Is the Korean Banking Scandal a Form of Institutional Racism?

By George White




A few days ago, Korea experienced the biggest security breach of identity theft in its history.  Almost 15 million customers and 110 million credit cards became vulnerable when a technician working for company designed to protect customers from fraudulent credit card purchases, loaded the data onto portable hard drives then sold it.  The Financial Supervisory Service launched a full investigation to determine the extent of the damage and released a press release on January 20, 2014.  It can be obtained by visiting their site, clicking English at the top, then clicking the link titled, “Guidelines for Customers Whose Personal Information Were Stolen.”  The first line addresses the concern of many, which is how much information was stolen.  “The chance of copying credit cards is very slim, as passwords and card validation codes (CVC) were not stolen.”  A PDF is also available for download, in English, which details further steps that can be taken to pacify any anxiety and prevent any further potential damage.



Most people found out about the incident via news reports or word of mouth.  They headed straight to the bank and addressed the issue.  But foreigners weren’t as fortunate.  Bobby McGill at Busan Haps revealed that many expats were treated poorly because of a lack of non-Korean information.  He highlights a quote from, NongHyup, one of the banks involved.  “We feel sorry but we don’t have any additional measure only for foreigners,” an official from NH NongHyup Card said. “But we will consider sending a letter or e-mail to foreign card holders soon, after we figure out how many foreign customers’ information was leaked.”  This seemed offensive, xenophobic, and even racist to many expats.  Their argument is that Koreans were notified yet foreigners barely get a consideration.  Bobby continues that nearly a million foreign customers were affected and “Nonghyup bank said they will ‘consider’ informing foreign customers.”  But this incident reveals more than just the inefficiencies of Korean banks at preventing and handling major crisis; it reveals the entitlement that we feel as foreigners living in another country.

The entire argument is based on institutional racism, unequal treatment of foreigners and Koreans but this is fundamentally flawed when the entire situation is examined more closely.  Koreans were not notified via email either.  The offer to email foreign customers seems redundant and primarily apologetic since the FSS already outlined measures to safeguard their accounts.  The misrepresentation of the quote overshadows the original picture of this story which is mentioned in the first sentence as a caption under the picture; “Foreign customers at Korean banks are being stranded with a lack of non-Korean information and no advice on possible compensation…”  This is an issue about communication and language not xenophobia or racism.  Non-Korean speaking foreigners felt stranded because no one could explain options, give advice, or point them in the right direction.  It’s frightening to live in another country without speaking the language because scary things like this can happen.  The easiest solution is to learn the language (or bring a Korean speaking friend to help).  The scenario would look drastically different if the foreigner asked questions or for assistance in Korean because he/she would have been addressed instead of being ignored or marginalized.  

Another argument is that the lack of notification in another language depends exclusively on the language of the person complaining.  So, a native English speaker complains about the lack of English notifications.  A Chinese speaker complains about the lack of Chinese notification.  And so on.  First, the banks shouldn’t have to notify non-Korean speaking customers if they didn’t even notify Korean speaking customers.  Second, should they have to notify every foreign speaking customer in their native language?  No, that would be a ridiculous waste of time and resources.  And third, as the article stated, non-Korean information was not available.  There is a huge difference between notifications and availability of information.  The article was published a day after the FSS press release so information was available; it probably just wasn’t relayed to non-Korean speaking foreigners at the banks.  So, the non-Korean speaking foreigner felt stranded, marginalized, and offended.  



This is not institutional racism or xenophobia; it is a perfect example of poor infrastructure and logistics, and a lack of proactive culpability.  Institutional racism, racism in general, and xenophobia look like HO BAR (you have to have spent time in Korea to know that one) putting up signs prohibiting foreigners to enter.  It is being denied service as soon as a foreigner walks into a restaurant, despite Korean speaking abilities.  It is hearing obscene Korean remarks and whispers when dating a Korean.  That is racism and xenophobia.  This banking incident is a lack of preparedness and security.

In my opinion, even well-meaning articles like the one from Busan Haps and other publications create vitriol and angst.  These publications seem more interested in sensationalism instead of solutions.  Instead, they should spread the content or the link to the FSS press release.    If they are offended that banks are only “considering” notifying their English speaking foreign customers, which is a pathetically attempted apology, then they should use their collective voice to direct those customers in the right direction.  Whining and crying about perceived slights creates the problem instead of rectifying something that doesn’t exist.


Busan Haps –  Little Help for Foreigners as Korea`s Largest Ever Data Theft Possibly Affects a Million Expats

FSS Announcement


*(Editor’s Note –  KB was unaware that Busan Haps used an article from the Korea Times as a source for most of its information.  The articles are nearly identical and in my opinion mitigate any claims of sensationalism.  Perception plays a big role in how we attempt to determine the motivation of authors and publications.  It’s ironic that many perceived Busan Haps as sensationalizing a story that came directly from the Korean Press.  My apologies to Busan Haps. )

7 thoughts on “Is the Korean Banking Scandal a Form of Institutional Racism?

