Human Rights Is A Global Issue, U.S. Take Note
By Ijeoma Asonye
South Korea needs to improve human rights policies for anti-discrimination laws and cleaner air. The U.S. needs to take notice.
In the last couple of years, South Korea’s pop culture and tourism industries have increased the nation’s global soft power. The nation is a developed democracy, but significant human rights concerns persist. The United States should be concerned, as the lack of effective anti-discrimination laws in South Korea as well as a neglect toward climate justice will have long-term economic and political impact on the relationship between the two countries.
Once an agricultural-based country, South Korea rapidly transformed into a technologically advanced global economy. Reports from 2021 indicate the country has the 10th largest economy in the world. This economy could be troubled if South Korea doesn’t attract 15 million immigrants by 2060, according to the Korea Economic Research Institute. As a creative writing minor in college, I took an interest in writing about Korean culture and researching societal issues like cultural appropriation that came with it. Through my research and coursework, I understood that racial discrimination is prevalent in this largely homogeneous country, and not much is being done about it.
The Constitution of the Republic of Korea prohibits discrimination yet inequality continues to exist in various forms, which shows that it’s ineffective. In 2021, it is not uncommon to see Koreans in blackface or foreigners denied service at businesses. This paints a similarly grim picture of what it was like—and how it can somewhat still be—for minorities in the United States. To avoid history repeating itself, the U.S. should get involved.
From 2006 to 2021, South Korean lawmakers have pushed for an anti-discrimination bill, but it has failed to get past the National Assembly. And although there aren’t effective anti-discrimination laws, South Korea is still relying on immigration policy to address its demographic crisis of low birth rates. The country has been recruiting migrants for potential marriages, including some from the U.S., while failing to pass a non-discriminatory bill. A bill that could protect these migrants from discrimination and racism is needed, in combination with the country’s efforts to increase immigration. If South Korea doesn’t address this, they will see a decrease in foreigners living in the country, which will ultimately hurt economic growth and the global economy. This ripple effect would challenge bilateral economic and trade relations like the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement, which relies on beneficial investment from both countries.
South Korea has acknowledged less formal agreements set forth by the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council to adopt a comprehensive anti-discrimination law, but little has been done to actually enact such a situation. This is the same council that the U.S. sat in until it was abandoned in 2018 under the Trump administration which did nothing to help the flawed body. Under the Biden administration, the U.S. is recommitted to a foreign policy centered on democracy, human rights, and equality. If the U.S. wants to show its commitment, it must immediately get involved in the human rights issues in South Korea that hurt American citizens. The U.S. can use its diplomatic power to ensure South Korea lives up to the UN’s mandate.
In 2021, the UN Human Rights Council recognized that having a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment is a human right, something that South Korea has neglected. According to the World Health Organization, South Korea’s air quality is considered moderately unsafe and is cutting people’s lives short by up to two years. The Ministry of Environment in South Korea has found that about half of the country’s air pollution traces back to outside of South Korea. The air pollution is no doubt influenced by neighboring countries like China, but it is also impacted by countries like the U.S. through modes of trade.
South Korea needs to cooperate internationally in order to analyze its climate change problem and create solutions that address the foreign influence of air pollution. I have researched the relevance of sociolinguistics to climate change with my undergraduate research position at the University of Maryland’s Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering. I have learned that climate change has been part of the oppression and forced displacement of various Korean dialects. The effects of Japan’s colonial rule and environmental destruction have driven out indigenous Korean people, which has led to indigenous language loss. I hope to continue this research in the United States federal civil service while using my mechanical engineering degree to contribute toward product development that could lessen the effects of climate change. In order to solve climate change and prevent the loss of rich histories and cultures that contribute to a global society, we need coalitions of research and action between the U.S. and South Korea. When the U.S. engages constructively with South Korea, positive change for human rights and the global economy are within reach.
I have an interest in South Korea and global current events. I wanted to research more about the discrimination that people of color people face abroad in South Korea, which led me to learn there really isn’t any comprehensive anti-discrimination laws in the country to protect foreigners. Considering how clean air is also now considered a human right, I connected these two fundamental issues present in the country at the moment to write an opinion piece that explains why people outside of South Korea should care.
Ijeoma Asonye is a student entrepreneur, author and artist. She studies mechanical engineering and creative writing at college. She wrote and published the novel, "The Beautiful Math of Coral", one reason being that she loves to tell stories. Ijeoma likes being involved in different modes of expression whether that be doing research in augmented reality, spending a year writing a book or taking a class about graphic novels. She is someone with an artistic soul who likes to explore and engineering doesn’t hold her back, it gives her another way to express her creativity and engineer different forms of art!
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