How Does South Korea View Its Marginalized Groups?

How Does South Korea View Its Marginalized Groups?
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What you need to know

Compared with other marginalized groups, North Koreans are by far the most preferred neighbor in South Korea.

Muslim immigrants, North Korean defectors, and the LGBT community in South Korea have little in common other than that they struggle for social acceptance. How does the South Korean public view these groups? Does any of these groups receive poorer treatment? 

Although support for North Korean refugees appears to have declined, North Koreans enjoy a vastly different treatment with government programs. For one, North and South Koreans share ethnic and cultural ties, and North Koreans are granted South Korean citizenship on arrival. A recent survey shows that 34.6% of respondents believe South Korea should be more welcoming to North Korean defectors, but only 5.4% believe the same for Muslim immigrants. 

Still, many North Koreans struggle to assimilate to South Korea, unused to its technology, food, and even the language, leading to marginalization and significant mental health issues. Such difficulties have resulted in perceptions of North Koreans as lazy, unintelligent, and criminal.

While many Western democracies have welcomed Muslim immigrants, they’re relatively new and small in numbers in South Korea, where Pakistani and Bangladeshi migrant workers comprise the largest groups of population. South Korea’s commitment to accepting refugees other than North Koreans has only taken place since 1994. The country recognized its first non-Korean refugee, an Ethiopian, in 2001. South Korea also sets bar high for asylum seekers. According to Ministry of Justice data, South Korea accepted only 4.05% of refugee applications from 1994-June 2018, compared to global average of more than 30%. 

In 2016, around 670 Syrians were left stranded in South Korea as the government let them stay on a humanitarian visa but would only grant three asylum status. In 2018, 550 Yemeni refugees applied for asylum on Jeju Island, which resulted in a serious public backlash, showcasing beliefs of the importance of racial purity and homogeneity in South Korea. Moreover, Muslim refugees face xenophobic sentiments, as many South Koreans believe that they do not have a place in the country. 

Similarly, messaging regarding the LGBT community has hindered the building of a more tolerant environment. Not only is same-sex marriage illegal, but only 35% of South Koreans support legalization. The South Korean government also fails to enact anti-discrimination laws that would provide protections for the LGBT community. Most recently, a Covid-19 cluster linked to Seoul’s gay district ignited a homophobic backlash. 

Our online survey, conducted by Macromill Embrain in September, presents these groups as potential neighbors to 1,200 South Korean respondents, asking which group they view as the most acceptable in their community. Along with basic demographic questions, respondents were randomly assigned to one of following three prompts to evaluate on a five-point Likert scale (strongly disagree to strongly agree).

V1. I would feel comfortable with a neighbor who was North Korean.

V2. I would feel comfortable with a neighbor who was LGBT.

V3. I would feel comfortable with a neighbor who was Muslim.

We framed the scenario as a neighbor as it suggests a level of proximity while not mandating a personal relationship. North Koreans are by far the most preferred neighbor, with 54% of respondents agreeing to the statement and just over 15% disagreeing. The lack of overwhelming support, however, could imply that the South Korean society remains wary about North Korean refugees regardless of their shared ethnicity. 


Moreover, South Korea tends to weigh economic growth over human rights in terms of national interests, which means North Korean and Muslim refugees can be perceived as an economic strain. From an economic standpoint, many oppose to the government allocating resources to refugees rather than helping its own citizens. 

Members of the LGBT community are preferred next, although they also seem to be the most polarizing group, attaining the lowest number of neutral responses. Meanwhile, Muslims are viewed most negatively, with 37% unwilling to accept them as neighbors. 

Conservative respondents are less supportive of North Korean arrivals. Regarding the LGBT community, women and people with higher education positively correspond with comfort, while older respondents, conservatives, and Protestants have more negative answers. 

South Korea is known for rarely accepting asylum seekers outside of North Koreans, and few South Koreans (around 10%) personally know a member of the LGBT community. Additionally, little data about the South Korea’s LGBT community is available — even basic estimates of the population size are limited, as no nationally representative survey asks this question

Activists may consider promoting other paths of connection, such as positive and developed portrayals of LGBT romances in films and TV shows. Despite the wide variety and international popularity of Korean entertainment, LGBT content is limited even in recent years.

In a homogenous society, South Koreans may lack opportunities or incentives to build relationships with foreigners and likely encounter even fewer Muslims. If the government promoted more positive messaging regarding refugees, it may change how the public views these groups and their legitimate needs. Unfortunately, as the public opinion is unfavorable to refugees, the government likely does not feel pressured to make substantive changes.

Despite the different challenges each of these groups faces, government support and positive messaging could increase the level of social acceptance. Education is key when it comes to shattering false stereotypes and irrational fear. As South Korea becomes more globalized, multiculturalism would no longer be optional but inevitable. But that journey seems a long way off.

Isabel Eliassen is an Honors undergraduate researcher at Western Kentucky University majoring in International Affairs, Chinese, and Linguistics.

Aleksandra Kozovic is a first-year graduate student studying Political Science at Southern Illinois University. She has received her undergraduate degree in International Affairs and Criminology from Western Kentucky University.

Timothy S. Rich is an associate professor of political science at Western Kentucky University and director of the International Public Opinion Lab (IPOL). His research focuses on public opinion and electoral politics, with a focus on East Asian democracies.

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