Fighting for diversity in the ‘Land of Squid Game’

Educator, and author of ‘Land of Squid Game’ Min Byoung-chul talks about why he now devotes himself to diversity and inclusion.

Jung Min-kyung

Jung Min-kyung

The Korea Herald


Min Byoung-chul, head of Sunfull Foundation and an endowed chair professor at Chung-Ang University's Business School, poses for a photo at the foundation's headquarters in Seoul on April 4. (Lim Se-joon/The Korea Herald)

April 13, 2023

SEOUL – For many Koreans, the name Min Byoung-chul rings a bell.

In the 1980s, his “Practical English” book series introduced learners to “wanna” and “gonna” instead of “want to” and “going to,” which were taught in local textbooks.

An educational TV show bearing his name attracted millions of people who aspired to learn “real” English as spoken by Americans.

Over the past some 15 years, the man who was once a household name in Korea’s English education industry has transformed himself into an activist. In 2007, he established the Sunfull Foundation, dedicated to putting an end to cyberbullying. His second social campaign, launched earlier this year, addresses racial and cultural discrimination within Korean society.

Recalling his journey, the endowed chair professor at Chung-Ang University’s Business School says English was his starting point.

“My love and understanding of English is closely tied to my work as an activist,” Min said at the headquarters of Sunfull Foundation in Seoul last week. It is through the language, which is the most widely spoken language in the world, that he learned what it means to understand and respect different people and their cultures, he said, explaining the connection between his earlier and current careers.

As a social campaigner, his initial focus was mainly on countering online hate speech, which had been linked to the suicide deaths of several celebrities in Korea. As time went on, it became clear that he needed to tackle larger, overarching issues at play: inclusion and diversity.

Dubbed “Respect for Multicultural Families and All Ethnic Groups in Korea,” the campaign reflects his belief that Koreans must first show respect for other cultures in order to be respected themselves. Min stressed that this approach is not only a matter of principle, but also a necessity for the country as it looks to open up immigration.

Korea in general is a country that struggles with many conflicts because of its lack of willingness to understand those who are “different,” the lifelong educator said.

Societal conflict stems from the Korean attitude that doesn’t acknowledge and does not try to understand diversity, he said, adding that people need to learn how to respect each other as different entities.

Cultivating a culture of understanding, tolerance and inclusion is crucial for Korea, as a country, from the perspective of a looming demographic crisis.

Pointing out that Korea now faces “a risk of extinction” due to the rapidly declining fertility rate, he said that it’s imperative that the nation adopts changes in its immigration policies similar to those of the US and Canada in order to address the population crisis.

Whether people like it or not, Korea has already entered the early stage of transforming into a multicultural society, he said, citing government data on foreign national residents whose number amounts to some 2 million out of the total population of 51 million.

Unfortunately, this fact doesn’t mean that the atmosphere and the system cater well to multicultural families here.

In a 2020 survey conducted by the National Human Rights Commission on 338 immigrants, 68.4 percent responded that they believe racism exists in Korea. The respondents said that they were discriminated against based on their Korean language skills, nationality, ethnicity and/or race.

“When we don’t acknowledge the differences between cultures, it gives birth to discrimination and expressions of hate. We should all be more aware of and reframe our perspectives on racial differences to prevent the spread of hate,” Min stressed.

As an educator, one of Min’s self-imposed missions has been to bridge cultures and promote mutual understanding. He has authored several books in pursuit of this goal, including “Ugly Koreans, Ugly Americans” and more recently, “Land of Squid Game.”

“Land of Squid Game,” which was published in 2021, seeks to explain some of the peculiar traits and daily habits of Koreans with colorful illustrations. Part of the book’s content has been published in a weekly column of the same name in The Korea Herald since March 2022. Today’s installment is its last.

The recently launched pro-diversity campaign is closely tied to the objective of his previous initiative, the Sunfull movement, to stop the spread of hate. Sunfull encourages people to counter hate speech on online forums with respectful and encouraging messages.

“When I first started the Sunfull movement in 2007, the idea was to respect everyone and to put a full stop to spreading hate. Our philosophy has always been the same: To respect people. Those who post hateful comments don’t respect others. That’s why I started this campaign.”

“We do this through our effort to promote positive speech, which includes supporting the Stop Asian Hate campaign in the US,” he said.

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