Antiblack racism in Korea
Liazzat Bonate | December 3rd, 2013


Outsiders must have wondered about the extent of Korean racism when images of a campaign for a cigarette brand featured monkeys rolling tobacco “in Africa” as well as monkeys dressed as news reporters and declaring “Africa is coming!” (see above), went viral. The campaign was for a new brand, “This Africa,” by the South Korean Tobacco and Ginseng company (KT&G). The company later withdrew the ads, but only after the global backlash. But even before this episode there was some discussion about whether racism here is related to the historical idea of ‘one blood one race,’ that is at the root of Korean identity and nationalism or whether it imported. Racist representations are very common in the public sphere, particularly on TV, with blackface and other stereotypical depictions of black people, quite widespread. So, why do South Koreans behave this way?

One reason may be a misplaced (or erroneous) idea of ‘superior blood’ related to the national identity; an idea that has been discredited elsewhere. A second is that most of the TV programs are for Koreans and in Korean, and it seems to be quite acceptable to behave this way among their ‘own.’ TV programs as well as cigarettes ads such as ‘This Africa’ are intended for a national market, which translates into a 50 million-strong and almost entirely homogeneous South Korean population. Despite the existence of African studies in at least one university of the country, I have never heard anyone condemning this type of behavior or attitudes in public.

Knowledge of Africa is not considered essential in schools here or the career prospects of students. So, people simply have no idea about Africa, except that it is ‘black’, ‘very far’ and ‘primitive’. Even graduate students in history are not ashamed to describe Africa as ‘backward’, a place whose nature ‘is not spoilt because it is not civilized’, and that Africa has not contributed to the common human ‘civilization’, etcetera.

But Korean racism is also imported because South Korea has had no or little historical experience with Africa, Africans or with black people. Here the problem arises from the self-identification of the locals with ‘whiteness’ which in their minds is economically-based, among other things. So, if South Korea has a strong economy, it became part of the ‘white club’ and could espouse ‘white’ attitudes towards Black people (and others for that matter), but especially towards Africa because its economic underdevelopment is a constant reminder of ‘its backwardness’.

Being a part of the ‘white club’ entails adopting ‘developmentalist’ and ‘charitable’ attitudes towards Africa akin to that of other members of the ‘club’. Thus, it is quite common to see on South Korean TV pictures of starving black children and programs where local celebrities visit poor African communities and villages, all intended to collect donations for Africa.

The cigarettes advertising with images of the apes were only removed when South Korean bureaucrats realized that they were too visible and too public, that anyone–especially foreigners–could see them, and that this fact could affect the image and reputation of the country.

Otherwise, the ads did not seem to represent any problem for local people. The ad campaign was visible everywhere in the city of Seoul for almost two months with no public discussion or condemnation, and were removed with almost no noise except for the KT&G’s insistence on maintaining the image of baboons rolling tobacco leaves near African round huts on the packaging of the cigarettes.

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Liazzat Bonate

A Mozambican citizen of Kazakh (Soviet) origin, Biazzat previously taught history at Eduardo Mondlane University in Maputo. Now teaches African- and gender history at Seoul National University.

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22 thoughts on “Antiblack racism in Korea

  1. Being overly sensitive, are we? “”We absolutely had no intention to offend anyone and only chose monkeys because they are delightful animals that remind people of Africa,” she said.” Had the tobacco come from Sweden, they may have used a moose. But we don’t grow tobacco.
    Racism is common in the Far East, as both white and black have experienced. In Japan my friend from Chile was barred from entering some establishments because he was red indian (to me he looks Japanese, almost).
    But is there more racism there than in Europe or in Africa? I’ve often encountered racism in West Africa. Not least black towards other black, or dark-skinned people.

    • So…you are saying that since it happens over there it is justified over here…In the 1930s-1940s it was fashionable to brand Jews in Germany by making them wear the star of David….open your eyes and speak out against any form of racism or public announcement that reinforces racial stereotypes…!!!!

  2. The way this is written is problematic. Of course Korea has a racism issue, but the assumptions made here and the analysis is poorly researched. I’ve written a response at

    I find it a pithy that an important issue like this is so written so sloppy about on a website that usually provides real and valuable analysis of such issues.

    • I went over to your blog because judging by your name you’re Korean (or of Korean descent) and I wanted to see what exactly in this article frustrated you enough to label it “sloppy”. I in turn found your response to be not only frustrating but defensive of South Korean racism and showing poor understanding of the kind of treatment Africans face from South Koreans. For the record I’m Nigerian and I work with South Koreans in Nigeria. When I reached the paragraph above that mentioned Korean self-identification with ‘whiteness’ (in the economic scene) and their adopting white attitudes towards Blacks, I was nodding my head in agreement because that is a sentiment that has been echoed by my Nigerian colleagues who have to deal with anti-Black racism from South Koreans everyday. The kind of racism we deal with ranges from verbal to physical abuse and I’ve heard my colleagues say often “do these Koreans think they are white?” or some variation of the question. It actually makes a lot of sense to us, considering the impact of colonialism and white supremacy the world over. The genius of whiteness is that it doesn’t need the presence of white people to continue functioning, if the way white privilege affects Korean manifests through skin bleaching and eyelid surgery, you need to ask yourself how white privilege manifests in the way Koreans view those who have been deemed inferior by the same structure.

