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Animosity against English teachers in Seoul

As South Korea climbs the economic ladder, the presence of foreigners is growing — and so are complicated reactions to them.

A foreign English teacher talks with South Korean children in Seoul, May 25, 2008. (Jo Yong-Hak/Reuters)

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.