  1. “The easiest solution is to learn the language (or bring a Korean speaking friend to help).”

    Hmmm, invest 3 years of study to learn a language useful in only 1 country (North Korea doesn’t count) when most people aren’t even sure if they’ll be here that long. Perhaps my employer should force all the foreign engineers working with Chevron, Shell, Total, Transocean, etc to learn Korean becaus ethey are in Korea for 2-3 years. And perhaps they should learn Chinese and Japanese too, since those are the languages spoken in the major shipbuilding countries.
    Or take a Korean with you. I can’t wait to have a Korean version of a travel stenographer

    “Second, should they have to notify every foreign speaking customer in their
    native language? No, that would be a ridiculous waste of time and

    This is an issue of how the business views it’s customers. More than likely the foreign customers don’t make up a large enough segment or rich enough segment for them to put any more effort into addressing expat needs more than they already do. All it takes is one bank to address that customer segments concerns before those customers start switching banks.
    Still, you can probably find all the information you’ll ever need on kimchi and other Korean points of pride in plenty of languages.

    And you’re right, BusanHaps should be spreading the content in the FSS English press release. But which do you think would get more hits? A sensationalist article about the perceived mistreatment of the expat “community” (obviously no mention of the SE Asian and Central Asian workers that are routinely treated worse than BusanHaps typical readership of white “rich country” expats) or one that just gives facts about the issue. Since their frontpage has more ads than content, it’s obvious which approach they took.


  2. George, (forgive the informality, but it would seem we are on a first name basis)

    You make some great points, but I don’t see how they apply to Busan Haps’ Jan 21st reporting of what was at the time a breaking-story –nor that it was “sensationalism”– other than it being a sensationally rare story that Haps was trying to get out to the public when little information was available. And to accuse Haps of spreading “vitriol” and “angst” or of promoting “Xenophobia” and “Racism” seems an even further stretch that I feel must be addressed.

    The article was written as the story was just making its way into the English language media and reflected what was being written about in the Korean-English press as well –that being that there was a lack of non-Korean information being given and many expats were feeling left out.

    The Korea Times ran a similar piece, “Expats left out in info leak case” –running the cherry-picked Nonghyup quote that you mention, the evening before, on the 20th:

    I am curious though: Other than lessening your charge of “sensationalism” and the irresponsible suggestion that Haps is promoting “xenophobia,” why did you fail to mention this quote from the Haps story in your post?


    “According to Greg Isaacs, a teacher based in Seoul, his visit to local KB Bank provided what should be calming news to worried expats.

    “After a visit to KB today, my understanding is that if you are a KB customer, no ‘banking’ information was leaked. They are not reissuing cards but warning customers to be vigilant to voice phishing. If you are a customer of NH or any of the banks affiliated with Lotte Card, you should go to the branch and ask for a re-issuance (재발급).””


    On some of the more fundamental and reasonable charges you make: You note, the FSS released it’s English language message on the 20th. Haps published its piece on the morning of the 21st. Had we been aware that the document existed, it would surely have been included. The fact that we ran the quote by the expat who was given satisfactory assistance at the bank shows that we were seeking balance –with the information we had.

    All in all, it boils down to this: The worry and concern felt by Korean customers, due to the equal lack of notification you mention, was filled in by media reports. Haps was only doing the same.


    I welcome you and the blog readers to take a spin through the Haps website, which published 795 articles last year, and has for nearly 5 years highlighted countless great things here in Korea–and at times, the not so great.

    To read one article and sum a publication up into one blog post as some sort of bastion of sensationalism and a promoter of racism and xenophobia is entirely unfair –and the exact definition of sensationalist.

    If you want to submit something to Haps, drop me a line. And if you ever get back to Korea, let’s grab a beer down here in Busan.

    Happy Lunar New Year.

    Bobby McGill
    Editor in Chief
    Haps Magazine


    1. I don’t know where the author got the idea that the article spreads angst and vitriol. Perhaps from the very first paragraph?

      “Anger and concern are swelling over the fact that potentially as many as
      a million expatriates have been affected by the largest financial data
      theft in Korean history and yet no non-Korean information has been made

      There are problems with this because
      1.There is non-Korean information, as the writer of this article pointed out. But what will get more hits? An article that says that the FSS has English information about this (completely devoid from the BusanHaps article even though there are quotes from FSS) or an article that blames banks, those Mr Monopoly-looking-cigar-smoking fatcats? Though it is not entirely BusanHaps’ fault because….
      2. It seems the BusanHaps article is very much based on the Korea Times article.

      I withdraw my comment of BusanHaps choosing to be sensationalist.


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