THE KOREAN PROBLEM

In the 109th minute of the 2011 Asian Cup final against Australia, Japan finally broke the deadlock with a beautifully timed volley. But the name on the back of the scorer’s shirt could not be less Japanese. It was Lee Tadanari’s first international goal, but until 2004, he had hoped to score it for another nation.

Despite being born and raised in Japan, having Korean parents meant Lee preferred to play his international football for South Korea rather than Japan. In 2004, he was one of the names on the provisional call-ups for South Korea’s U-19 national team, but it was then when he decided to give up his Korean citizenship as some of the players, while training at the Paju National Football Centre, called him a half jjokbari – a racial slur used against the Japanese. Funnily enough he was under the Korean media’s spotlight after he was called up by Japan boss Alberto Zaccheroni to the senior national team and eventually scored the winner in the Asian Cup final.

Whilst it was widely said in South Korea that it was their own fault that Lee gave up his Korean citizenship to become a Japanese national, the level of aversion against Japan is still very high. In the semi-finals of the same tournament between Japan and South Korea, Ki Sung-Yueng scored the opener from the spot only to racially insult the Japanese by making a monkey face in front of a TV camera. Many Koreans criticised the Celtic player, but unfortunately just as many, if not more, thought ‘It’s okay because they’re Japanese’, or, even worse, they actually ‘felt good’.

The most dangerous thing here is that they are not aware of the severity of these gestures. It all goes back to Korea’s ethnic nationalism which is based on their belief of racial purity. Probably through little fault of their own, the Korean population were educated in a way to believe in their pure bloodline and be proud of it, but this ‘pride’ often leads to hypocrisy. 2006 Super Bowl MVP Hines Ward was born to a Korean mother and an African American father serving in the US army, and, unfortunately in Korea, having a black husband and a biracial kid meant his mother was heavily frowned upon and even spat on by others. However, as he became the Super Bowl MVP in 2006, Ward was suddenly hailed as a hero and regarded ‘one of us’ back in Korea. He then visited his mother’s homeland for the first time since he was just a year old and set up a foundation for biracial children who are suffering from discrimination.

In South Korea, all foreign sports players are called ‘mercenaries’ – whilst Koreans playing abroad are simply referred to as ‘foreign based’ players – by the fans, papers, players, coaches, clubs, etc., and recently, Choi Kang-Hee, Coach of the South Korean national team, made a request to naturalise one of these so-called ‘mercenaries’. Brazilian winger Eninho is in, after a brief spell at Suwon Samsung Bluewings in 2003, his fifth consecutive year in the K-League, playing for Daegu FC from 2007 to 2008 before joining his present club Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors in 2009. With Park Ji-Sung retiring from international football, Bolton’s Lee Chung-Yong unfit, and Park Chu-Young amidst controversy regarding his military service, Choi needed an attacking player he could count on and therefore wanted to bring him on board via ‘special naturalisation’, which waives otherwise necessary exams and allows dual citizenship. However, Eninho’s case was rejected by the Korean Olympic Committee for the player’s ‘inability to speak the Korean language and little understanding of the Korean culture’. Although Choi Kang-Hee, man who knows the Brazilian better than most, argued that Eninho’s desire to become a Korean national is genuine and his lack of language skills should not be a problem, the FA’s second attempt was also rejected for the same reason.  Rejecting a case due to doubts over the applicant’s honesty seems reasonable, and surely the FA have dealt with the issue way too hastily, but was it really all about him not being able to speak the language? Choi Kang-Hee also grew up and spent all his life in Korea and therefore surely believes in the country’s pure bloodline theory, which means he really must have been convinced that – and is in the best position to judge whether or not – Eninho’s desire was a pure one.

So now the question is, if Hines Ward – who had been ‘ashamed of’ and had ‘despised’ his Korean roots – applied to become a South Korean citizen, would his case be rejected as well? Given the fact that he was made an honorary citizen by the Korean government, it is quite unlikely. One cannot blame Ward for his pre-2006 aversion against Korea, but chances are, although neither of the two speaks the language, Eninho, having lived in the country for years, has a much better understanding of the culture and perhaps the only difference between the former Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver and the Brazilian is that the former has a native Korean parent. Rather than the inability to speak the language, it is the general consensus that makes this process such a difficult one. After all, this is a country that calls foreign sports players ‘mercenaries’. This is a country where foreigners are required to take HIV tests in order to obtain a work visa, and when the shot-callers are those people who view you as a money loving mercenary and a potential medical threat it becomes incredibly complicated.

Eninho will probably never play for South Korea, but there will soon be other players who will want to don the Asian giants’ red shirt. However, it is unlikely anything will change unless the country starts to see the flaw in its obsession with pure bloodlines, which, truth be told, unfortunately resembles the Nazi ideology. It took a Super Bowl MVP to raise awareness – at least to some extent – of discrimination against biracial people, and even if there is still so much to work on, it is a start. Maybe it will take a non-Korean-looking player representing their national football team to start accepting and embracing diversity.

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