As South Korea marked its 65th Memorial Day on Saturday a crowd of 150 people marched along the streets of the nation’s capital of Seoul.
Pedestrians turned to stop and stare as the column continued along its 1.2km route through the shopping district of Myeongdong, the crowd chanting and waving pickets as it went.
But the marchers were not celebrating the countless servicemen who had given their lives in conflicts such as the Battle of Bongoh Town and the Korean war.
Instead, they were expressing solidarity for the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States, and calling for an end to the “everyday racism” to be found in South Korea itself.
The killing of George Floyd, an African-American man who died in Minneapolis on May 25 during an attempted arrest in which a police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes, has not only prompted worldwide demonstrations of solidarity with the American movement, it has forced many countries to re-examine their own attitudes to race and discrimination.
In South Korea it has provided an uncomfortable reminder that despite widespread public acceptance that racism exists, the country still lacks a law to penalise discrimination on the basis of race.
Nine in 10 Koreans accept that “general racism exists in South Korea”, according to a survey by the Women Migrants Human Rights Centre of Korea, while reports of people being denied service at bars or by taxis on the basis of their ethnicity are common.
Yet as Lee Wan, an activist with the Solidarity for Asian Human Rights and Culture, points out, “the country doesn’t even have a legal definition of racial discrimination.”
An attempt in 2006 to enact an anti-discrimination law failed and similar efforts have been stalled ever since, even after the UN Human Rights Committee recommended such legislation in 2015. However, there is some hope, with the National Human Rights Commission of Korea telling the South China Morning Post this week that it was working on a draft law to propose to the National Assembly that would penalise discrimination on the grounds of race, gender and employment status, among other things.
For those marching on Saturday, such legislation cannot come too soon.
“People have asked why I organised such a protest in our country, but I know that there are migrant workers, multicultural families and international students who face discrimination even here at home,” said Shim Ji-hoon, the 34-year-old social worker who organised the march.
“[If attitudes don’t change] what happened to George Floyd might happen here too.”
A black protester who joined the march, who works as a teacher and asked not to be identified, explained: “Racism here is when I find a seat in the subway and people avoid sitting next to me, or when my friends and I are turned away from clubs for no reason, or when jobs only want to hire white candidates.”
One of the most visible forms of prejudice, said Lee, was against migrant workers from developing Asian countries who worked in low-paid but intensive labour jobs.
“Korean bosses talk down on migrants who are not from advanced economies and even physically abuse them at times,” he said, adding that migrant workers were often sent to the most dangerous construction sites without the proper safety education or tools.
A 2017 report by the Ministry of Employment and Labour found Korean workers had a 0.8 per cent chance of being involved in an industrial accident, while foreign workers had a 1.16 per cent chance.
Lee said the coronavirus pandemic had made the situation worse. “Immigrants, who paid taxes and acted like any other ordinary resident of the country, were excluded from receiving emergency supplies of masks and disaster relief funds at the onset of the pandemic,” he said.
One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.