Jasmine Lee: 'There Were Very Few of Me Around'

By Chris Lom

Korean lawmaker Jasmine Lee, who spoke as a “Migrant Voice” at IOM’s 2014 Council, is a “Migrant Hero” who has overcome adversity and personal tragedy to become a powerful voice for migrants in South Korea – a nation struggling to come to terms with a small, but growing immigrant population.    

Born in the Philippines, Lee married South Korean mariner, Lee Dong-ho in 1996 and in 1998 became a naturalized Korean citizen.

She learnt Korean, forged a career as a Korean TV star, leveraging her knowledge of English, and became one of Seoul’s first foreign-born civil servants.

In 2012 she was elected to South Korea’s National Assembly as a member of the ruling Saenuri  party, becoming the first non-ethnic Korean to serve in the legislature. 

But her meteoric rise from Ateneo de Davao biology student, to Filipina migrant bride, mother of two, media star and politician, was marred with tragedy.

In 2010 her husband died of a heart attack while saving their daughter from drowning in a whirlpool in a mountain stream on a family vacation.

Lee subsequently threw herself into her work to become a leading advocate of multiculturalism in South Korea – a country largely isolated from the outside world that exported migrant labour until its rapid economic expansion in the 1970s and 1980s.

She wryly describes the curiosity she attracted as a foreigner in Korea even in the 1990s, not least from her in-laws, compared to the stereotyping suffered by migrants in the country today – where they now represent just 3% of the population, but are not normally eligible for citizenship or even permanent residency, unless they are married to a South Korean.

“Before, they asked how I came here. Sometimes they didn’t even realize that their questions were discriminatory. Now they ask migrants why they came. People think that they (the migrants) have come to take something away,” she observes.

Koreans, who see themselves as a tight-knit homogeneous society, are now beginning to grapple with many of the multicultural integration challenges faced by wealthy, industrialized countries worldwide.

Growing numbers of the migrant workers from South, Southeast and East Asia – brought in to take the "dirty, dangerous, and difficult" jobs associated with economic growth – have found ways to stay on, but still face economic and social discrimination.

As Koreans migrated to the cities, many farmers also opted to marry foreign women from neighbouring East and Southeast Asian countries. Mixed marriages, often arranged by brokers, produced children referred to as “Kosians,” who challenged many Koreans’ sense of ethnic homogeneity.

Lee’s mission to end discrimination, which has led her to become a voice for migrant groups including foreign spouses in Korea, has won her supporters both inside the government and among many Koreans who believe in the country’s multicultural future.  To hear Jasmine Lee speak about her life and goals, go to http://youtu.be/5Gb2Rd1pfso