious how most Koreans feel. Is it seen as an important milestone in the development of Korea as a democratic multiracial society? Do most Koreans view this in a way that would be analogous to the first female/minority/openly gay member of parliament in a non-Korean context?

Also, it seems that the Saenuri Party is making a greater effort than other parties to appeal to immigrants to Korea. From a western perspective, this is perplexing as one would expect a progressive party to be more, well, progressive. Could you help to provide some context on this?

Eric M.

First of all, a bit of background on how the legislature elections work in Korea. Korea's legislature is called the National Assembly [국회]. It has 300 members who serve a four-year term. The election system is slightly complicated. 246 of those seats are given to “regional representatives” — i.e. candidates who win a geographical electoral district on a first-past-the-pole basis. 54 seats are given to “proportional representatives,” namely party representatives. This means that each voter casts two votes — one for the representative for her own electoral district, and the other for the party that she supports.

The “district” votes and the “party” votes are counted separately. The “district” votes are counted to determine the winner of the electoral district. The “party” votes are counted to determine how many seats would be assigned to each party. Each party that wins more than 3% of the “party” votes receives a seat based on the support. For example, if a party won 10% of the “party” votes, the party would receive five seats, or approximately 10% of 54 seats. Each party puts out a proportional representative slate that would take those seats. In this scenario, the first five people on the party’s slate would take those seats.

The National Assembly
The last Assembly election was held on April 11. In the last election, the conservative Saenuri Party (also known as the New Frontier Party, or the NFP) put Jasmine Lee at number 15 on the slate. NFP won 42.8% of the "party" votes in the last election, giving the party 25 proportional representatives -- which means Lee was in, becoming the first naturalized Korean citizen to be an Assembly member.

(More after the jump.)

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Lee's story is quite compelling. Born Jasmine Bacurnay in the Philippines, she married her Korean husband who was a sailor in 1995. She moved to Korea the next year, and in 1998 founded the Waterdrop Society, the first civic organization geared toward assisting marriage-immigrant women to Korea. She was tragically widowed in 2010, when her husband died from heart attack while attempting to save their daughter who was swept in the rapids while they were vacationing. (The daughter survived.) Undeterred, she continued to raise her children and live with her in-laws in Korea. She began appearing in movies in 2010, and gained widespread fame by appearing in the 2011 comedy movie Punch, which drew more than 5.3 million viewers.

New Assembly member Jasmine Lee delivers opening remarks. (source)
How are Koreans receiving Lee? It is probably safe to say that there is no single sentiment which most Koreans feel. Many Koreans certainly see Lee's election as a significant milestone, as Koreans are slowly opening up to the idea of being a multicultural society. But the racist attacks are absolutely real. To be sure, it is important not to overstate the prevalence of those attacks. To give a numerical sense, only about 1 to 2 percent of all tweets referring to Lee contained any racist attacks. Yet, as all racist attacks are, they are shrill, damaging and attention-grabbing. Although proportional representatives generally do not make campaign promises, some Internet troll made up the supposed campaign promises by Lee that included over-the-top welfare benefits in an attempt to stoke xenophobia. Other slanderous attacks claimed that she was sold to her husband through a marriage agency, or that she falsely claimed that she was attending medical school in the Philippines. (She was a pre-med in college, which she did not finish as she followed her husband to move to Korea.)

To her enormous credit, Lee has been a profile of grace. In her first interview as an Assembly member, she said she was more concerned about other multicultural families in Korea getting hurt. She added that although she was hurt by those attacks, it was also an opportunity for Korea to prove its inclusiveness, referring to the Koreans around her who encouraged her to stay strong.

To understand Korea's reaction to Jasmine Lee, one has to understand the larger debate in which Lee fits. Beginning around 10 years ago, Korea was set upon the path of being an immigration destination by virtue of its newly found wealth. As Koreans are more reluctant to work in certain jobs that are more physically difficult, or live in areas that are rural and less-than-interesting (or, more specifically, marry the men who live in those areas,) non-Korean immigrants have been filling that gap. In the last decade, those immigrants are beginning to reach a critical mass.

Remember this truth about racism -- racists are animated only if the minority race is in a position to threaten the majority. (Stated differently: race relation is not an issue if one race is not in a position to affect the other.) This perceived threat can come in a variety of different forms. A minority in a position of power is threatening. A large number of minority is threatening, because of the implied power in the numbers. A minority with an official position is threatening. (It is not a coincidence that racists in America love to bash on African American DMV ladies!) A minority perceived to be crime-prone is threatening. In sufficient numbers, any minority with a job can be threatening. ("Dey terk our jerbs!")

[Aside:  this is the primary reason why the Korean still believes that America is the least racist country in the world. Because of the sheer number and influence of minorities in America, white Americans have the most reason to be (irrationally) hateful toward minorities. Yet, by virtue of its long experience with race relations, America handles race relations better than any other country, if that country were placed in a similar demographical situation.]

With non-ethnic Koreans comprising approximately 2 percent of the population, Korea is slowly coming to a point were the minority race can begin to pose a threat to the majority. It is not a coincidence that racist attacks on Lee happened around the same time as the gory murder of a young woman by a Chinese-Korean, who raped, killed and dismembered the victim. Sensationalistic newspapers did not fail to mention that the murderer was an immigrant, which drove the xenophobes in Korean Internet into a frenzy. In this context, the election of Jasmine Lee is particularly threatening to racists in Korea. It did not help that she was elected through the conservative NFP, which claimed a gutty win over the progressives in a closely fought election. As progressive voters are better represented on the Internet, the racist attacks against Lee on the Internet were particularly shrill. (More on this in Part II.)

By having Jasmine Lee front and center in the news, Koreans are facing up to the choice -- is Korea going to be an immigrant-friendly, multicultural country going forward? The no-brainer answer should be a yes. Like all advanced industrial countries, Korea has less native-born people who are willing to do the jobs that immigrants from poorer countries are more willing to do. In fact, Korea has less native-born people, period, because Korea's birthrate has plummet in the last decade to a degree that it is headed for a demographic disaster in 20 years if the situation does not improve soon. Facing this situation, Korea's elites -- regardless of their political persuasion -- are more or less unified behind their support for multiculturalism in Korea. (Prominent progressive personalities, like Professors Chin Jungkwon or Cho Kuk, have been quick to denounce the racist attacks against Lee.)

Ordinary Koreans, however, remain to be persuaded. It is important to note that the scale of racist attacks against Lee has been somewhat overstated, as the conservative media (who tend to be more influential in the traditional media outlets, i.e. newspapers and television) pounced on those attacks as a chance to claim that the progressives, who usually brand themselves as friends of the weak, were ugly hypocrites. But even if Koreans were not engaged in racist attacks against Lee, there is no question that a solid majority of Koreans are not yet sold on the goal of multicultural Korea. They remember the race riots of Los Angeles 20 years ago, the riots that roiled London last year, and German chancellor Angela Merkel declaring that multiculturalism in Germany utterly failed.

But more than anything else, Koreans simply have zero experience in dealing with someone from a different ethnic background, with different-colored skin, eating different food and speaking a different language. The Korean has never met a non-Korean in person until he was 15 -- and that was only because, at the time, the Korean Father was in the business of dealing with a lot of non-Koreans, who were invited to our house. Even today, overwhelming majority of Koreans have never had any meaningful interaction with non-Koreans. This alone will be a significant hurdle toward Korea's inevitable march toward a multicultural society.

Part II will deal with the second part of Eric's question, and give an overview of Korea's politics.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.