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Trying to teach South Korea about discrimination

English teachers from other countries are battling what they view as part of a troubling trend -- biased visa policy and the idea that foreigners routinely use drugs and commit crimes.

February 24, 2009|John M. Glionna

SEOUL — In three years of teaching English in South Korea, Tony Hellmann says he's seen discrimination both in and out of the classroom.

He knows teachers, he says, who are harassed for having Korean girlfriends. He's met only three black instructors in his time. And he's been denied service in Korean bars.

"I've been told to leave because I'm a foreigner," the 33-year-old Seattle native said.

Now Hellmann is helping wage a campaign against what he views as part of a troubling trend of discrimination against foreigners, this one fostered by South Korean officials: the idea that teachers from abroad routinely use illicit drugs and commit crimes.

A government policy enacted 15 months ago requires nearly 20,000 foreign English teachers to submit to HIV and drug tests, as well as criminal background checks not required of ethnic Koreans.

Many nations, including the United States, require entrants to fill out forms about their sexual and criminal histories, but activists say the situation in South Korea is different because it calls for foreign residents already in the country to submit to compulsory checks.

The tests, ordered by the Ministry of Justice, "reflect a mind-set that foreign teachers are potentially dangerous just because they are foreign," said Hellmann, a spokesman for the nonprofit Assn. for Teachers of English in Korea, which is being launched this month.

Many say the news media here have helped intensify stereotypes faced by the estimated 1 million foreigners living in South Korea.

One 2007 story on foreigners who commit crimes, published in the Chosun Ilbo, the nation's leading Korean-language newspaper, featured a cartoon with three knife-wielding characters chasing down a terrified Korean girl.

In the last year, the National Human Rights Commission of Korea upheld two separate complaints by foreigners -- one that businesses barred black Africans and another that firms set unfair requirements for non-Koreans seeking Internet service.

In a separate case not brought before the board, an African American soldier and mother of one serving in Seoul was recently asked to vacate her apartment after the owners learned she was black.

"We were honest," said a real estate agent involved in the deal, who asked not to be named. "We told her the owners didn't know she was black. When they found out, they wanted her to leave."

Government officials say the rules for E-2 visas -- normally issued to language instructors who are foreigners -- are a reaction to mounting public concern about drug use and sexually transmitted diseases.

Korean authorities in 2007 deported a 55-year-old American teacher on a sex offenders watch list after a child pornography conviction in Los Angeles, officials say. And since 2001, more than 1,400 language teachers who are foreigners have been accused of offenses that include forged degrees and visa violations, according to press reports.

A parliament bill introduced in December would expand the Ministry of Justice's E-2 visa policy. Under the measure, immigration officials could require drug and HIV testing and checks for criminal records of any foreigner seeking a work visa.

The bill's purpose statement says Koreans need "measures to deal with the threat [foreigners] pose to our society's public order and our people's health."

This month, Benjamin Wagner, a law professor at Kyung Hee University, filed a complaint with the human rights commission, arguing that the government's policy regarding English teachers is flawed because it doesn't cover all instructors, such as ethnic Koreans. More than 40% of E-2 visa holders are American and 30% are Canadian.

"An insidious process is unfolding in Korean society," Wagner wrote. "Xenophobic beliefs have been allowed to spread through the media and society and are now threatening to become law."

Susan Kim, an investigator with the rights commission, said, "There is clearly discrimination in Korea today."

"Many people consider Korea to be a homogeneous nation," she said. "For them, foreigners are different. They're viewed as often unwelcome strangers."

At the same time, statistics don't back up suspicions about foreigners, Wagner said.

In the three years before the introduction of the E-2 policy in 2007, he said, no foreign English teachers were arrested for any of the drugs for which they are being tested under the requirement.

Moreover, 2008 government data show that foreigners are arrested for sex crimes at one-fourth the rate of Korean nationals, Wagner said. "Contrary to media hysteria, a drug problem does not exist among foreign English teachers in Korea," he said. "The idea that foreigners pose some kind of greater threat to children is misplaced, both from the perspective of national bias, as well as from the evidence."

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