Han Hyun-Min is a half black teenage model who has broken barriers to become a rising star in the South Korean modelling industry.
The 16-year-old model whose father is a Nigerian is the world’s first Nigerian-Korean fashion model in a society where racial discrimination is widespread and people of mixed race are commonly referred to as “mongrels”.
“A dark-skinned fashion model like Han was unheard of in South Korea, so recruiting him was a big gamble,” said his agent Youn Bum.
A handful of designers found Han’s look unique and charismatic, and he hit the runways at more than 30 shows at the two Seoul Fashion Weeks after his debut last year – an unusually high number for a novice.
Han’s slim physique “had a good combination of strengths of both Asian models and Western models” said designer Cho Young-jae, who used him to display his men’s clothing line, Chaos From Undermind.
Han has risen to stardom and now poses for top glossy magazines as the country’s first black fashion model. But his rise to fame hasn’t been without challenges.
“When I was playing with other kids at school, some mothers whisked them away from me, saying things like, ‘Don’t play with a kid like that,” Han said.He was regularly stared at in public, with an elderly woman once asking him: “What are you doing in someone else’s country? I wanted to become invisible. I hated my looks that stand out from everyone else,” he said.
Han found his escape in fashion, taking part in modelling auditions and posting his photos on social media until Youn spotted the images.
After seeing the then 14-year-old demonstrate his “electrifying” stride on a Seoul street for five minutes, Youn signed him up immediately.
“Being a fashion model helped build my confidence tremendously. Now I enjoy being looked at by other people, instead of being ashamed or embarrassed,” he said.
Han hopes to become a role model for multiracial children, saying: “I want to be more successful, not just for myself but also for people whom I represent.”
Behind the facade of an economic and cultural powerhouse, there is a deeply-rooted racism in South Korea. The country has for years sought to foster the image of a modern, sophisticated and tech-savvy nation whose pop culture has made waves across Asia. South Korea’s immigrant population continues to creep up, doubling over the last decade but still only four percent of the population.
Most foreigners in the country are from China and Southeast Asia, migrant workers or women who marry rural South Korean men unable to find local spouses willing to live in the countryside. Discrimination against them is widespread. Many are openly mocked at public transport for being “dirty” or “smelly”, or refused entry to fancy restaurants or public baths.
A government survey in 2015 showed that 25 per cent of South Koreans do not want a foreigner as a neighbour – far higher than the 5.6 percent in the US and China’s 10.5 percent.
Mixed-race children are bullied at school and constantly taunted as tuigi, a derogatory term that literally means cross-bred animals. Many complain of poor opportunities in many aspects of life, including difficulties socialising, getting a job or finding a spouse.
South Koreans have until recently been taught at school to take pride in the country’s “single ethnicity”, with one race and language enduring for centuries.
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A history of repeated invasions by powerful neighbours China and Japan has amplified the sense of victimhood and rampant ethnic nationalism, many analysts say.