When you think of countries that are known for their racial diversity, South Korea might not spring to mind. A decade ago, textbooks there praised the so-called “pure blood” of its people, and many took pride in this supposed racial homogeneity.
But, immigration is changing things. By 2020 around 300 thousand Koreans will be from diverse ethnic backgrounds.
One of them is a teenager named Han Hyun-min and he’s challenging the idea of what it means to look Korean.
At age 16, Han Hyun-min is already a veteran of the catwalk.
At the recent Seoul Fashion Week, Han confidently strutted down the runway, wearing ripped jeans and a puffy vest.
He faced the row of photographers, gazed into their flashing lights, and pivoted back around.
Han has a unique look, and he’s quickly rising in as a model. He’s tall, slim and black. But his appearance also alienates him. Han tells me that backstage, some models don’t talk to him because they assume he can’t speak Korean.
“It’s understandable that people think I‘m a foreigner or talk to me in English when they first meet me,” he said. “I know I seem really different from Koreans, until I start talking.”
Han is Korea’s first black model, and he only speaks Korean.
He’s the son of a Nigerian immigrant and a Korean mother, but Han says he doesn’t know much about Africa and has no contact with family there. He’s spent his whole life in Korea, and he feels just as Korean as everyone else here.
But that didn’t stop other kids from teasing him about his looks. “They said things like you have a Korean mother, so why are you black? I felt they were really disgusted by me,” Han told me.
Han doesn’t dwell on those memories and writes off the bullying as just kids being kids.
But he acknowledges that if your skin’s a different colour, life isn’t easy in Korea. There’s a stigma attached to being biracial here, because in the past many of these children were born out of liaisons between US soldiers and Korean sex workers.
Michael Hurt is the son of an African American veteran and a Korean mother, and he lectures in visual sociology at Yonsei University in Seoul.
He says Korean children with a black parent experience much worse treatment than those with a white parent. “Basically if you have a black parent, you are generally lower on the totem pole, because you have dark skin,” Hurt explains. “In Korean culture, dark skin is associated with workers, lower classes”
Hurt says model Han Hyun-min isn’t the first black Korean to achieve celebrity.
He points out that the singer In Soonni has been popular for decades here. But that hasn’t led to widespread acceptance of racial diversity.
“I’m glad for this kid, I’m glad there’s room for someone like this to be out there,” Hurt said. “But at the same time, doesn’t mean people change their views of race or the hierarchies that take place in people’s heads.”
Modeling presents its own challenges for Han Hyun-min. His makeup artist tells me that it’s impossible to buy cosmetics for him in South Korea - most models want to look more white.
But Han doesn’t seem bothered. He says support is flowing in from fans. “Yeah I get a lot of messages. Some people tell me that I look awesome. I have some Nigerian fans, too, and they say they are so proud of me because I’m half Nigerian,” he said.
I ask Han if he’s a role model for racial diversity in Korea. He says that’s still a long way off.
So I ask him about a more immediate concern: if he has a girlfriend. He tells me he’s not that popular, but I’m sure he’s just being modest.
Regardless, Han says that for now, he just wants to focus on his modeling career, and he’s looking forward to getting back on the runway.