Earlier this month, the men’s and women’s national basketball teams of South Korea flew to Pyongyang for friendly games with their northern counterparts. Among the ethnically homogeneous players from South and North Korea, a black man easily stood out.
The outlier is Ricardo Ratliffe, originally from the U.S. and now a naturalized South Korean. South Korea isn’t really a foreigner friendly society, and a citizenship there isn’t exactly a hot commodity sought after by Americans, or any Westerners. Giving Ratliffe a Seoul-issued passport was completely out of necessity on South Korea’s part: To address its increasingly weak competitiveness in international basketball. But at the same time, it has offered South Koreans an opportunity to think about the role of race in their national identity, a good step toward accepting racial diversity.
Naturalizing foreign basketball talents is a rather common practice in Asia. Physical size matters greatly in basketball, and Asians tend to be smaller. And when you are small, there is only so much you can do against bigger guys in a basketball game. As a solution, countries like the Philippines and Japan have long been importing talents to improve their chances of winning against Western countries.
But South Korea has been slower than those other Asian countries in embracing the idea of upping its game with foreign help. It’s not surprising because South Korea is a very conservative society, when it comes to accepting people that look different. Ethnic Koreans make up more than 95% of the South Korean population, and the country takes pride on being so ethnically homogeneous, or “pure.”
Change started to come in the late 2000s, with half Koreans, who presumably had an acceptable level of physical semblance to Koreans. Among them is American-born Eric Sandric, who led South Korea to a silver medal in basketball in the 2010 Asian Games. And now, the South Korean basketball squad includes a black man from Virginia neither of whose parents is Korean.
The basketball community accepting these foreign talents is one thing, but what foreigners, especially those with darker skins, from lesser countries, or in both categories, go through in South Korea is another. They still are quickly looked down upon, and people rather casually make racist remarks about them. There seems to be a genuine phobia toward them due to the unfounded belief that they are violent and hence, their presence is harmful to society.
That xenophobic fear is on full display now as a public debate is raging about whether South Korea should accept refugees from Yemen into the resort island of Jeju. There are many reasons why South Koreans are uneasy about hosting them on their soil, all based on prejudice, rather than hard facts. They are among the poorest people in the Middle East, so they must be uneducated and therefore dangerous. Yemen is a Muslim nation. Refugees have nothing to lose, so you never know what kind of crazy thing they will do. It’s ironic because South Korea wouldn’t be where it is now, if it weren’t for the help of Americans who saved its people from the dust of war less than a century ago. You’d also think South Koreans could be more sympathetic, considering that another war with North Korea, always a possibility, would plunge themselves into refugee status.
Back to basketball, despite Ratliffe’s new nationality on paper, the South Korean professional basketball league, where he has been a top scorer for years, will still consider him a foreigner for six years. The reason: Every club in the league can have a maximum of two foreign players, and if Ratliffe’s team pairs him with another two from overseas, it will become too dominant. It’s a bizarre situation that resulted from a half-baked idea born out of desperation for short-term gain.
But it had South Koreans — at least fans of one of the most popular sports in the country — think about what makes someone one of them. It’s a question that won’t go away, and they will need to find an answer sooner or later. That’s because just like South Korea needs an immigrant to turn around its basketball team, it will eventually have to count on outsiders to grow its economy, with a continuously declining birth rate that now is among the lowest in the world. The practical benefits of accepting immigrants were made abundantly clear by France’s success in the World Cup this year with a team heavily made of foreign-born players, an achievement that can be replicated in any other areas beyond sports.
Making Ratliffe a full-fledged South Korean sure looks like a work in progress. But it’s a good one that the country could use more of.