SEOUL, South Korea — It all started with a Halloween party at a bar in 2004. Most everyone was wearing a risque costume; the women were showing a lot of skin.
Many foreign English teachers attended. When the photographs made their way to the internet, the English teachers were blamed. Critics objected to the revealing costumes, worn by both foreigners and locals, saying they undermined Korean women.
At around the same time, news reports were circulating in Korea about foreign English teachers getting involved in drugs and sexual crimes, stirring up concern among parents and the public.
An upswing in animosity toward foreign English teachers ensued, during which the group, "Citizens of Right Education" was formed. Citizens of Right Education has taken it upon itself to rid the country of foreign, unqualified English teachers. The group now has more than 17,000 members.
Many of the more than 22,000 English teachers in South Korea find the movement disturbing, and say they are coming up against racism in their adopted home.
Racism hasn’t been a huge issue for South Korea in the past. But as the country continues to climb the economic ladder, the presence of foreigners is growing — as is the multitude of cultural problems that come along with them.
The number of migrant workers, English teachers and bi-racial marriages is on the rise, with the total number of registered foreigners in South Korea at more than 854,000 in 2008 — nearly double the roughly 437,000 from five years ago, according to the Korean Statistical Information Service.
The Association for Teachers of English in Korea (ATEK), founded in 2009 to be an advocate for foreign English teachers in the country, believes the Citizens of Right Education is distorting the image of foreign teachers.
“It is a vocal group of Koreans who are very xenophobic and really focused on English teachers,” ATEK’s Vice President Darren Bean said.
The police are currently investigating a written death threat sent to ATEK’s president, which the association believes was sent by the Korean online group, Bean said.
The head of Citizen’s of Right Education strongly denies the allegation.
“We have said that we will catch the person behind everything and alert the police, but instead they’re saying I did it,” said Yi Eun-ung, the head of the online group. Yi said he is baffled at the accusations and emphasizes that his group is not targeting legitimate teachers who are doing good jobs.
Korea first saw a rise in animosity against English-speaking foreigners more than five years ago when two middle-school girls were killed in an accident caused by U.S. troops stationed in the country. Anti-American sentiments sparked at the time and led to scuffles in bars and in some cases the barring of foreigners from certain facilities.
However, discrimination has been more of an issue for migrant workers from Southeast Asian countries or Chinese ethnic Koreans working in the country. Amnesty International last year called on the country to protect migrant workers saying that they are “exposed to abusive work conditions including discrimination, verbal and physical abuse,” according to a statement posted to their website.
Last year, the country saw its first citizen convicted for making racist comments to a professor from India, while using public transportation. The offender was slapped with a fine for hurling slurs such as “Arabs are dirty,” at the scholar. Lawmakers have since drafted legislation related to racial discrimination but have yet to pass the bill.
Analysts point out that deeply embedded in the Korean psyche is the belief that all Koreans are from a single bloodline — something that could become problematic for a country with a rising foreign population.
ATEK’s Bean believes the local press coverage is biased when it comes to news related to English teachers. Drug use, sexual crimes and violence are some of the dominant issues that have made headlines in the country about foreign English teachers.
The number of arrested English teachers who are on employer-sponsored visas was at 114 in 2007 and 99 in 2008, according to local Yonhap News Agency, citing data provided by lawmaker Lee Koon-hyon from the ruling Grand National Party. However, these numbers are merely near the 0.5 percent range of the sponsored teachers in the country.
It is still those small numbers that Yi’s online group is after.
“We’re not trying to say all those with English-teaching-visas are criminals,” Yi said. When asked whether his activities, which include tailing teachers in question to find evidence, could be seen as invasive, Yi said his group is simply addressing blind spots in the law enforcement.
Postings from the past on the Citizens of Right Education, Yi admits, have contained racist remarks. However, the leader said inappropriate content has been removed and that he consistently monitors postings to ensure they don’t include racist content.
Yi said that most of the members of Citizens of Right Education are concerned parents, and he asks foreign teachers to try to see things from their point of view. His group will try to do the same, he added.