Race issue enters Korean politics
Ex-ruling party chair's switch to English in addressing naturalized party reform head stirs debate over racismBy Son Ji-hyoung
Published : Nov. 7, 2023 - 15:01
Naturalized South Korean doctor Yohan Ihn's appointment as reform head of the ruling People Power Party in October came as a surprise move in a country with a relatively short history of racial or ethnic diversity in politics.
Following his appointment, the 64-year-old Ihn, also known as John Linton, who is white and the descendant of US missionaries, has faced personal attacks over his ethnicity from political opponents who sought to undermine his power, overshadowing his reform agenda.
At the same time, the issue has opened up opportunities for counterattacks by Ihn's supporters over the bigoted nature of the attacks.
On Saturday, Ihn made a surprise appearance at a conference in Busan, where disgraced ex-People Power Party Chair Lee Jun-seok was scheduled to speak. Ihn attended the conference to meet Lee face-to-face, two days after his party membership suspension was lifted upon Ihn's recommendation.
Lee appeared to give Ihn the cold shoulder and, while onstage during the conference, switched to English and argued to Ihn that he thought it was not the right time to hold such a meeting.
Lee said that Ihn had "failed to meet the prerequisites" for an in-person meeting with him on the grounds that, he believes, Ihn represents the current leadership of the party over which President Yoon Suk Yeol holds sway. Lee further believes that the party leadership has not learned its lesson from its critical by-election loss in Seoul's Gangseo-gu in October.
"The reason I spoke to you in English is," Lee said in Korean, before switching back to English to continue: "You became one of us but you don't look like us as of now. Please be (on) our side, and speak in the same language as we do, and speak in the language of democracy with us, please. I said please."
Ihn later commented in Korean Monday, "Lee Jun-seok talked to me in English. I was very disappointed. ... It was hard being treated like a foreigner."
Despite Lee's claim that he wanted to convey his intentions accurately, Lee's use of English and reference to Ihn as "Mr. Linton" -- although Ihn, a doctor, was born and raised in Suncheon, South Jeolla Province, and speaks Korean -- has sparked a debate over racism in the party.
Kang Sa-bin, a People Power Party spokesperson, criticized Lee on Saturday, accusing him of being "consumed by racial prejudice."
Peter Jongho Na, assistant professor of psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine, noted on Facebook and X, formerly Twitter, on Monday that Lee's switch to a foreign language to talk with Ihn resembles the "Go back to your own country" narrative that is often used to target immigrants.
"Lee's use of English and reference to Ihn as 'Mr. Linton' is obviously a form of racism," noted Na, writing in Korean, adding that Lee "needs to apologize publicly to Ihn."
The critical public reception of Ihn has not been hard to notice in Korea over the last few weeks. Citizens' Press Dandelion, a local citizens' media outlet, in October described Ihn as a "special Korean" who has a "lopsided and superficial understanding of Korea's history and politics."
The comments were made in criticism of Ihn's past remarks praising a controversial historical figure, the late former Gen. Paik Sun-yup, in a news report headlined, "Heavy burden on Yohan Ihn, who loves Korea but does not know much about it."
Experts said that political warfare has erupted over Ihn's background instead of his reform agenda itself.
"Whether (Lee) is making a racist statement or not, he is clearly using an 'ad hominem' pattern of speech and that should be recognized as illegitimate in political discourse," Mark Peterson, professor emeritus of Korean, Asian and Near Eastern languages at Brigham Young University, told The Korea Herald.
"(Lee's) choice of words make one believe it is personal, in addition to policy opinion," Peterson said.
John Lie, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, said Lee "appears to have been aggressively underscoring Ihn's non-Koreanness."
"There's a legacy of monoethnic nationalism (and attendant xenophobia) in contemporary South Korea," Lie added.
Ihn's reform agenda faces a bumpy road ahead, with his plans likely to be rejected as long as party members find it unfavorable to them.
For example, before his encounter with Lee, Ihn had urged veteran politicians, mainly in the pro-Yoon faction, not to vie for parliamentary seats in conservative strongholds like North and South Gyeongsang Provinces in the upcoming general election. Instead, he urged them either to take risks by competing in the Greater Seoul area or drop out.
Ihn had also been considering ways to bar a lawmaker from running for a fourth term or more while representing the same constituency, in an apparent bid to discourage veterans from being reelected for more than three terms in conservative strongholds. There are 31 People Power Party lawmakers who have served at least three terms.
"It seems to me that political rivals will find any excuse to discount an idea or person they don't like," Peterson said.
"It's unfortunate to see this kind of tactic, but if they think it will help them to win, they'll probably do it," he continued.
Ihn made his debut in politics in 2012 as a conservative by assuming a key role in the transition team of former President Park Geun-hye. Ihn is not the first naturalized Korean to step into the world of politics, however.
Jasmine Lee was the first lawmaker at the National Assembly affiliated with the conservative Saenuri Party, the precursor to the People Power Party. She was elected via the proportional representative system in 2012, in which a minority of lawmakers are elected according the percentage of votes their party gets in each election district.
Other naturalized Korean citizens, including Lee Charm and Judith Alegre Fernandez, have also been included on parties' proportional representation lists, but ultimately fell short of getting elected.
Foreign nationals -- even permanent residents -- are not permitted to vote or to get elected during a presidential or legislative election. According to Korea's Political Parties Act, they do not have the right to create or join a political party.
Permanent residents can vote in local elections, but beyond that, foreign nationals must become naturalized Korean citizens to take part in politics.
"South Korea is an aggressively globalizing country with a substantial minority of non-traditional South Korean citizens," Lie said. "Any effort to combat biases and to remedy them should be applauded."
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