Depending on who you talk to, the D’s in 3D job stand for dirty, dangerous, and demeaning (or difficult). This neologism, of Japanese origins (3K – Kitanai, kiken, kitsui), refers to any sort of blue collar job such as a construction worker or a production line hand.
While such jobs are rarely prized throughout the world, in Asia they tend to be looked on with a special kind of distaste. Unlike many Western cultures where forms of manual labour are often romanticized as rugged and manly (and often relatively well paid), the blue collar population of Korea enjoys no such reputation. In her book, The Koreas, Mary E. Connor asserts that “Manual labor is unthinkable for members of the new middle class.” While perhaps this statement is a little sweeping in its generalizations, I think it is essentially true.
As of 2005, there were around half a million foreign workers in South Korea, and approximately 185 000 of those were illegal (mainly from South Asian countries), meaning that they are not able to obtain a valid work permit – and therefore unable to unionize, own property, and in some cases even unable to enroll their children in schools. But while they refuse to validate these immigrants, they also are heavily reliant on them – affluent Koreans simply refuse to do 3D jobs.
As Korea moves into the global arena, it will be interesting to see how they respond to the growing number of working class immigrants trying to settle among Korea’s notably xenophobic population. As illegal workers approache a quarter million, surely the issue can no longer be ignored, however distasteful it may be for the government.