This is the fourth in a five-part series that concentrate on residents in Korea from four separate countries: Indonesia, Myanmar, the Philippines, and Vietnam. These discussions illustrate some aspects of the issues, what has been done to address them, and with recommendations for future action.
By Esther Chung
“Child, remember these words, the enemy killed 36 villagers, whose bodies are buried in a bomb crater.” Such is the lyric of a lullaby sung in Binh Hoa, originating from the massacres of Vietnamese civilians by U.S. and Korean troops in 1966. Korea and Vietnam share a historical war relationship that cannot be overlooked.
Acting to improve relations, former President Kim Dae-jung delivered an official regret to Vietnam in 1998 and memorials were built in the attacked villages. Although the Vietnamese officials have replied cordially, conflicts linger on the unofficial level. Historical wounds are not easily healed. Korea’s ties with Vietnam today deserves more attention.
Korea and Vietnam have intimate economic and social ties. Korea’s foreign direct investment (FDI) in Vietnam ranked the highest of its investments in the ASEAN nations in 2009 ― $1.8 billion. This year, the registered Vietnamese immigrants numbered 139,285, including 35,355 marriage immigrants ― the second highest after the ethnic Chinese.
Some 200 multicultural family support centers have been established in Korea’s 16 main cities and provinces to accommodate the large influx of foreign immigrants. Laws were issued to protect and support the changing dynamics of family structures and citizenship, including the Nationality Act, the Immigration Control Act, the Multicultural Families Support and the Framework Act on Treatment of Foreigners. Despite such laws, Korea faces many problems with the Vietnamese immigrant population, especially in the familial realm.
In the past two years, two Vietnamese wives were murdered by their Korean husbands. The divorce rate in multicultural families in 2006 has leaped to 40.6 percent, seven or eight times higher than the divorce rate between Koreans. Two out of every 10 children of multicultural families struggle from group isolation at school. Although the governmental and unofficial bodies made progress in encouraging harmony between immigrants and Koreans, problems continue.
The multicultural centers need administrative remodeling for foreign wives. Of the total of 214,458 marriage immigrants and naturalized marriages, 86.9 percent are wives. Despite the increase of multicultural centers, the Ministry of Health and Welfare said that the married immigrants’ participation rate in these programs is only 17 percent.
The centers should extend the working hours, as many multicultural wives are not available during daytime. In addition, more specialized classes and support are necessary to help the wives enter higher-skill working force. For example, specialized classes and daycare support for wives can help them hold more multicultural-awareness classes at schools, granting them stable jobs.
Equal opportunities available to the immigrants will improve their image and change the Korean nationals’ perception. As to the husbands, 11 centers currently provide cultural education for them, but an expansion of such programs are needed to prepare the husbands for their multicultural marriages. Lastly, an integrated system of immigration services is needed, as many immigrants have trouble locating a single center that specializes in immigrant support.
Korean multicultural education needs a systematic reorganization for the second-generation multicultural children. The number of multicultural children has grown 23.9 percent to 151,154 this year from a year earlier, of whom the Vietnamese-Koreans placed the second highest. Attending Korean schools while growing up with a mother who speaks little Korean, these children face an identity crisis at school and at home.
Some schools organized separate classes to accommodate these children, but only engendered feelings of further exclusion. Perhaps an educational decree that requires a KSL (Korean as a second language) teacher at schools with multicultural children may be effective.
Children also need to be able to communicate with their mother in her native language. More funding and expansion of multilingual programs like those run by Save the Children may prove effective. As 86.8 percent of these children are in elementary school or below, a quick action is needed to help them adjust at a younger age.
Because Vietnam shares a Confucian tradition, many Vietnamese wives have entered Korea under the encouragement of the local government to prevent further depletion of rural workforce. Cultural misunderstandings and economic difficulties resulting in a rapidly increasing divorce rate led to 936 departures of Vietnamese-Korean children (of Korean citizenship) since 2008.
Continued discrimination against the immigrant wives will only lead to a further exodus of these children, and unresolved rural population depletion. Korea needs to recognize and respect its Southeast Asian immigrants, largest of them being Vietnamese.
The Vietnamese immigrants in Korea may be the link for the two nations to overcome the unfortunate legacy of the war. As many Vietnamese harbor the Korean dream, perhaps it is time for Korea to dream the Vietnam dream.
Esther Chung is a rising junior studying international politics in Georgetown University. She is studying at Yonsei University this summer.