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[Kim Seong-kon] Conspicuous forms of discrimination in our society

Anyone who has lived in South Korea long enough has likely encountered subtle or even open forms of discrimination. Perhaps one of the most conspicuous forms of discrimination in Korea is ageism. Ageism is taboo in most advanced countries, but in Korea, a supposedly Confucian country, many people openly practice it.

Not long ago, our newspapers were full of headlines declaring the urgency of revoking senior citizens’ privilege of riding the subway for free or carrying out pension reforms that might even affect people who are already retired. Recently, a driver in his 60s caused a fatal car accident near City Hall Station in Seoul, killing nine pedestrians. Our newspapers are now flooded with articles highlighting calls to restrict or refuse to issue driver’s licenses to senior citizens.

Such a bias in public opinion comes from the tendency to stereotype older people. The above car accident was simply the personal problem of the driver, not the issue of all people in their 60s or 70s. Physical strength varies from one person to another and there are 70-year-old people whose physical health is equivalent to people in their 50s.

Besides, as everybody knows, younger drivers, too, very often cause terrible car accidents. It may be argued that older drivers have caused frequent car accidents lately. But if we accept that reasoning, we might as well propose that all young people in their 20s and 30s should be castrated simply because those age groups tend to commit the majority of sex crimes, according to recent studies.

The public reaction to the traffic incident mirrors our attitude toward those who are weaker. When we see those who are weaker, such as children or older people, we should try to help them out, not disparage them or attack their relative vulnerability. On the contrary, we tend to do the opposite, while we quail before the strong. We also think that older people are no longer "useful" and thus that they are annoying burdens.

Whenever the election season comes, our politicians in the Democratic Party of Korea frequently utter discriminatory remarks against older people because they do not vote for the so-called progressives. We still remember some of the derogatory remarks against the old by our biased politicians: “Those who are in their 60s and 70s do not need to vote. They should rest at home,” or “Men’s brains begin to deteriorate in their 60s.”

Younger people never seem to think that they, too, will get old. When they grow older, deprived of their driver’s licenses, their free transportation cards and with scarcely any retirement pension, such people will then belatedly realize that they have been myopic.

Another embarrassing bias in Korean society is regional discrimination. If you are from a particular province, that region becomes a permanent stigma on you, and people look at you with their stereotyped biases about the region, even though everything depends on the individual.

Where you went to school is also a source of discrimination in Korea. The university you graduated from, for example, is a perpetual brand label and when people see you, they only see your university, not you. If you are a graduate of the top-ranked "SKY" universities, therefore, people will look up to you, no matter how despicable or incompetent you are. Of course, the same thing works the other way around, as well.

Not only universities but also high schools can be a source of discrimination in Korea. To foreigners, it must appear that Korean people cannot entirely overcome a juvenile mindset because they are so strongly attached to their high schools. Naturally, graduates of the same high school or university flock together. Therefore, if you are a graduate of a nameless secondary school or college, you are likely to be a social pariah in Korea.

In the US, there are Ivy League alums, too. They might have their own league, but this league does not serve as a standard by which to measure the entire society. For example, when the US government established the CIA right after World War II, “Yalies” or Yale graduates played a crucial role. Yet, whether one is a Yale alum is not a standard by which to measure all members of US society. In Korea, however, one’s alma mater is so important that it affects everybody and the whole society. It is like a price tag attached to every person.

In Korea, even kids join in to practice discrimination. Among Korean children, the size of one's apartment is often a cause for discrimination. For example, kids from bigger apartments do not play with those who are from smaller apartments. We should teach our children not to discriminate against others for any reason.

Perhaps related to the small size of the country, Koreans are size-sensitive and admire big, grandiose things. They tend to shrink before physically big people or countries while becoming dauntless before people or countries of smaller stature, even if they are actually very strong.

Today, Korea has many immigrants. We should treat them equally, regardless of their country of origin and embrace them as one of us. Any kind of discrimination is wrong. We must build a discrimination-free society.

Kim Seong-kon

Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. The views expressed here are the writer’s own. -- Ed.

By Korea Herald (