      From my experience, and my interpretation of this article, no one is “implying that Koreans either have some – or simply have, full stop – white privilege” rather it is that Koreans value whiteness as above to Blackness, and yes as such gravitate towards whiteness. It is the same case where in Nigeria, Koreans will prefer the company of whites to Africans temporarily forgetting about the racist treatment they may receive from the white, or view themselves as closer to “white” thus aligning themselves to whiteness and as such rejecting and demeaning Black Africans as “backward” and lower than them (and the whites). As you noted in your response, there is definitely some anti-Asian sentiment in Africa, not only South Africa but also Nigeria. I would say that this anti-Asian sentiment, at least in Nigeria has grown as a *response* to the way Asians treat us, and with the number of Asians in Nigeria increasing daily this kind of discrimination is not likely to go anywhere soon. I hesitate to label the anti-Asian sentiments Africans may hold towards Koreans, or other Asians, “racism” because racism denotes power and Africans have no power over Asians. At my workplace, it is the Koreans that have the power to fire us and leave us unemployed. Africans are not putting up (global?) ad campaigns featuring offensive images of Koreans.

      I think you could do more in trying to educate your people on how not to be anti-Black rather than been so defensive. I have grown tired of people trying to explain away anti-Black racism from Koreans as “ignorance”, it has really passed the stage of ignorance. How many times are we going to decry South Korean blackface, the appropriation of African American culture in Korean pop, or images such as the one that prompted this post before people will stop bringing up ignorance?

      • I’m not defending racism in Korea, or by Koreans… the large majority of Koreans are extremely racist and there is no defending about it. The “defensiveness” perhaps is due to the fact that there are unfound assumptions made as to Korea and Korean society and history, which are poorly researched. I take issue with it because of the usual insight on this blog, and the way they rise up against stereotypical views of Africa.

        Perhaps your reading of the article is different, and I respect that, but I do believe that it is based upon assumptions that are unsound and need to be challenged. In order to address racism in Korea one needs to understand where it comes from.

        In terms of “anti black” racism, I do not agree with it, as as racism in general is i.e. anti-”insert ethnicity/race” by definition. To say that they specifically single out Africa doesn’t make sense from my point of view, as there is plenty of anti-chinese, japanese, indian, arabic, latino racism equally present.

        I do hope you would consider posting your criticism on my blog as well, as it is always good to have discussion about these issues, and as always I do believe that I – like any other – should be held accountable for what I write if it is interpreted or written as an excuse for racism, as it is the last thing I would want to do.

      • But really, who’s fault is that? Why would anyone let someone into their own country and allow then to mistreat them? Nigeria and Africa can’t be that desperate.

      • @Tomi, I completely agree with you and I must say that if South Koreans I made to choose between marrying a white person or a black person, they will certainly go for the white person (it is seen as trendy nowadays apparently, well certainly when it comes to women).

    • Dear HeJin Kim,
      I have read your blog just now (great self-promoting, by the way!) And I should thank you for repeating and confirming everything I said, albeit in different words. Thank you, indeed! Economic racism is a common thing nowadays, it is on top of other types of racisms, and it stems from the European colonialist ‘civilizing missions’ and ‘development and welfare projects’ of the 1940s, and it was re-adopted during the Structural adjustment programs (SAPs)of the 1980s/1990s. This resulted in the proliferation of aid-oriented and civil society movements (NGOs) directed towards Africa or working on the continent. It is strange that a country with no historical links to Africa would adopt ‘developmentalist’ and ‘charitable’ attitudes today without analysing the implications. Such countries need to work on their own original approaches to African problems rather than emulating others, and thus, assuming similar (neo-colonialist and racist) attitudes of the yesteryear.

  3. It’s not because they had no contacts with Africans, Europe had contact with Africans but yet in Eu schools you learn nothing about Africa. A country like France don’t teach nothing about Africa even if they have many Africans. USA have minorities with roots in Africa and South America but they teach Mayans but nothing about Africa, as the Malian Empire or Zimbabwe civilization.
    They simply don’t care and are racists (Europeans) and Koreans simply follow the lead, shouldn’t they? They are trying to become westerners and using western ideas is a good way to recreate the illusion.

  4. I am sorry but Racism is here to stay, as long as you have Black people in this world. our crime against the world is being born black. My black friends do not despair hold your heads straighten your backs and thank God everyday because we are a strong people.

    • How could despair not be an option Ms. Racism is here to stay. As a Black man living in America I certainly hope not! Screw racists. The dumb idea really should be banned. No more camouflage no subtleties no upfront in your face bigotry GONE. A small pebble and a giant stone both fall at the same speed in water, ergo, genocide is genocide. To kill us slow (Australia) or end it quickly (Australia again) is still Black death. I’ll say this: anyone who needs to be acknowledged as white will always need us for that purpose… they can’t just be white or Korean or pure blooded whatever without labeling us first. That won’t ever change. Check the ad. Lol dumbasses just can’t be content superior my Black – or whatever I choose it to be – ass.

  5. I recall watching some video on Youtube about a Korean pop star, saying he was in New York City and had to change clothing so foolishly he used someone’s van without them knowing… the person said he was caught but there was no hard feelings… saying he was glad it was a white guy that owned the van, saying if it were a black guy he fears he would have been killed.

    I started to wonder where is this perception that black people commit more crimes or are more violent coming from. So I looked into Asian-American violence victims and was shocked to discover that nearly 90% of violence they face is at the hands of African-Americans, the perpetrators often saying “Asians are easy targets”.

    I wish racism didn’t exist, but it’s easy to see where these fears are coming from. We must first change ourselves before we can expect others to change their opinions.

  6. @Mark Your comment is flat dumb. “We must first change ourselves before we can expect others to change their opinions.” Total nonsense. I bet you’re not even black. Typically white-supremacist thinking, black people commit crimes, so we must profile and fear all black people.

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