King Gojong, Korea's last monarch, didn't think much of foreigners. "Uneducated louts," he called them, driven by "lechery and sensuality." But that was 1882, when American missionaries were knocking at his country's door, and Gojong could do little to stop their evangelical advance. The kingdom, he realized, would have to cope with the outsiders. Learn from them, he told his people, but beware their lustful ways.
More than a century later, South Korea, a thriving nation of 50 million, is coming to terms with a different sort of outsider: foreign English teachers. Demand for English training brings upwards of 20,000 foreigners to Korea each year. They work in public schools and private academies, teaching the language of global business to a generation of achievement-oriented youth. For the most part, they are well received. But every few years, a fresh wave of anti-foreign teacher sentiment shines a light on the nation's lingering xenophobia.
This year, tensions over mandatory HIV/AIDS tests for foreign teachers have re-surfaced, sparking a heated national debate. In 2007, a series of sensational press reports fueled rumors that foreign English teachers were molesting students and spreading HIV/AIDS. Though the reports were never substantiated, the government began to require that all foreign teachers get tested for HIV, including those who were already in the country. Those who tested positive could have their contracts canceled and faced deportation.
Three years later, the law persists, though ethnic Koreans are exempted, regardless of where they are born or raised. Says Andrea Vandom, a former teacher who is petitioning a constitutional court over the tests: "I was being pinpointed a s disease carrier simply because I am not of Korean blood."
Indeed, most anti-teacher sentiment seems to turn on the Gojong-era notion that non-Koreans are predisposed to vice. To a certain extent, this is understandable: American soldiers stationed in Korea have indeed fueled the country's sex industry. But they are hardly the only customers a fact many anti-teacher campaigners seem keen to forget. This summer, a Korean newspaper, the New Daily, ran an exposé on Itaewon, a Seoul nightclub district popular with teachers and tourists. The headline called the area a "loser's paradise" where Korean women are "ruined." "Among foreigners in Itaewon clubs, you'll see that there are almost no decent ones," said the story's lone source, Lee Eun-ung, a prominent anti-teacher campaigner. "Black people or southwest Asians especially like to lie about their nationality and approach women saying they'll teach them English," he said. But, he warned, they're only after one thing: "perverted sex."
Lee, of course, doesn't speak for all or even most Koreans. Most foreigners in Korea, including foreign English teachers, say they are welcomed by their Korean students and colleagues. The influx of English teachers is part of a decades-old push to internationalize the economy, and fluency in English helps a large number of Korean students attend prestigious schools, particularly in the U.S.
Nevertheless, over the past five years Lee's views and the views of the 'Anti-English Spectrum,' the group he founded in 2005, have increasingly seeped into the mainstream. Lee founded the Anti-English Spectrum after a web forum for English teachers called 'English Spectrum' organized a "sexy costume party" in Hongdae, a university district in Seoul. Pictures from the party showing Korean women drinking and dancing with foreign men were posted online, sparking furor among parents, politicians and the press. The women in the now-notorious photographs were denounced as yanggongju, the Korean word once used to shame military prostitutes or those suspected of sleeping with American servicemen. "Some online articles and [members of the ]Anti-English Spectrum said we were prostitutes, yanggongju and brothel keepers," one of the women pictured told a newspaper in 2005. "Because of the media's selective reporting and the netizens' collective madness, we are suffering incredible mental anguish."
The anti-foreigner campaign continued when a report titled "Is Korea their Paradise? Report on the Real Conditions of Blond-haired, Blue-eyed Teachers" aired on SBS, a national television network that year. The piece shows a foreign man logging on to the English Spectrum website. He's then shown in a bedroom with a Korean child. The camera cuts away with a warning that English teachers engage in sexual relations with middle and high school students and smoke pot. This type of story, says Michael Hurt, a former English teacher who is now completing a Ph.D. in Seoul, has helped turn teachers into an "easy target" for ultra-nationalists. They're associated "with pretty much every other malady society fears: interracial sex and marriage, HIV, drugs and even child molestation," he says.
It was in this politically charged mood that mandatory HIV/AIDS testing for teachers came about. In October 2007, a Canadian man named Christopher Paul Neil who had once taught English in Korea was arrested for sex crimes against children in Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia. Though he was never linked to sex crimes in Korea and was not known to carry HIV, his arrest sparked panic among Korean parents, who, understandably, worried about screening criteria for teachers. In the frenzy that followed, the government promised to make sure all foreign teachers underwent a criminal background check as well as an HIV test.
The program has been widely criticized as ineffective and discriminatory. There are no known cases of a teacher-student infection, and health experts worry that selective testing fuels the misconception that HIV/AIDS is only a 'foreign' problem, frustrating prevention efforts among Korean citizens and further stigmatizing the people who are, in fact, infected. Though mandatory HIV tests for prospective workers is not unheard of, they are increasingly rare, thanks, in part, to opposition from rights groups. "Excluding and deporting HIV positive non-citizens will not lead to a safer or healthier South Korea," wrote Joseph Amon director of the health and human rights division of Human Rights Watch, in an editorial to the Korean Times. "Expanding HIV prevention and treatment and respecting human rights will."
Indeed, many believe the visa requirements violate the rights of teachers. In addition to Human Rights Watch, the Association of Teachers of English in Korea and others have criticized the officials for playing to xenophobic fear about non-ethnic Koreans. "You simply cannot discriminate on the basis of race," says Benjamin Wagner, a professor at Seoul's Kyung Hee University Law School. Wagner and the Association of English Teachers in Korea have both filed (separate) complaints with the National Human Rights Commission regarding mandatory HIV checks. Wagner has also advised Andrea Vandom and another former English teacher who is suing over the tests. Both cases are pending. Last month, Ban Ki-moon, secretary general of the United Nations, urged his country to abolish the program.That looks unlikely to happen anytime soon. In November, the government ended a similar program mandatory HIV testing for migrant workers and those on 'entertainment' visas. Teachers, however, must still get tested. In the wake of the decision to continue testing foreign English teachers, education officials struggled again to justify the rule and, in the process, showed a startling lack of knowledge about the disease. "We've decided to ease the rules as HIV is not transmitted through air or water but through human contact most of the time," a health official official told the press last month. Another official from the Ministry of Education also waffled on the reasons for keeping the teacher tests: Mandatory HIV/AIDS testing for foreign English teachers "does not mean the government regards foreign teachers to be HIV positive or have the potential of transmission," he said. "It is just intended to assure the parents." Mixed messages on HIV are certainly no great assurance. For now, the tests and the stigma stay.